ROME (Reuters) - Italian police said on Wednesday they had broken up a complex money laundering operation and an illegal metal recycling business that had enabled criminals to transfer huge amounts of illicit cash between Italy and China.
The three-year investigation, coordinated by the anti-mafia prosecutor's office in the northeastern city of Trieste, showed the enormous lengths gangs were having to go to in order to clean ill-gotten gains, police said.
The case unveiled a network of firms that between 2013 and 2021 sold around 150,000 tonnes of scrap metal, including copper, brass and aluminium, that came from various sources, circumventing environmental norms and evading taxes on deals estimated to be worth some 300 million euros ($363 million).
To make the metal appear legitimate for the end users, companies in the Czech Republic and Slovenia produced falsified documents to show the material had been acquired in China.
To make the documentation more authentic, they sent some 150 million euros in deposits to Chinese banks as apparent payment.
Police said their surveillance operations showed that when the money showed up in China, the Italian businessmen received huge bundles of cash back in Italy. On one occasion, 200,000 euros in cash was handed over in a plastic shopping bag.
"Without wiretapping, surveillance and, above all, micro-cameras, we would never have been able to uncover this mechanism," said Colonel Stefano Commentucci, head of financial police in the northeastern city of Pordenone.
Police said they had placed 53 people under official investigation, made five arrests and seized 66 million euros. However, investigations were still continuing, especially into the Chinese operations.
The Chinese had "considerable financial resources in cash, thanks to the black economy and other criminal activities", but faced logistical and legal hurdles in getting the money safely back home, police said.
"This alliance enabled the counterparties, who were independently dedicated to their own illegal activities, to reach a point of convergence that enabled them mutually to achieve their objectives," a police statement said.
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(Reporting by Emilio Parodi Writing by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Mark Potter)