NEW YORK — Reputed mobsters in New York City and Italy joined forces in a failed conspiracy to smuggle large amounts of heroin and cocaine, with one suspect suggesting that the drugs could be concealed in frozen fish bound for an Italian port, authorities said Tuesday.
Law enforcement officials on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean said the scheme involved Italy’s powerful ‘ndrangheta organized crime syndicate and New York’s Gambino organized crime family. A sting operation resulted in 24 arrests — 17 in Italy and seven in New York.
The investigation targeted a new cocaine trafficking route from South America to the southern Italian port of Gioia Tauro, Italian anti-Mafia police said. In exchange, the Italians were to provide heroin to the American market.
Officials, using wiretaps and an undercover agent who infiltrated the Brooklyn-based mob, said they thwarted the delivery to Italy of about 500 kilograms of pure cocaine that was to have been hidden in shipments of canned coconuts, pineapples and frozen fish being shipped from Guyana to Gioia Tauro.
The plot unfolded in 2012, when one of the ‘ndrangheta suspects visited his son-in-law, Franco Lupoi, in Brooklyn. The father-in-law claimed he knew a corrupt customs agent in Italy who “would guarantee the safe arrival of container ships containing contraband,” court papers filed in New York said.
In a recorded meeting with the undercover agent, Lupoi later explained that he could have cocaine packed into fish and frozen, saying “it takes a day to defrost and then it takes a day to take out,” the court papers said.
The papers also accuse Lupoi of traveling to Italy, where he sold the undercover more than 1 kilogram of heroin that he believed the undercover planned to smuggle back to the United States for resale, the papers said.
Lupoi, alleged to be a Gambino associate, pleaded not guilty to international heroin conspiracy and other charges on Tuesday in federal court in Brooklyn. He was ordered held without bail.
Reputed ‘ndrangheta member Raffaele Valente, an Italian citizen and U.S. legal resident, also pleaded not guilty at the hearing and was jailed. He was accused of plotting with Lupoi to sell $1 million in counterfeit U.S. currency.
The defense attorneys for both men had no immediate comment.
The investigation underscored how ‘ndrangheta is spreading its operations beyond Italy’s borders as it consolidates its position as one of the world’s most powerful drug traffickers, officials said. It also laid bare how the ‘ndrangheta, based in the southern region of Calabria, is encroaching on territory once occupied by the Sicilian-based Cosa Nostra, since the Gambinos were the Sicilian Mafia’s U.S. branch.
“The ‘ndrangheta can and has to be considered one of the most powerful organizations in the world for handling of international drug trafficking,” said Raffaele Grassi, head of the Italian police’s central operative service unit. “The ‘ndrangheta has left its territory of origin: Beyond occupying areas of our country and infiltrating itself in northern Italy, the ‘ndrangheta is looking for criminals beyond the borders, invading new markets to make profit.”
Winfield reported from Rome.