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Belgium makes arrests in Italian organised crime investigation
A major police operation that involved 2,700 officers across the world resulted in 132 arrests in connection with the ‘Ndranghetamafia mafia - including more than a dozen in Belgium.
Called Operation Eureka, the European Union's police cooperation agency (Europol) describes it as “the hardest blow inflicted to date on the Italian criminal organisation”.
The investigation was led by Belgium, Italy and Germany, with arrests made in 10 countries.
“During an action day executed by 10 countries, 132 members of one of the world’s most powerful criminal networks have been taken into custody,” Europol said.
“In the early hours of 3 May, law enforcement authorities in Belgium, Germany, Italy, France, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, Romania, Brazil and Panama raided multiple locations and seized several companies.”
According to Europol, the mafia-style organisation is responsible for much of Europe’s cocaine trade, combined with systematic money laundering, bribery and violence.
In Belgium, searches were launched at 5.00 in the morning, notably in Genk, Maasmechelen, Hasselt, Bilzen and Pelt.
“In Belgium, 150 police officers were engaged for a good 20 searches, with more than a dozen people being arrested,” said Eric Snoeck, director general of the federal judicial police.
Judicial sources confirmed to RTL that one of the suspects is Lucio Aquino, a member of a Limburg family who has already had several encounters with the courts for drug-related offences.
Three of the suspects arrested will be handed over to Italy. For the others, the federal prosecutor's office has not yet given any information.
The arrests are the result of a lengthy investigation launched by the Belgian federal prosecution service in June 2018 following information obtained in Limburg. Belgium therefore served as the starting point and amplifier for the investigation.
“The criminal network under investigation was led by several powerful ‘Ndrangheta families based mainly in the town of San Luca, which is in the Italian province of Reggio Calabria,” Europol explained.
“Some of these families have been involved in decades-long clan violence known as the San Luca feud, culminating in massive shootings in Italy and abroad, such as the Duisburg massacre in Germany in 2007.”
The investigation also confirmed major drug flows between South America and Europe, managed in particular by the San Luca clan in Calabria.
Italian and Belgian authorities connected the 'Ndrangetha to the import and trafficking of more than six tonnes of cocaine over the period from October 2019 to January 2022.
The South American cocaine passed through the ports of Colon (Panama), Gioia Tauro (Calabria) and Antwerp (Belgium), but also other ports in Germany, Spain and the Netherlands (Rotterdam), thanks to agreements made by the 'Ndrangheta with the Colombian criminal organisation Clan del Golfo and another Albanian-based criminal group operating in Ecuador and Europe.
Investigators also uncovered a proposal to supply a Brazilian paramilitary organisation, Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC), with a container full of weapons of war through Pakistani criminals in exchange for the transport of huge quantities of drugs to the port of Gioia Tauro.
The money from this trafficking was reinvested in real estate, hotels, restaurants and supermarkets, among other businesses, in Germany, Belgium, Italy, Portugal, Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina.
According to the Italian prosecutor's office, companies and real estate worth €25 million were also seized as part of the operation.
“Members of the criminal network were engaged in criminal conspiracy not only by being part of a mafia-style organisation, but also by being responsible for drug trafficking, firearms trafficking, illegal firearms possession, money laundering, fraudulent asset registration, tax fraud and tax evasion, as well as the aiding and abetting of fugitives (who have since been arrested),” Europol said.
Two of the fugitives had been on the EU Most Wanted list.