Tuesday

22nd Aug 2017

Investigation

How the Italian mafia found a Dutch home

  • Did the mafia use the Aalsmeer flower auction as a mere cover-up for large-scale imports of cocaine? (Photo: Henk Bekker)

In the centre of The Hague, with low-rise red brick buildings and trees lining Loggerstraat, a welcoming street just a stroll away from the sea. A waiter in his fifties is relaxing outside an Italian restaurant, in front of him a Dutch newspaper.

His long-time boss is no ordinary restaurant owner. Rocco Gasperoni was a drug trader who had been trafficking drugs for numerous ‘ndrangheta families for at least two decades, using the Netherlands as his operational base.

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  • Criminals take advantage of global travel and trade infrastructures, while prosecutors struggle to follow their tracks across one single border, let alone around the globe. (Photo: faungg)

The ‘ndrangheta is Europe’s single biggest importer of cocaine.

Convicted in Italy in 2007, Rocco Gasperoni continued to peacefully live in the Netherlands. Last May, our reporter decided to pay him a visit.

But on the morning of the planned visit, news broke that Gasperoni was arrested the day before, for a crime he committed almost two decades ago.

“I know Mr. Gasperoni, I’ve worked for him for many years,” the waiter says. Did he know that he was a powerful drug trader who had been sentenced to 14 years in jail in Italy while living in the Netherlands? “It’s all a misunderstanding, it’s not possible. Rocco can not be guilty of what they are saying.”

Italian prosecutor Nicola Gratteri, head of the prosecutor's office of Catanzaro in Calabria, estimates that the ‘ndrangheta controls about 40 percent of global cocaine smuggling and that the group is Europe’s single biggest importer of cocaine.

This also turns the ‘ndrangheta into an important player in the economies of Italy, Germany and other European countries where the group launders the ill-gotten gains.

The story of Rocco Gasperoni

The Dutch economy is geared towards international trade and boasts a modern infrastructure of ports and airports.

Italian anti-mafia investigations have shown how the ‘ndrangheta has used the Netherlands for its cocaine trafficking since the 1980s.

But while the ‘ndrangheta thinks and operates globally, law enforcement struggles to cross borders and efforts by Dutch law enforcement, at times, appear lacklustre.

The restaurant owner in Loggerstraat is one such example.

Rocco Gasperoni, now aged 74, was one of the first pioneers to arrive in the Netherlands. Others such as the Crupi family, an important mafia clan, followed in his footsteps, expanding the trade.

The history of Gasperoni’s arrest in The Hague in May last year stretches back 20 years, highlighting the extent to which European law enforcement is struggling to cope with organised crime syndicates.

In 1997, Gasperoni was arrested in Malaga, Spain, on charges of international drug trafficking.

Gasperoni imported hashish, as well as cocaine to Europe. He used several businesses to cover his tracks, including a wine import-export company. Before Gasperoni turned it into a restaurant, the spot in The Hague's Loggerstraat used to be a wine shop of his.

Gasperoni worked closely with a ‘ndrangheta branch called the Siderno syndicate.

Siderno is a small town at the toe of the Italian peninsula, in the region of Calabria. Calabria is the home of the ‘ndrangheta, while other mafia groups such as the Camorra operate from the area around Naples and the Cosa Nostra from Sicily.

So many ‘ndrangheta members come from Siderno, that an important sub group of the ‘ndrangheta has been named after the city: the Siderno group of crime. This group is particularly well-established in North America, but some of its members and associate brokers, such as Gasperoni, have also ventured elsewhere.

Italian investigators found that Rocco Gasperoni transferred large sums from a Brussels bank account to members of the Siderno group, disguised as payments for the export of jeans.

The Crupi clan

The Crupi mafia clan, some 50 members and associates of which are currently on trial at two courts in Italy, is also part of this group.

In Spain, Gasperoni also bought cocaine from the ‘ndrangheta broker Nicola Assisi, one of the most powerful cocaine brokers to sell to the Siderno families, who is still at large in South America.

After his 1997 arrest in Spain, Gasperoni was extradited to Italy, but was later freed while awaiting his trial.

He immediately returned to his home in the Netherlands.

It took the Italian court ten years to sentence Gasperoni to 14 years in jail. Police in Amsterdam arrested Gasperoni but he left prison after only three days, thanks to what Dutch authorities say was a glitch in the paperwork sent by Italian police.

Gasperoni continued his wine and textiles export businesses, which Italian law enforcement says was a cover for trading cocaine. Dutch police never investigated his commercial activities and it is not clear when exactly his criminal career ended.

This was the case up until last spring when a court in Turin ruled that Gasperoni should be in jail. This time the bureaucracy between Italy and the Netherlands worked smoothly, leading to his arrest the day before our reporter's visit.

Uniquely, Italy has made it a criminal offence to be a member of a mafia clan, with sentences reaching up to more than 20 years in jail. That is one reason why mafia groups have moved some of their activities to countries such as the Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland, where laws are lax and where the economy offers many opportunities to hide illicit activities and launder the proceeds.

While the mafiosi are easily taking advantage of global travel and trade infrastructures, prosecutors often have enough of a struggle to follow their tracks across one single border, let alone around the globe. Even when arrests are made, the criminal networks are quickly able to regroup.

A recent case of the Crupi family, also from Siderno, demonstrates this point.

The Aalsmeer flower auction

On a day in June 2014, two men walked towards a car rental spot at the airport of Quito, the capital of Ecuador. Rattled after the long flight from Amsterdam, a row quickly flared up at the counter of the rental company between Vincenzo Macri and the members of staff.

Macri’s associates had pre-booked a Chevrolet Sail for him, a budget car made in China. Macri and his colleague were going to cross the border into Colombia and they needed a car that would not attract the attention of the police.

Macri is the brother-in-law of Vincenzo Crupi, a key ‘ndrangheta operative, according to Italian prosecutors. Vincenzo Crupi grew up in Siderno, the small coastal town located deep in the South of Italy, that lends its name to the Siderno crime group.

In 2005, both men had set up a flower business in the Netherlands called Fresh BV. They immersed themselves in the famous Aalsmeer flower auction - one of the largest in the world - a sprawling complex of warehouses and office buildings the size of about 70 football fields.

Flowers move in and out on trolleys 24 hours a day. With goods arriving from producer regions such as South America or the highlands of Ethiopia, traders at the warehouse handle both fresh flowers like roses, flown into Europe by air cargo, as well as more durable house plants, which tend to arrive by container ship.

With thousands of trucks, the plants are then shipped from here daily to flower wholesalers in Germany, Italy and elsewhere in Europe.

From here, the Crupi business sent trucks filled with flowers to Italy. But prosecutors in Italy allege that the flower business of Crupi and Macri was a mere front for the large-scale import of cocaine, using the Aalsmeer flower auction as cover.

So when members of the drug ring travelled to Latin America pretending to buy roses and leaf plants, prosecutors allege they were in fact buying cocaine.

From the Netherlands, the Crupi family, including Vincenzo Crupi’s two younger brothers, could count on a large network of transport companies. Many transporters were operating out of the South of Italy, and were keen to move money or drugs hidden between their flower loads in exchange for large sums of money.

Police evidence shows how the trucks used by the criminal group usually transported only between six and eleven kilograms of cocaine in case of the police intercepted a shipment, reported local media. But some shipments could reach up to 100 kilos, for which the smugglers allegedly paid 100,000 euro, according to communications intercepted by police and presented in evidence to a court in Rome.

“The ‘ndrangheta structures linked to Siderno are everywhere in the world, but they are mainly rooted in Canada and the Netherlands,” Antonio de Bernardo, an anti-mafia prosecutor based in the southern Italian city of Reggio Calabria, said in an interview.

De Bernardo helped to put the Crupi clan on trial. “We can say it was these structures to invent for the ‘ndrangheta the strategy to use the import-export of legal goods to cover cocaine traffic.”

In Southern Italy, the smugglers set up a sophisticated system of cash collections.

Couriers all over the South of Italy collected the drug money and delivered it to the city of Latina, 60 kilometres south of Rome, where the Crupi family company was headquartered. The money was hidden between wooden pallets inside empty flower shops, and was then returned to the Netherlands. The proceeds would be re-injected into the flower business.

The Crupi entreprise included four secretaries who organised the flower arrivals, as well as the laundering of the profits from the drug sales.

The trail in Italy

In September 2015, Vincenzo Crupi was arrested in Italy. More than 50 suspects, all Italian nationals, were arrested. 49 of them are currently on trial.

The trial is among the most important in recent years in Italy and not only because of the sheer number of the accused. The trial targets the financial backbone of an ‘ndrangheta cartel with immense power in Italy and beyond, a power it has acquired thanks to its control over the cocaine trafficking.

The police investigation that led to the trial did not only target the cocaine operation in Italy, but the entire value chain from the buying of drugs in South America to their distribution in Europe and to the laundering of the illicit revenues.

This also extended to the meetings of bosses who move tons of cocaine and millions of euros with a few cryptic words. The first verdict in the trial is expected for April in the Reggio Calabria’s court, according to prosecutor Antonio de Bernardo.

The arrests were also one of the biggest hits against narcotics smuggling in the Netherlands to date. The Crupi trial shows that the ‘ndrangheta favours the country not only because of its central location and its logistics, but also because of lax laws and lacklustre law enforcement.

Dutch safe-haven

In the Netherlands, all charges against the defendants put on trial were dropped.

Court records show that almost all the evidence on which prosecutors based their indictment was collected in Italy. There is, for example, nothing explaining how the drug traffickers actually moved the cocaine into the Netherlands.

This also suggests that Dutch prosecutors were not keen on gaining a wider picture of how the ‘ndrangheta has been blending into the Dutch economy, famous for its low taxes, making it an under-reported haven for offshore finance in the heart of northern Europe.

Dutch authorities argue that they dropped the charges against the defendants because, in Italy, defendants could already be charged with being a member of the mafia. This is the most important tool that law enforcement can muster in the fight against the mafia, and one that is only available in Italy.

But lawyers of the defendants told our reporters that they are now using the fact that all charges, including other potential charges, were dropped in the Netherlands as one of their main lines of defence in the Italian court.

“After the results of the investigations were clear it was agreed upon that – because of the scale of the Italian investigation and the seriousness of the crimes committed on Italian soil and because almost all the suspects were arrested in Italy and are Italian citizens – prosecution would take place in Italy for membership of a criminal organisation,” the Netherlands Justice Ministry said in a written statement. “Therefore charges were dropped in the Netherlands.”

The statement said that the Netherlands was no longer a safe-haven to the Italian mafia, as cooperation with Italian prosecutors had intensified in recent years, including by stationing a liaison officer in Italy in 2014. It said that at least seven Italian fugitives had been arrested in the Netherlands over the past year alone.

The fruits of cross-border cooperation

The statement also said that the arrest of Gasperoni, who is now serving his sentence in the Netherlands, was one of the fruits of the closer cooperation.

“In this case a complex knot of Dutch, Italian and European law and practices had to be unravelled to be able to find a way to execute the Italian sentences,” the statement said.

In any case, Dutch prosecutors have their work cut out for them. With major logistics hubs such as Rotterdam port or Schiphol airport, the Netherlands is an important base for the ‘ndrangheta cocaine smuggling that it is unlikely to be given up even when police do make arrests.

Hints uncovered by this investigation show that the Crupi family, hailing from the infamous ‘ndrangheta village in Siderno, still maintain their links to the flower business in the Netherlands.

A brother of Vincenzo Crupi was released on bail after his September 2015 arrest and shortly afterwards travelled to the offices of one of the Crupi flower companies in the Netherlands to get a hold of the business's financial records, according to the statement by another defendant seen by EUobserver.

Right before the arrests in the fall of 2015, Vincenzo’s brother married off his daughter to a young man from Siderno. The baroque villa, near to Siderno where the wedding took place, was decorated with impressive walls of white roses.

A few months after the wedding and the arrests, the bridegroom opened a flower company in Siderno bearing a Dutch name, which according to its Facebook page also imports flowers from Aalsmeer.

The Crupi family’s latest florist told our reporters that he had no relationship with Crupi companies. He also claimed to have worked in the flower business prior to the arrests, dismissing the idea he had only moved into it after the arrests in order to ensure a continued Crupi presence.

But the company records for the flower business he claimed to have worked for previously show that one of the owners is the son of a convicted mafia boss from the region, while its managing director appears to live in Siderno - in an area controlled by one of the mafia clans.

According to his Facebook page, however, the managing director is in fact resident in the Netherlands and is active in the flower business.

This investigation is a cooperation between Correctiv, the Investigative reporting project Italy (IRPI) and EUobserver with the support of the Flanders Connect Continents Grant. Additional reporting by Claudio Cordova in Reggio Calabria and Koen Voskuil in Rotterdam.

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