“Armed and dangerous”: inside the ’ndrangheta’s intercontinental cocaine pipeline


“Armed and dangerous”: inside the ’ndrangheta’s intercontinental cocaine pipeline

August 6, 2021

Cecilia Anesi
Margherita Bettoni
Giulio Rubino

In his younger years, the Italian drug trafficker Giuseppe Romeo, known as “Maluferru,” was fascinated with Mexican narcos.

In particular, police sources familiar with the trafficker say, he admired Los Zetas, the hyper-violent cartel known for beheadings, bombings, and brazen attacks on Mexican government troops.

But in real life, Maluferru and his brothers — all of whom worked with southern Italy’s ’Ndrangheta syndicate, the clan-based crime group which has grown to become the country’s most powerful in recent decades — showed no fear of Mexican narcos.

In one incident breathlessly recalled by underworld figures in 2016, his gang had a shootout with a Mexican gang on the streets of an unnamed European city, scaring them off.

“They started shooting three, four times in the middle of the road,” one ’Ndrangheta associate was heard telling another in a bugged chat. Another time, according to the same criminals, Maluferru let Mexican traffickers hold one of his own brothers hostage for eight days, as collateral for a 2-million-euro drug shipment.

This cold, calculating approach to business may run in the family.

Maluferru’s father, Antonio Romeo, ran the well-connected Romeo-Staccu clan of the ’Ndrangheta until he was arrested in the mid-1990s and sentenced to 30 years in prison.

After taking the reins of his family’s trafficking operations, Maluferru became a rare connector of worlds: a man with the necessary contacts in Latin America to secure huge supplies of cocaine, and in Europe to get the drugs through key ports.

As part of a group known in underworld circles as the “Gang of Belgium,” he sourced cocaine in Colombia and Brazil, had it shipped through the Ivory Coast, and brought it in through the docks of Northwest Europe: Antwerp, Hamburg, and Rotterdam. At every stop, he charmed and bullied other narcos into doing his bidding, and deployed tricks of the trade to conceal shipments that made him one of Calabria’s biggest-ever traffickers.

He had a reputation for keeping out of trouble. One client of his was heard on wiretaps saying admiringly that Maluferru had only once been “f**cked,” when 18 bricks of cocaine were seized from a stash house.


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Maluferru roughly translated means “armed and dangerous.” But today Giuseppe Romeo is at least no longer armed. On March 11, he was arrested in Barcelona in an Interpol-led investigation with Spain’s Guardia Civil and Italian police.

Two months later, many of his ’Ndrangheta associates, including his former clients from the Giorgi-Boviciani clan, covered in Part 1 of this series, were arrested in Operation Platinum, a separate cross-border raid which targeted the crime group around Europe. Already provisionally sentenced by Italian authorities to 20 years in absentia for international drug trafficking, Maluferru has now been extradited and faces fresh charges.

Once described by a fellow narco as being able to ship cocaine “mancu li cani” — meaning “like nobody else” in the Calabrian dialect — Maluferru had, since 2008, built a globe-spanning empire that moved tons of drugs into Europe’s ports.

What follows, based on court and police documents, Italian orders of custody, and interviews with law enforcement sources, is an inside look at his alleged narcotics system: how it was built, how the drugs ran through it, and why it eventually collapsed.

Giuseppe Romeo and other characters in the following cases are still awaiting trial on some of the charges they face, and not all allegations outlined have been proven in court. A lawyer who represents Romeo told OCCRP and IrpiMedia that he did not wish to respond to questions due to ongoing criminal proceedings. His client, the lawyer said, is innocent of the crimes of which he has been accused.

A hometown

The village of San Luca lies at the toe of Italy’s boot, separated from Reggio Calabria, the region’s main city, by the Aspromonte mountains. Despite its vantage point wrapped into the hills overlooking a valley, the town of 4,000 lacks most of the charms you’d expect from Italian villages. Walking through its narrow streets, the drab houses are lined with drying laundry, and unfinished homes give the distinct feel of hardship.

But looks can be deceiving. San Luca is the spiritual home of the ‘Ndrangheta, maybe the world’s most powerful organized crime gang. A majority of the town’s population is affiliated with one of at least nine important crime clans that started in the village.

A short drive from San Luca into the mountains of a nearby national park lies the Sanctuary of Santa Maria di Polsi, perched on a dramatic gorge. The abbey is closely associated with the annual meeting of the Crimine, the ‘Ndrangheta’s governing body.

It was here in San Luca that Maluferru, then aged 16, had his first run-in with police over a fraud and stolen goods case. By 22 he’d already been charged with drug trafficking and had moved beyond San Luca like many sons of the ‘Ndrangheta, which exports its operations by exporting its people. But despite his rapid rise through the family ranks, it was only in the mid-2010s that his alleged role in several high-profile operations would bring him to global prominence.

Maluferru did not start at the bottom. His clan, the Romeo-Staccu, is believed to be aligned with the leading Pelle-Gambazza clan, which shares control of Calabria’s Locride area, and is known for its prowess in drug trafficking.

These powerful clans are also aligned with the other respected San Lucan clans like the Nirta-Scalzone and the Mammoliti-Fischiante, as well as the smaller ones like the Giorgi-Boviciani, the Giorgi-Bellissimo and the Strangio-Fracascia.

Maluferru nimbly used all of these San Luca connections to build his powerful drug trafficking network. But unlike many of his peers, he was never convicted of the common charge of “mafia affiliation” with the ‘Ndrangheta, which Italian prosecutors often levy against criminal actors.

In fact, his prowess in the trade was not immediately clear to the police. Using snippets of information gleaned from their surveillance of other Europe-based narcos, cops slowly came to understand that Maluferru — whose diminutive appearance led his enemies to call him “The Dwarf” — had an outsized influence on underworld affairs.

By 2015, he was a key part of the Gang of Belgium along with his brothers Domenico and Filippo, as well as Antonio Calogero Costadura, a Belgium-born narco also of Calabrian origin known as “U Tignusu,” meaning “The Bold.”

At that stage, Maluferru had already made a fortune and built a Rolodex of underworld connections that any rising narco would envy. The Gang of Belgium’s name undersold its influence, since it operated well beyond Belgium.

Receiving drug shipments from Latin America, the gang used criminal connections at European ports to help extricate these drugs, before moving them into Italy and other parts of the continent. Maluferru had a regional network operating between the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, and Germany. Apart from a few trusted contacts, sources say, he kept his distance from many ’Ndrangheta figures, helping him to remain at large within Europe even as others were attracting the attention of police and getting arrested.

How the ports are pried open
Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru produce the vast majority of the world’s cocaine, with most Europe-bound cocaine leaving Latin America via Brazil, according to the United Nations. The port of Santos has become one of the most important trafficking arteries to Europe, according to Europol.

Cocaine leaving Brazil often stops in West Africa, the Canary Islands, and Madeira before reaching the European mainland. In recent years, the Ivory Coast has become a particular hotbed.

In a 2017 criminology thesis at the University of Ghent, Pim De Nutte, a police inspector in Sint-Niklaas, near Antwerp, wrote that indirect smuggling routes are often used to mask the original point of departure.

Drugs are less likely to be found at the final destination if they change ships midway, because most checks are made on ships coming directly from cocaine-producing countries.

Containers, De Nutte points out, are a tried and trusted smuggling method, with cocaine either concealed in the main hold or hidden within the container’s structure. Refrigerated containers, or “reefers,” are preferred by criminals because compartments used to keep the containers cool are handy for smuggling.

Drugs held within the container’s main body are sometimes hidden inside fruit and other goods. Drugs can also be mixed with liquids and filtered out later — the Assisis of this story, for example, sent most of their cocaine to Europe in liquid form.

During a so-called “rip-off” operation, also known as a gancho ciego (literally, a blind hook), contraband is disguised within a legitimate shipment without the knowledge of the shipper or receiver.

At Antwerp, many drug seizures have taken place at the terminal operated by the Belgian New Fruit Wharf, which handles most fruit shipments and where the ’Ndrangheta has previously corrupted port workers, according to court documents.

With trafficking gangs known to create fake companies or use pre-existing ones to facilitate smuggling, Dutch authorities have even encouraged fruit traders to report newly established firms.

Domenico Romeo – Foto: Polizia di Stato

Police finally made major inroads into his empire with the launch of Operation Pollino, a December 2018 raid by Eurojust, the EU’s cross-border judicial body. Around four tons of cocaine were seized and 84 ’Ndrangheta members and brokers, including Maluferru’s two brothers, were detained. Based on calls intercepted during Operation Pollino, Italian police suspected Maluferru was moving drugs from European ports to Milan.

Although the Pollino dragnet ensnared most of the Gang of Belgium, Maluferru evaded capture. He was traced to an address in Kierspe, a town an hour outside Cologne, but when German authorities searched the Kierspe house, he was gone.

Crucially, however, investigators were able to establish a pattern of his activities after inserting spyware on the phone of Domenico Pelle, a young clan boss from San Luca who had been buying cocaine from the Gang of Belgium.

Domenico Pelle – Foto: Polizia di Stato
Meanwhile, two separate operations — one led by Turin’s antimafia prosecutor’s office, and another by their counterparts in Genoa and Naples — were putting Maluferru under further scrutiny.

The first, a years-long probe code-named “Geenna,” resulted in arrest warrants issued in December 2018 against San Luca’s Nirta-Scalzone clan and their associates. One element of this investigation targeted two brothers who had worked with Maluferru in Barcelona since 2016.

The investigation was important because it outed the Costa Brava region near Barcelona as an important drug trafficking center, and effectively wiped out the leaders of the Nirta-Scalzone clan.

A second equally momentus police sting, begun in 2018 and codenamed “Spaghetti Connection,” first traced a global trafficking system involving Maluferru, which police believed began in São Paulo and reached Abidjan in the Ivory Coast, before winding its way to Rotterdam and Antwerp.

Together, these two operations painted a picture of his expanded dealings, not only in Europe but now halfway across the world.
Lessons From the Costa Brava

Maluferru built a particularly trusted network in Spain, where he flitted between various safe havens. His contacts there included two brothers from the Nirta-Scalzone clan, Giuseppe and Bruno Nirta. Elsewhere, he had also teamed up with a third Nirta brother, Antonio.

Maluferru lived for a time in Calella, a coastal town less than an hour’s drive from Barcelona. Documents seen by reporters show his address was a nondescript property where he lived with his Colombian girlfriend and Vincenzo Macrì, an ’Ndrangheta fugitive at the time.

The women in Maluferru’s life
He may have been moving within the macho world of narco-trafficking, but police and other sources say Maluferru relied on a few key women to get to where he was.

Firstly, in San Luca, he had secured access to the highest ’Ndrangheta echelons by wedding a woman in 2016 who has a father from the Strangios and a mother from the Mammolitis clan. This gave Maluferru alliances with two powerful drug-trafficking families.

Police theorize that much of Maluferru’s financial wheeling and dealing in Antwerp was facilitated by a Chinese woman connected to a beauty salon in the city’s red light district. They believe traffickers coordinated the transportation of cocaine from Antwerp to Italy out of a parking lot in front of this salon. According to Italian investigators, the Chinese woman allegedly provided Maluferru’s crew with access to a so-called “hawala” system of money transfer increasingly used by narcos.

Another crucial woman in Maluferru’s orbit was his Barcelona-based Colombian girlfriend, whom investigators suspect has connections to narcos from her homeland. A Colombian woman with the same name owns a real-estate and interior design company registered at a building in Barcelona’s sought-after San Gervasi neighborhood.

OCCRP reporters paid a visit to the San Gervasi building, but no sign of a functioning business could be found. Neighbors said “two young South American women” lived in the apartment, and recalled that police had recently come to ask questions.

Via the above real-estate company, in February 2021 two apartments were purchased in Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter, down a narrow street off the famous La Rambla.

Visited by an OCCRP reporter, the apartments aren’t much to look at from the outside, with a large wooden door covered in graffiti marking the entrance. Once inside, however, a hidden gem is revealed, with a traditional-style internal patio complete with columns and wooden beams. A stone engraving above the entrance indicates the building dates to 1736.

Much of what authorities would later learn about the group’s dealings in Spain and elsewhere stemmed from the cooperation of Daniel Panarinfo, who was once a grunt for Bruno Nirta but turned state’s witness in 2016.

Among many schemes while Maluferru was partnering with Giuseppe and Bruno Nirta, the brothers had hatched plans to traffic liquid cocaine from Latin America to southern Spain, Panarinfo said. With a man nicknamed “Xavi” — a Catalonian fruit juice entrepreneur who, according to Panarinfo, had direct contact with Colombian narcos — they planned to open a company, ostensibly to import juice from Argentina.

Liquid cocaine would be hidden into juice boxes and sent to Spain at a cost of 12,000 to 13,000 euros per kilo, then unloaded at a Spanish port by a group of allied Albanians. The shipments would then be sent to a warehouse in seaside Sitges, a 45-minute drive from Barcelona, where a man called “Compañero” was trusted to re-solidify the drugs.

Una veduta dall’alto di Sitges, vicino a Barcellona – Foto: Wikimedia

Investigators were unable to confirm whether the scheme ever got off the ground, but our reporters found that Xavi is still running beverage companies in Calella.

Around the same time, Maluferru was moving between Spain, Italy, and Belgium, buying loads of cocaine from a family of Calabrians based in the northern Belgian city of Maasmechelen. They were supplied by Colombian cartels, with their shipments from Latin America collected at Antwerp and Rotterdam and then sold by Maluferru to buyers like the Giorgi-Boviciani clan from San Luca.

Panarinfo also said Maluferru took delivery of at least 170 kilos of cocaine from Mexican suppliers, a part of which were then stored in Italy by his main helper, a Calabrian known as “Pitti.” Although Maluferru’s gang managed to sell 100 kilos, 70 were stolen from his apartment in Saronno, northwest of Milan, by men sporting balaclavas who broke down the door with a ram at five in the morning.

Such setbacks, however, did little to slow Maluferru’s rise. As the months went by, he began to move with bigger and bigger players.

Branching into the big time

According to Panarinfo, Maluferru also worked with Gabriele Biondo, alias “El Italiano,” one of the most powerful narcos on the Costa Brava. Biondo, who police sources told OCCRP was known to work with Italy’s Camorra crime group and even the Russian mafia, would eventually be arrested and extradited to the U.S. in early 2019 to face trafficking charges.

Through relatives on his mother’s side of the family, Maluferru could also rely on key contacts in the Strangio-Fracascia, another clan from San Luca who were based in Belgium and could offer him access to the port of Antwerp, police said.

His allies in the Pelle-Gambazza clan, meanwhile, had allegedly established a major trafficking hub in Argentina, and are believed to have opened the door for Maluferru to Rocco Morabito, another top ’Ndrangheta broker before his arrest in May 2021 in Brazil. Morabito is from the ‘Ndrangheta stronghold of Africo, which is just south of San Luca and is on paper one of Italy’s poorest towns, but is home to wealthy drug-trafficking families.

Once known in the media as the “cocaine king of Milan,” Morabito had been on the run since the mid-1990s and famously escaped a Uruguayan prison in 2019. Among other sources, police believe that he was receiving cocaine from Colombia’s Clan del Golfo, a right-wing paramilitary group.

As if that wasn’t enough, Maluferru had also begun to source drugs via Nicola Assisi, who ran a huge smuggling operation from Brazil with his son while both were on the run from Italian authorities. Assisi, from northern Calabria, had been one of the top ’Ndrangheta narcos in Latin America for years. Sending shipments to Europe of at least 500 kilos at a time, he maintained his position due to a strong relationship with Brazil’s First Capital Command (PCC), a prison-based crime syndicate.

The PCC has been known to work with the former rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, to source drugs grown in the Colombian jungle. The group also enjoys major influence in cocaine-producing Peru and Bolivia and transit countries like Paraguay.

Between Morabito, the Assisis, and the PCC, Maluferru’s Latin American pipeline was the narco-trafficking gold standard. Even random timing seemed to work in his favor: When the Assisis were arrested in the state of São Paulo in July 2019, Morabito’s Uruguay prison break meant Maluferru’s supply went uninterrupted.

But besides dumb luck, Maluferru was also smart and cautious. One narco, clearly impressed by his tradecraft, explained to a colleague how Maluferru kept investigators at bay.

“It’s like … he buys ten phones that last six months each, you understand? He gives you one, he gives him one, he gives one to the other and he keeps one for himself. Then he gives his phone to another guy and takes his, so he can confuse investigators,” he said, according to police transcripts from Operation Pollino.

The irony, of course, was that whatever precautions Maluferru took himself, police were still learning plenty about him secondhand from tapped calls with his associates.

The Abidjan operation

Not content to rest on his Latin American contacts, Maluferru continued to expand, and soon had his sights on transit points in Africa. And through confidential documents, OCCRP and IrpiMedia learned how he was likely behind a high profile cocaine importation plot that saw four Italians handed lengthy sentences in 2021, while he went free.

According to investigators it was a Swiss-born dentist who first connected Maluferru to a set of Italian entrepreneurs from Naples living in Abidjan, all linked to Italy’s Camorra.

Maluferru, documents show, had first traveled to the Ivory Coast in 2018, with the dentist securing him direct access to a key Ivorian facilitator: a policewoman who provided him with immigration permits and access to a flat in Abidjan’s upmarket Zone 4, rented in her name.

Through an Italian restaurateur in the city, the dentist had also been introduced to Angelo Ardolino, owner of two Abidjan-registered companies: A.G.L. Sarl, which was set up to import and export heavy machinery, and Fruit Company di Ardolino, established for the import and export of fruits. Ardolino, who has an Ivorian romantic partner, also had family ties to a top customs officer at the African port.

Ardolino, via A.G.L. Sarl, provided the paperwork needed for obtaining Ivory Coast visas, allowing Maluferru to travel regularly to Abidjan. According to documents from the 2018 Spaghetti Connection investigation, he was sometimes accompanied by Antonio Nirta — the only Nirta brother left in the game after Giuseppe was shot dead in 2017 and Bruno was arrested in 2018. Maluferru was also supported in Abidjan by his sidekick Pitti, and a cousin.

With the help of the Neapolitan businessmen linked to the Camorra, Maluferru and his crew allegedly started importing cocaine to Abidjan directly from Brazil using A.G.L. Sarl, which received Dynapac and Caterpillar heavy machinery from the port of Santos.

On September 17, 2018, as part of Spaghetti Connection, Santos police seized 1,195 kilos of cocaine inside the rollers of Caterpillar machines. Using a Santos-based company called Brazilian Ocean Eireli, the gang had cut the rollers open in Brazil with a blowtorch, hid the drugs in the cylinder, and then welded the machinery back together for shipping to Abidjan.

Giuseppe Romeo, alias “Maluferru”

Brazilian Ocean Eireli is owned by a man Brazilian police suspect is connected to the PCC prison gang. Italian investigators, for their part, believe the cocaine supply was organized with the help of Assisi, the ‘Ndrangheta’s man in Latin America with the PCC connections.

The Santos seizure didn’t stop the culprits, who thought it was a random bust. But Brazilian police alerted Ivorian police, who alerted their Italian counterparts. In a joint operation, police tracked the dentist when he travelled to Abidjan on October 26, 2018, which eventually led them to Maluferru’s circle.

Investigators suspect the gang had been shipping cocaine in Caterpillar machinery since at least July 2017, with Brazilian police tracing two Caterpillar shipments from Brazilian Ocean Eireli to A.G.L. Sarl in Abidjan. Ardolino’s fruit import-export operations also came under suspicion, but it proved a trickier operation to crack.

“We have always suspected some of the cocaine could have also passed via fruit shipments,” an Italian investigator told OCCRP, “but it was hard to prove … given that, when we started investigating, the gang had already been importing for a while.”

From December 2018 onwards, Maluferru’s movements were increasingly restricted because he was wanted over a warrant issued in Operation Pollino. From then on, one of his associates remained in Abidjan to do the work for him, opening a new import-export company on February 26, 2019, registered at a postal box in the city.

Cops build a profile

By his mid-30s, Maluferru had made lasting impressions on a lot of narcos — not all of them positive.

The informant Panarinfo described him to police as “short, a little bald,” and someone who, “seems to me to have a scar or pimples on his cheekbones, lean physique, ash blonde hair not so long.”

Alessandro Giagnorio, used by Maluferru as a money courier, also gave an unflattering description after he was busted in late 2018 in an Audi Q3 with French plates, in which police found 420,000 euros belonging to Maluferru and his partners.

Spilling the beans to police, Giagnorio called Maluferru “short, thin, on edge, bossy, and rude. When I say ‘fast’ I mean that in three minutes he would tell you what you had to do, real quick, talking with a strong Calabrian accent, and you had to really pay attention to understand what he was saying.”

Maluferru had a reputation as a loose cannon, and some called him “U Pacciu,” or The Crazy One. He showed little respect, it was said, because he was used to being surrounded by weaker characters who treated him with deference.

Once, Maluferru sent Giagnorio to a restaurant owned by Walter Cesare Marvelli, a member of the Giorgi-Boviciani family, to pick up some cash for travelling expenses. Marvelli, separate wiretapped conversations showed, was shocked by how rude Maluferru was, treating him like an employee. He recalled:

“Sunday afternoon … he [Maluferru] says, ‘I am sending a person to your pizzeria in an hour’s time. You give him 1,000 euros … he is coming down from France.’”

“I told him [Maluferru], ‘You are joking … I am in the centre of Turin with my family.’ [And he says], ‘You are always around.”

But even if they sniped behind each other’s backs, in person Maluferru and Marvelli kept up appearances.

In August 2018, the pair traveled together to a lunch meeting planned with other San Luca narcos in a rural area near the Sanctuary of Santa Maria di Polsi. The prospect of tucking into traditional mountain fare left them unimpressed.

“I don’t give a f*** about goat,” Marvelli, who was being tracked by police, exclaimed in a bugged conversation in the car.

During the drive, the pair lambasted the famed Italian anti-mafia prosecutor Nicola Gratteri. Marvelli dismissed the authorities’ crusade as a charade, reasoning that the prosecutors wanted the ’Ndrangheta around so that they could become famous.

“If you don’t have sick people, you don’t sell medicine,” he said.

Police investigations, however, suggest that Maluferru’s ambition was already beginning to erode relations. Operation Platinum documents seen by our reporters show that by November 2018, the Giorgi-Boviciani in particular had grown tired of him.

Because the Giorgis were buying cocaine near the end of the pipeline, they paid a higher price. Some had started to suspect the better-connected Maluferru was ripping them off.

On one bugged call, Giovanni Giorgi told Marvelli that Maluferru was pretending to secure cocaine for the Giorgis at “27,” but instead “bought it at 24 and stole three points.”

As a result, the Giorgis started trying to bypass Maluferru. But they soon found he had the supply locked down, having even muscled in on their own hard-won channel with the Assisis in Brazil. Boxed out, the Giorgis could do little but complain — and the more they complained, the more information the police gathered.

Maluferru’s downfall

By the end of Maluferru’s run, he had allegedly worked with a who’s-who of international traffickers, even apparently the cartel he admired the most, Los Zetas.

Under questioning, the cooperator Panarinfo told police that Maluferru had inherited some Mexican contacts from a jailed uncle. He said these men were called “Zeta” or “Zita,” indicating they were from the same cartel whose barbaric videos Maluferru had once studied.

But a combination of his own hubris, his partners’ vulnerabilities, and dogged police work would eventually get the better of him. Court records show Maluferru had a reputation for double-crossing people, and always seemed eager to bind himself to others, so that they would later owe him favors. Such tactics can prove fruitful in the short term, but eventually people get to talking.

In one intercepted call in 2016, a trafficker told Domenico Pelle that Maluferru’s brother, Filippo, had offered him drugs at 31,000 euros per kilo, to be paid whenever he was able. The trafficker, however, felt the cocaine was really coming from Maluferru, and he didn’t want to be in the latter’s service.

“If Maluferru gives me [even] a gram as a present, I don’t want it,” he said.

After the Operation Pollino raids of December 2018 took out most of his Gang of Belgium, Maluferru was still a fugitive, but evidence was slowly mounting against him.

In June 2019, a raid coordinated by police in France, Italy, and Brazil swept up A.G.L. Sarl’s owner Ardolino and five other Italians linked to the Camorra. The arrests offered a rare glimpse into how the Camorra and ’Ndrangheta shared overlapping interests, thousands of miles from their Italian homeland.

And they also offered cops some final parts of the jigsaw.

Ardolino admitted knowing Maluferru and told cops that the latter had wanted to invest 1 or 2 million euros in the Ivory Coast. Antonio Cuomo, another of those arrested, denied knowing Maluferru and other Calabrians in his crew, but during a search police found IDs belonging to the Calabrians in his house.

The Ivorian cop — though later cleared of all charges — had admitted having helped with visas for a number of Calabrians, and to finding the Abidjan flat for Maluferru. In February 2021, four of those arrested, including Ardolino, were sentenced to 20 years in prison.

After a few more frantic weeks behind the scenes, in March 2021 Spanish Guardia Civil, having received a tip-off from Italian police working on the Pollino probe, swooped in on Maluferru as he went for a beer at Barcelona’s Sant Gervasi market.

Although he made many enemies along the way, one thing they could agree on was that Maluferru was good at what he did. Even the Giorgi-Boviciani, using their unflattering nickname for him, were willing to admit as much.

“You know the Dwarf,” Giovanni Giorgi was heard saying in one bugged conversation at his Sardinia apartment. “If you want it, he has it. It’s a matter of days.” Maluferru, an associate reminded Giovanni, shipped cocaine “mancu li cani.”

Maluferru was indeed moving cocaine “like nobody else.” In the end, though, his biggest problem was that everybody else was being listened to by the cops.

“Everyone was after him,” a Guardia Civil officer involved in the arrest explained to OCCRP. “The Italians warned us he could be in Barcelona. Here, we put him in the lasso.”



Cecilia Anesi
Margherita Bettoni
Giulio Rubino

In collaboration with

Luis Adorno
Leanne de Bassompiere
Nathan Jaccard
Jelter Meers
Benedikt Strunz



Brian Fitzpatrick
Luca Rinaldi

Inside an organized crime clan that moved cocaine across Europe


Inside an organized crime clan that moved cocaine across Europe

July 14, 2021

Cecilia Anesi
Margherita Bettoni
Giulio Rubino

On an October evening in 2018, as Sebastiano Giorgi and a Romanian associate skipped and swayed at a fancy Stuttgart nightspot, they were blissfully unaware that their every move was being eyed by police. The cops had watched the pair polish off a meal before following them and their “dates” onto the dance floor, believing the gangsters were meeting up to talk about drugs. In fact, they were busy with the sex workers they had taken out on the town.

German authorities and Italian anti-mafia police had been watching Giorgi — known as “Bacetto,” or “Little Kiss” — for years. A rising figure in Italy’s ‘Ndrangheta criminal organization, he was based a two-hour drive away in the picturesque lakeside town of Überlingen, where he ran an Italian eatery frequented by tourists. While Bacetto’s restaurant hasn’t always earned the best reviews from diners, he does get high marks from investigators for his other business — managing a multi-million-euro cocaine pipeline from Latin America to Europe.

Back in the ‘Ndrangheta’s spiritual home of San Luca in Italy’s southern Calabria region, the Giorgis — known as “Boviciani” to distinguish them from other local Giorgis — had hammered out alliances with top ‘Ndrangheta families to form a cartel of drug buyers. From his base in southern Germany, Bacetto extended the network to include international gangs who wanted in on the action.

The ‘Ndrangheta’s reach stretches well beyond Europe, to Colombian and Mexican cartels. Through brokers in Paraguay and Uruguay — with logistics provided by a feared prison gang in Brazil — they ship drugs to the ports of Antwerp in Belgium, Rotterdam in the Netherlands and Hamburg in Germany, often via West Africa. Once the cocaine hits northwestern Europe, the Italians take control.

IrpiMedia and OCCRP used court and police documents, and interviews with law enforcement sources, to reconstruct a years-long police investigation into a network of Albanians, Romanians, Colombians, Mexicans and Brazilians, spanning not just the ports of Europe, but also the criminal hubs of Latin America and West Africa.

On May 5 this year, the investigation known as “Operation Platinum” culminated with around 800 police and tax investigators arresting 32 alleged mobsters in Italy and Germany. One German prosecutor called it “a bad day for the dark side of power.”

Bacetto’s bad day had already happened nine months earlier.

A family member once jokingly described him as lazy, saying that he “wakes up early in the morning, has a coffee, and then goes back to bed.” And in July 2019, the wanted mobster sleepwalked right into custody after he drove by a military police checkpoint near his hometown and was stopped for having tinted windows, according to a local media report. Military police then arrested him for prior offenses.

Bacetto and other central characters in the following case are still awaiting trial, and allegations outlined by police sources and in official indictments have not yet been proven in court. Multiple attempts to contact a legal team known to have represented the Giorgis have gone unanswered.

The trail of traffickers

Operation Platinum had its roots in the statements of Domenico Agresta, a one-time ‘Ndrangheta boss who turned state’s witness in 2016, and began to take shape the following year.

In September 2017, when Agresta’s cousin and three other ‘Ndrangheta-affiliated narcos made their way to Munich, ostensibly to take in the Oktoberfest celebrations, investigators hypothesized that the trip was actually designed to let them meet members of the Giorgi clan living in Germany. From October 2017, one of these members, Domenico Aspromonte, began phone communication with a German number used by a nephew of the Giorgis.

After the nephew made a winding road trip between Germany and Italy, Italian investigators and German federal police began swapping information. The feeling, at that point, was that the Giorgi family, based in San Luca, Überlingen and Baden Baden, was moving cocaine and laundering money.

After preliminary talks, German prosecutors opened an investigation into the Giorgis, and on May 8, 2018, a joint investigation team was set up between the Italians and the Germans. This teamwork eventually culminated in the Platinum raids and arrests of May 5, 2021.

The Giorgi-Boviciani Clan

Despite its picturesque waterfront location on Lake Constance in Überlingen’s town center, the Ristorante Paganini garners lackluster reviews. Customers online bemoan the “awful salad,” spaghetti that’s “overcooked and tasteless,” and “a fly in the tortellini,” although one concedes the Italian staff are “friendly enough.”

Paganini rates a lowly 61st out of 62 restaurants in Überlingen on Tripadvisor. But food is not likely the Giorgi-Boviciani clan’s main concern: The ‘Ndrangheta cell, investigators say, have established a criminal fiefdom in Überlingen over the past decade, backed by key narco families back home in San Luca.

In particular, the Giorgis are allied with the ‘Ndrangheta’s Romeo-Staccu clan, which in turn works under the Pelle-Gambazzas, ‘Ndrangheta royalty who lord over one of the three territories into which the group has divided the Italian province of Reggio Calabria.

The 'Ndrangheta: a global network
The ‘Ndrangheta was formed in the 1860s in Calabria, but grew its power by sending families out around the world via chain migration. Today it’s a global institution made up of affiliated clans working under a hierarchical structure. With major footprints in Italy, Germany, Canada, the U.S., and Latin America, the crime group can affect the price of cocaine around the world.

The ‘Ndrangheta system is broken down into doti, or ranks. ‘Ndrangheta members can only have dealings with other crime bosses and leading figures from the political and business worlds once they reach one of the higher doti echelons.

The ‘Ndrangheta often cloaks its illegal operations under the banner of legitimate business — starting real companies in one area, then using that legitimacy to expand across borders.

“By splitting the activities per country, the mafia network aims to exploit legal differences between criminal jurisdictions and to escape attention, since each crime, if only investigated separately, may appear as an isolated act rather than part of an international operation,” the European Union Agency for Criminal Justice Cooperation (Eurojust) said in December 2018.

In December 2018, in a bust that foreshadowed Operation Platinum, a Eurojust operation dubbed “Pollino” saw 84 ‘Ndrangheta members detained across Europe. Almost four tons of cocaine, considerable amounts of other drugs, and two million euros in cash were seized.

According to Europol, that case began when, in 2014, Dutch authorities got in touch with Eurojust over suspected money laundering involving partners in Italian eateries in the Netherlands, and their connections to Germany’s North Rhine-Westphalia region.

The Giorgis are no ‘Ndrangheta aristocrats, but under this rigid structure, they played a crucial bridging role, buying cocaine from Latin America-based Italian brokers, arranging for it to be shipped to Europe, then selling it to smaller buyers, who distributed it to street dealers. As cover, they used restaurants and an import-export company. Police records show how they used food trucks to move cocaine from the Netherlands and Spain across the continent to Italy.

In Überlingen, the Giorgis were represented by Bacetto and his brother-in-law Sebastiano Signati, while Bacetto’s three brothers — Domenico, Francesco, and Giovanni — remained in Italy. Domenico and Francesco lived in San Luca, and Giovanni lived in Alghero, Sardinia.

According to investigators, the Giorgis imported food from Italy and sold it to other Italian restaurants in Germany, either directly or through retailers, ignoring sales taxes and apparently funnelling illegal profits back home. Some bought the goods out of fear when they heard the name “Giorgi,” a police source said. Others bought them simply because they were cheap.

Though wanted in Italy since 2012, Bacetto operated freely in Germany, where he was tasked with ensuring cash flow for his family, because his Italian arrest warrant was never brought to the attention of international law enforcement, the source said.

According to Operation Platinum investigators and the related Italian order for custody, the Giorgi family would buy food products in Italy and sell them to Italian restaurants in Germany through companies they’d set up there, without paying sales tax. Then the German companies would be closed. At a recent press conference, German chief public prosecutor Johannes-Georg Roth estimated they evaded over two million euros in taxes in total.

Reporters were unable to sample the food during a visit to the Paganini in January 2020 because the eatery was closed for winter. But clues about the Giorgis’ European partners were easy to spot. A mailbox on the building’s left side included a long set of names; some were Giorgis and their Calabrian associates, but three with Romanian surnames made the list as well.

The cops catch a break

Despite their impressive efforts to conceal illegal activities within the legal economy, the Giorgis let themselves down in other crucial areas — especially when it came to their internal communications. They would also be undermined by one-time allies who had decided to speak to police.

Operation Platinum narrowed in on the Giorgis in 2017, when anti-mafia police in Turin noticed a family member stopping in their city as they made their way north from Calabria to Überlingen. The investigation soon involved German police from the town of Friedrichshafen, a 30-minute drive along Lake Constance from Überlingen, who tracked the Italian on the reverse trip south.

The Giorgis used encrypted EncroChat phones, making it impossible to intercept their communications. But Turin investigators caught a break in mid-2018 when Bacetto’s brother Giovanni, who had been under house arrest in San Luca, was granted permission to move to a home in Sardinia. Bugging this property, investigators could listen in on Giovanni’s conversations with relatives and friends, who would make pilgrimages from Calabria or Piedmont to meet the Giorgi family leader.

Bacetto mostly stayed put in Überlingen, striking cocaine deals in Belgium, the Netherlands, and elsewhere with the Romanian, Albanian, and Colombian gangs who play key roles in the drug trade surrounding the ports of Antwerp and Rotterdam.

The high-stakes industry, it seems, put a frequent strain on family relations.

In one bugged conversation with his nephew Antonio, Giovanni slammed Bacetto for keeping too much of his earnings for himself and his associates in Germany, when more should have gone to the cassa comune, a family kitty used to finance drug purchases.

Antonio accused his relatives in Germany of swiping 3,000 to 4,000 euros per day every time they’d “work” — his euphemism for dealing with drugs. He also complained that Bacetto said he didn’t have money for the cassa comune because of expenses for the Paganini restaurant.

The mountain town of San Luca is the cradle of the ‘Ndrangheta, the Calabrian mafia – Photo: IrpiMedia

Although slighted by his own family in the bugged chats, Bacetto was in fact the “soul” of the Giorgis’ cocaine business, according to a longtime investigator of the ‘Ndrangheta who requested anonymity to protect ongoing operations.

Investigators believe it was through Bacetto that the Giorgis were in touch with a key contact: Denis Matoshi, one of the heads of Albania’s Kompania Bello cartel. Matoshi ran a gang of Albanians in Rotterdam and Antwerp, overseeing cocaine shipped via Latin America to Europe.

Giuseppe Tirintino, a longtime ‘Ndrangheta trafficker who began cooperating with authorities in 2015, said that Bacetto, armed with a fruit-buyer’s license, had used a refrigerated truck to disguise cocaine shipped through Rotterdam among fruit consignments.

Tirintino said his cousin supplied Bacetto with “the goods,” meaning cocaine, for which the Giorgis paid 32,000 to 33,500 euros per kilogram. He said he had numerous meetings with Bacetto, who travelled far and wide to seal deals, including trips to Rome and Rosarno, in Calabria, as well as to Germany and Spain.

He said the two also met in the Italian coastal city of Genoa, where “the truck was loaded with cocaine that came by sea, in containers.” “They [the Giorgis] had large financial resources,” he said. “They never bought less than 30 kilos of cocaine at a time.”

Bacetto also appeared to see himself as a major player. In an intercepted conversation in a bugged Audi A3 in November 2018, he bragged to his brother and nephew of making 400,000 euros a year “net” and said it took “balls” to accomplish what he had in Germany.

“No one helped me set this up,” he says. “Who else but me could do it?”

The Antwerp connection

More than 750 million shipping containers are moved by sea annually, accounting for 90 percent of the world’s cargo trade. Fewer than two percent of these are ever screened. In 2017, Antwerp handled up to 3.5 million incoming shipping containers, of which roughly one percent were checked.

As Europe’s largest fruit-handling port, Antwerp has direct cargo lines from Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, and Panama. Fresh produce needs to be processed rapidly, meaning customs and law enforcement officers often struggle to screen shipments thoroughly. This makes the port a popular entry point to Europe for drug traffickers. Almost 42 tons of cocaine were seized at the port in 2017, and some 50 tons in 2018. By 2020, this figure had risen to around 65 tons. Each year, dozens more tons are intercepted before they can even reach the port.

Traffickers are also drawn to Antwerp’s easy road access to the Netherlands, a key European market where large quantities of drugs are processed and cut before being sent on to smaller distributors across Europe.

Throughout 2018, investigators tracked Bacetto and other Giorgis on several trips to the Netherlands. During these trips Bacetto met with several suspected drug traders, including the Romanian Adrian Bogdan Andrei, alias “Andy,” whom police identified as Bacetto’s “footman.”

Andy let Bacetto sleep at his Rotterdam apartment and use it as a logistical base as he moved between Amsterdam and Rotterdam to meet with Colombian suppliers. All the while, investigators were on their trail, and mapped out the path of at least one large suspected shipment.

In October 2018, Giovanni Giorgi was heard telling an associate that Bacetto was dealing with “foreigners” in the Netherlands who were expecting a load of about 170 or 180 kilograms of cocaine. Next, in a bugged conversation from an Audi A3 travelling between Überlingen and Amsterdam on November 18, 2018, Bacetto and his brother and nephew discussed how to handle the Netherlands transaction.

The Giorgis owed about “500,” they said — a fee believed by court authorities to be 500,000 euros. This payment needed to be settled ahead of November 25, the day the drugs were meant to arrive in the port of Rotterdam from Guayaquil, in Ecuador. In Amstelveen near Amsterdam, they would meet Andy and two Colombians — who didn’t know they were being tailed by Dutch police.

Wiretapped conversations between Andy and the Giorgis showed how the shipment’s safe arrival would be guaranteed by the detention of a man connected to the Colombian suppliers — a collateral system often used in the underworld.

“One of them stays with us,” Domenico Giorgi was heard to say.

“We come here, we keep him with us, and we search for a house,” Bacetto continued.

“We first give them the money and when the stuff is at the port — ” Domenico replied before Bacetto broke in again: “He stays with us and only when the stuff has been loaded we can talk on the phone, okay?”

And that, police say, is what happened: a young man from Medellín was held captive by Sebastiano Signati at a Rotterdam B&B until November 29, when he was driven back to Amsterdam and handed, along with a backpack, to his Colombian associates. Police wiretaps suggest the backpack held 300,000 euros in cash.

Rather than the expected 170-180 kilogram shipment, investigators believe the final total was 124 kilos, split down the middle between the Giorgis and their Romanian associates. Investigators believe Bacetto and the Giorgis bought 62 kilos of cocaine from the Colombians in the Netherlands, 12 of which were presumably transported to Italy in December 2018.

A few months later, German investigators heard Bacetto talking at his apartment in the town of Seelfingen — which had also been bugged — about another cocaine deal with an Albanian and a Romanian both living in Belgium. This deal, police suspect, involved a shipment of 240 one-kilogram packages of cocaine. Both the Albanian and the Romanian are suspected traffickers based in Belgium, while the Romanian manages a handful of logistics companies there.

Once these shipments had safely made it to Europe, the Giorgis got to work. Transporting cocaine and money in their fruit trucks, police say, they are first believed to have moved around Germany and later headed to Turin, where they were helped by relatives with the logistics.

It was at this Turin stop-off that Italian police, in 2017, had first gotten the whiff of the Giorgis’ trail.

Feeding the ‘Cassa comune’

Police documents and OCCRP sources in Italy and Germany show how the Giorgis worked both sides of the cocaine trade.

The evidence trail offers a clear breakdown of the family’s drug dealing, from agreements with major players who dealt in tons of cocaine in Latin America, to minions who sold quick highs in the bars of Europe.

Once it arrived in Italy, the Giorgis’ cocaine went to retailers in Turin, Milan, Sardinia, and Sicily for 30,000 to 48,000 euros per kilo, depending on the buyers’ relationship with the Giorgis. These clients were mainly other Calabrians, for whom the family reserved the largest portions of their shipments.

The Giorgi then sold a smaller part to average dealers — bar owners in Turin, Sicily and Sardinia, for example. In these cases, the price climbed up to 57,000 euros per kilo, or between 5,000 and 7,000 euros per 100 grams, according to wiretapped conversations between Giorgi family members.

According to the Operation Platinum order of custody, the Giorgis had enough logistical capacity to supply their clients with drugs on a weekly basis. But not all deals and deliveries ran smoothly, and the Giorgis weren’t powerful enough to exert control over the ports, which were the realm of bigger players.

To unload illicit cargo, they had to rely on Latin American suppliers, their higher-placed Calabrian allies, or other gangs like the Albanians. Often drugs were shipped using the “rip-off” technique , meaning the company shipping the containers had no idea their shipments were used to carry drugs.

Once through the ports, the cocaine began its winding truck routes. Drivers — one was paid 3,000 euros per trip, according to the Operation Platinum order of custody — had to mimic the routes of legitimate food delivery services following pre-planned GPS coordinates to avoid arousing police suspicions. Along the way, drivers in other vehicles would approach the truck in a pre-arranged location and remove the drugs before the truck continued on its route.

The Ristorante Paganini is seen in Überlingen, Germany – Foto: IrpiMedia

The Giorgi family operated like a company, with each of the four brothers putting the cash they earned into the cassa comune, managed by Francesco. Their weekly profit came to around 200,000 euros, according to bugged conversations.

Bacetto relied heavily on family members and other Calabrians to help manage his German operations. Sebastiano Signati, Bacetto’s brother-in-law, first took over the Paganini in 2010, together with another Calabrian. The restaurant‘s ownership often changed hands over the years, but always remained within the same clique of Italians. Calabrian associates also ran two German companies, one of which, GSG Food, owned the Paganini from 2016 to 2018 as well as importing and exporting groceries. The other, G&S Gastro, took over ownership of the business in 2019.

‘Ndrangheta money was also hidden in a very literal sense back home. In a bugged conversation, Giovanni, in Sardinia, instructed Francesco, in San Luca, to bury 400,000 euros in cash. Further conversations show the brothers were hiding fortunes in buried barrels, while always keeping at least 500,000 euros handy for regular expenses.

Giovanni warned his brother to spread the bundles of cash around rather than buying them all in the same hole: “Better to lose two to three hours of digging than losing a whole life of work,” he said.

Key connections to South America

Operation Platinum documents show that the Giorgis had one key supplier: Giuseppe Romeo, nicknamed “Maluferru.” Roughly translated, the nickname indicates someone armed and dangerous. The Giorgis had their own derogatory nickname for him — The Dwarf — but despite such jibes, Bacetto and his crew knew they badly needed the services that he could provide.

Maluferru is the son of one of San Luca’s most feared bosses, the jailed Antonio Romeo, alias “Centocapelli,” a leading member of the Romeo-Staccu ‘Ndrangheta clan. Investigators say Maluferru — who appears to have had crucial connections at three European ports — guaranteed the Giorgis “the constant dispatch of huge loads of drugs” from South America.

In the wiretaps, Giovanni Giorgi lamented that Maluferru often resold the “goods” to the Giorgis at inflated prices. On November 26, 2018, Giovanni told Walter Cesare Marvelli, a Giorgi nephew based in Turin: “When The Dwarf told us that he bought at 27 with our money, he bought it at 24 and stole three points.”


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Because Maluferru was so good at what he did, the Giorgis bit their tongues. He supplied hashish as well as cocaine, and “has [access to] everything in Holland,” Giovanni can be heard saying.

For long periods, Maluferru remained a ghost to the authorities. The Giorgis, who had been ordering cocaine from him since at least 2018, swapped rumors among themselves that he had been spotted in Brazil, the Netherlands and Mexico, and may even have disguised himself as a priest.

Through Marvelli, the Giorgis had established a connection to two even more powerful suppliers: Italian father-and-son duo Nicola and Patrick Assisi, two ‘Ndrangheta mega-traffickers who had been on the run in Brazil for years and were allies of the country’s First Capital Command (PCC) prison-based crime group. Marvelli had hustled hard to win the Assisi family’s trust, knowing they only opened their doors to a select few.

Cracks began to appear, though, when in August 2018 police caught another break. The Giorgis were still using their encrypted EncroChat phones. But they had failed to grasp the subtleties of the new technology — including the key principle that passwords should be kept secret — conversations from Giovanni’s bugged Sardinian home revealed.

In one conversation, Giovanni told Francesco to unlock an EncroChat phone using the password “pecora,” which means “sheep.” While setting up his own phone, another associate said he would use “the same password as last time” — “Maria.”

Remarkably, Giovanni and Marvelli would later start reading their EncroChat conversations with Patrick Assisi out loud, describing the logistics of the operations in detail.

“We have the exit [the cocaine leaving] both from Peru and from Venezuela,” Assisi wrote in one message, as read out by Marvelli to Giovanni.

Assisi wanted the unloading done in Hamburg, the message continued, and asked Marvelli to send “a Chinese” person to pick up the shipment.

“He says to me then … ‘Send some guys, so it’s yours, for better or for worse and we’re relaxed, for better or for worse, and we are calm … we know the responsibility is yours,’” Marvelli read out, quoting Assisi.

The bugged chats revealed that the Assisis — who are known to have mostly shipped cocaine in liquid form — would be sending a consignment in 2.5-kilo bags hidden in a shipment of an unnamed mineral. Because the Assisis didn’t handle unloading at European ports, the Giorgis were forced to involve The Dwarf in the process.

The Assisis said they would send a shipment of 500 kilos, according to the conversations, which investigators told OCCRP was because the logistical costs and bribes needed for each load made smaller loads impractical. Import-export companies or the “rip-off” technique provided cover.

Using the trail laid out by the Giorgis and their accomplices, German police identified containers that fit the profile for the would-be Assisi shipment. But when inspections were made in Hamburg in October 2018, no drugs were found. The detectives got luckier a month later, on November 8, when they raided a container suspected of carrying Assisi cocaine bound for the Giorgis, and uncovered 300 kilos of cocaine stashed in packages of cotton swabs.

By October 2018, however, the Giorgis’ Latin American connections were coming under threat.

Around this time, their agreements with the Assisis had begun to hit a roadblock, and Marvelli planned to go to Brazil to meet Patrick Assisi in person. Maluferru, though, had other plans, making a move to cut the Giorgis out, and beginning to deal with Assisi directly. Assisi, it turned out, preferred dealing with Maluferru, who was reliable, invisible, and had the keys to unlock some major European ports.

The Giorgis, constantly walking a tightrope between powerful suppliers whose whims could make or break them, seemed destined to remain effective cocaine distributors with little prospect of ascending to the higher echelons of the ‘Ndrangheta. Little did they know, however, that dark clouds were also beginning to hover over both Maluferru and the Assisis, and the pipeline from which they had made their own fortunes.



Cecilia Anesi
Margherita Bettoni
Giulio Rubino

In collaboration with

Luis Adorno
Nathan Jaccard
Benedikt Strunz
Koen Voskuil



Brian Fitzpatrick
Luca Rinaldi