Hiding in plain sight

Posted by on Dec 17, 2018 in Articles | No Comments

Edoardo Archetta first opened the folding doors of his Italian restaurant, Bucci, at 195 Balham High Road in south London, 33 years ago. Over time, it became the kind of establishment that completes a neighbourhood, that “little place I know”, loved by regulars for its homely preparations of risotto ai funghi and calamari al balsamico, and for how it seemed to embody a quality so elusive in restaurants, and even in life: authenticity. So it is anyone’s guess how Bucci’s patrons digested the news from Southwark crown court earlier this year that Archetta, the man who up until that point had run their favourite bistro, was also the linchpin in a mammoth smuggling and money-laundering operation for the world’s most powerful and murderously ruthless mafia. “He’s the type of bloke who flies under the radar,” says Detective Sergeant Ian Barrett of the Metropolitan Police, who tracked the 48-year-old for a year across London before arresting him. “That’s why they’re so good at what they do.”

“They” are the ’Ndrangheta, (pronounced un-drung-e-ta), the Italian mafia based in Calabria, the toe of Italy. Like the two other big southern Italian mafias — Cosa Nostra in Sicily and the Camorra in Naples — the ’Ndrangheta was founded in the 19th century. For most of its existence, it was considered their bumpkin cousin, a group of orange farmers in dusty suits extorting the local trattorias and holding up passing carriages with shotguns. Certainly, they seemed far less trouble than Cosa Nostra, which went to war with the state in the 1980s in a conflict that cost 1,700 lives, or the Camorra, infamous for full-scale shootouts in the streets of Naples. Until about 2002, says the Italian anti-mafia prosecutor Sandro Dolce, “we had very poor knowledge of the workings of the ’Ndrangheta. It was known, of course — its existence was no big secret — [but] state witnesses are our main source of knowledge for any mafia and we just hadn’t got that many from the ’Ndrangheta.”

After a decade and a half of investigation, Italian prosecutors now say the Calabrian mafia far outstrips its peers and, by almost any measure, any other organised crime group in the world. It is estimated to run 70% of the cocaine in Europe. It extorts several billion euros a year from businesses in southern Italy. It brokers illegal arms sales around the world, including to all sides in the Syrian civil war. It embezzles tens of billions of euros from the Italian government and the European Union, mostly from public contracts for the construction of roads, bridges, wind and solar power and even the disposal of nuclear waste, which the ’Ndrangheta has dumped in the sea off Somalia. Its annual revenues are estimated at $50bn-$100bn a year. It is present in more than 100 countries, linking a mob war in Toronto to a lawyer’s assassination in Melbourne and the reported ownership of an entire Brussels neighbourhood to a cocaine-delivering pizzeria in Queens, New York, called Cucino a Modo Mio (I Cook My Own Way). After an ’Ndrangheta “maxi-trial” in Italy of 148 defendants concluded with 118 convictions in October, Dolce’s fellow anti- mafia prosecutor Federico Cafiero De Raho said the case showed the Calabrians “are able to develop everywhere”. In particular, the investigation uncovered a network that ran from Italy to Holland, Germany, Belgium, Romania and finally the UK, where it encompassed several recycling businesses.

Much of this empire hides behind a veil of tight secrecy consisting of several elements: the southern Italian hostility to the Italian state, which dates from the ’Ndrangheta’s founding in the years after Italy’s unification in 1861, which many southerners still view as an act of colonisation by the north; the ’Ndrangheta’s near total reliance on family, which gives it immediate hierarchy, discipline and loyalty; and the group’s reputation for inventive violence. Rivals, traitors or obstructive policemen are shot, strangled, forced to drink acid (to erase the mouth that talked), buried under lime (to wipe out all trace of their existence) or fed, alive, to pigs (just because).

Until this year, the ’Ndrangheta’s operations in the UK were thought to be limited largely to criminal asset management — legitimising money through the City and British business and property — helping to account for the growth of a money-laundering industry that the National Crime Agency says cleans “hundreds of billions” of pounds a year. That reality, and the realisation that what made London a focus for global business also created a hub for international organised crime, would be uncomfortable enough. But the Archetta case — plus the Italian maxi-trial and the conviction of four men in August for flying half a ton of cocaine by private jet from Bogota, in Colombia, to Farnborough airport — offers proof that the world’s biggest mafia has a more substantive UK presence. So how does the ’Ndrangheta operate in Britain? And how to fight it?

Det Sgt Barrett first came across Archetta by chance in September 2011. Barrett’s squad, which investigates blue-collar money laundering for the Metropolitan Police, had been tipped off that another Italian businessman was washing drug money through the Euro 1 bureau de change in Gloucester Terrace, Paddington. The scores of exchange kiosks clustered around the Heathrow Express terminal were already a focus for Barrett’s team. Under British law, currency houses have no legal obligation to take the identity of a customer exchanging funds worth up to €15,000.

For organised crime with money to launder, this presents an invaluable opportunity. While all cash passes through a bank account at some point, and all those accounts carry the name of an individual or a company, by splitting money into tranches worth €14,999 or less, then converting it into the desired currency, a foreign-exchange customer can separate his cash from its past and give it anonymity. “The criminal comes into the shop, negotiates [a rate] over and above normal, usually about 5%, and the shop makes sure the money has no tie to its customers,” Barrett says. A further attraction of Paddington is the sheer number of change bureaux. “There are 44,000 in the UK, most of those are in London, and around Edgware Road, Queensway and Praed Street it’s every other shop. It’s a huge problem, very hard to regulate.”

The ability to zero in on an individual launderer was crucial — and quickly yielded fruitful intelligence. “The guy had a semi-legitimate job importing foodstuffs — pastas, salamis and so on,” Barrett says. “But he also turned out to be a moneyman, a fixer and a broker, working for whoever, unattached to any one mafia, exchanging one bag for another at Euro 1.” Soon afterwards, the man was arrested and jailed for his part in a drug smuggling ring. More important than identifying a single launderer, however, was pinpointing the laundry. After watching Euro 1 for several days, Barrett says, “our assessment was that it was not a genuine business. In that industry, if you’re not open seven days a week, 16 hours a day, you’re going out of business. This place was often shut and seemed only for special people carrying big bags. Too much money, not enough people.”

The surveillance revealed the existence of several previously unknown criminal groups. One was a gang of Albanian cocaine dealers supplying Southampton and Portsmouth that seemed connected to the ’Ndrangheta: during the trial that eventually followed, one of the defendants claimed he had been acting under duress as the ’Ndrangheta had threatened to kill him. The Albanians fitted the stereotype of hard men making money from traditional crime. Almost to a man, they were burly, shaven-headed types and their method of outwitting sniffer dogs was simply to smear packages of cocaine with decongestant.

To the officers watching Euro 1, however, Archetta cut a more surprising figure: urbane, confident and sophisticated. The first time they observed him, Barrett says, “he turned up looking very Italian, parked on the double yellow lines outside, stuck his hazards on and went in”. His wardrobe, officers noted, was quietly stylish. One day he would wear skinny jeans with a burgundy pullover, sunglasses on his head and a hipster’s satchel. On another he would match blue suede brogues with a light blue scarf knotted at his neck.

“At that point, we weren’t sure what was going on,” Barrett says. Unlike the Albanians, who seemed to have no legitimate occupation, Archetta, originally from Puglia in southern Italy, was 41, married with three children and listed by Companies House as a restaurateur. Lee Agus, often seen with Archetta at Euro 1, was the manager of a 12-rig European haulage business based in Wickford, Essex. But Barrett’s officers soon realised many of Euro 1’s customers had a connection: they often owned restaurants, clubs, bars or drinks wholesalers. “What we couldn’t say at the time was that they all knew each other,” Barrett says.

In March 2012, Barrett was given permission to install a bug inside Euro 1. In April, his officers listened in as Archetta arrived with another man. “We heard them talking to the guys operating the bureau,” Barrett says. “They were negotiating the exchange of pounds into €60,000. We could hear the cash counter whirring. They argued over the rate, then they picked up their cash and went away.” Over time, the officers documented 11 occasions on which Archetta changed money with Euro 1 and its owners, Jamshed and Syed Abidi, estimating the total amount exchanged at between £360,000 and £480,000.

The source of the money was harder to pin down, but months of surveillance eventually revealed that much of the cash came from the sale of staggering volumes of smuggled wine. Customs had stopped Agus’s trucks 10 times between September 2010 and June 2012, each time seizing 50,000 bottles. The operation carried on regardless. On April 30, 2012, Agus sent Archetta a text message that read: “To date, eighty-five loads.” That translated to more than 4m bottles, or about 1% of annual British wine consumption.

Archetta was arrested in the evening of July 23, 2012, after a 12th money exchange. Officers seized €35,000 from his car, plus records from Euro 1 showing he had been wiring money to Italy and three phones whose call history showed he had been contacting two bosses in Germany belonging to the Aracri clan, the main target of the Italian maxi-trial. A request for information from Italy completed the picture: smuggling wine across Europe was a vast new ’Ndrangheta business. “It’s a cash operation that can easily be blended in behind legitimate business,” Barrett says. “There’s no way you can explain 15kg of cocaine, but 50,000 bottles of wine can be hidden.”

Archetta, Barrett says, was the UK co-ordinator of this operation, overseeing the wine’s delivery and sending the money from selling it back to the ’Ndrangheta. On April 17, Judge Christopher Sallon sentenced him to four years for money laundering, describing him as playing an integral role in an “extensive, sophisticated and long-running criminal enterprise”.

If the Archetta case surprised the police for what it revealed about the ’Ndrangheta’s presence in the UK, it frustrated them by what it left undiscovered. Throughout his police interviews and in court, Archetta denied any offence, never mentioned the Aracris or the ’Ndrangheta and described himself as someone couriering money for a friend for a fee of £300 a week. He was “just sending money to my girlfriend in Italy, you know”, he said during his first police interview, adding that he used the exchange bureau for “just little things”. He also tried to claim that officers had misread his paying-in slips and that what they had read as payments of £68,000 were, in fact, £680.

What eluded Barrett’s team was how long Archetta had worked for the ’Ndrangheta, whether he was an initiated member, and what other businesses he might have been involved in over the years. Just as worrying was Archetta’s tradecraft. Had they not chanced across him, the police would never have suspected him. “Any passing attention would have found a businessman running a restaurant,” Barrett says. “There was nothing flashy about him, nothing to draw attention.”

But if the accident of Archetta’s arrest is unnerving, recent Italian successes against the ’Ndrangheta offer some reassurance. At the same time as Archetta’s surveillance, the Italians were demonstrating in their own investigation into the Aracris how the ’Ndrangheta could be cracked wide open.

Lea Garofalo was raised in the small village of Pagliarelle, high up in the wooded Aspromonte mountains, 20 miles from the Aracris stronghold of Cutro. The Garofalos led a clan that dominated Pagliarelle and the nearby town of Petilia Policastro. With the Aracris, they ruled the valleys and estuary flats around Crotone. They ran protection rackets, smuggled cocaine, stole from the public purse and rigged public contracts, and threatened, firebombed or killed any alternative authority that could not be corrupted. Lea was surrounded by violence from birth. Her 27-year-old father was killed when she was just eight months old, her uncle was murdered when she was seven, then her cousin was shot in front of her when she was 15. In three decades there were 35 murders in Pagliarelle (population 400) and Petilia Policastro.

Much of the killing was generated by clan feuds. More violence was directed at women who, inside the ultra-conservative ’Ndrangheta family hierarchy, could be beaten just for stepping out of the house alone. To be caught being unfaithful was a death sentence for a woman — and it would be their father, brother or husband who would kill them, often dissolving the body in acid to erase the family shame. “You don’t live,” Lea told the anti-mafia prosecutor Sandro Dolce. “You just survive in some way. You dream about something, anything, because nothing’s worse than that life.”

When she was 16, Lea eloped with a boy from Pagliarelle, Carlo Cosco, who had moved to Milan. But Lea’s escape was a mirage. Cosco turned out to be working for Lea’s brother, Floriano, helping to manage the expansion of the ’Ndrangheta’s cocaine empire into northern Italy and Europe — he had married into the boss’s family as a way to ensure his promotion.

In 1996, after witnessing Cosco and his brother kill a man in the courtyard below their apartment, Lea testified against him and saw him jailed — and then went on the run with the couple’s five-year-old daughter, Denise. When Cosco’s men caught up with the pair in 2002, Lea and Denise entered witness protection. In return, Lea gave two days of testimony to Dolce, detailing all the murders and naming all the killers in the Pagliarelle feud, describing the ’Ndrangheta’s hierarchy, the rituals, cocaine-trafficking operations, money laundering, protection rackets and public corruption. It was the first detailed look inside the organisation that the Italian authorities had almost ever had and forced them to make a dramatic recalculation: the ’Ndrangheta, it seemed, was not some collection of country bandits, but a sophisticated global crime ring, headquartered in Calabria.

More than the evidence of crime, it was Lea’s act of reaching out to the state that shook the organisation. Tragically, the state did not reciprocate. Prosecutors failed to corroborate Lea’s evidence and tried to kick her and Denise out of witness protection. Lea was shattered. The state had promised her and Denise a new life, then betrayed them. By taking her testimony but not acting on it, it had needlessly exposed them to mortal danger. “It’s all been a pile of crap,” Lea told Denise.

In November 2009, Lea and Denise made a four-day trip to Milan, where Lea attempted to reconcile with Cosco. He allowed her to think the rapprochement was working. Then, on her last night, he strangled her with a curtain cord and had his men drive her body out of the city and burn it. Like hundreds of Italians who have “disappeared” at the hands of the ’Ndrangheta, that might have been the last anyone heard of Lea. But after months in which Denise was forced to live with her father, she eventually followed her mother’s example, testified to the authorities and re-entered witness protection. Her evidence secured a murder conviction for Cosco and four members of his gang, one of whom had been Denise’s boyfriend.

Their trial in 2012 and Denise’s courage also attracted national press coverage and the support of thousands of students. Lea became an icon, her story repeated in newspaper stories, documentaries, plays, books and a television movie, her name preserved in renamed parks, bridges, piazzas and roads, and her image adorning posters and banners at a new wave of mass anti-mafia demonstrations across Italy.

Perhaps more important, the story of how she had been one of the first to open up the ’Ndrangheta to the authorities persuaded some prosecutors that they had found a new way to fight the mafia. There had to be other mafia wives and mothers who could be induced to talk in return for a new life. “Freeing their women is the way to bring down the ’Ndrangheta,” said prosecutor Alessandra Cerreti.

In the years since, more than a dozen women have testified and Lea’s statements were re-evaluated, resulting in the mass jailings of several clans. To date, more than 300 suspected ’Ndranghetisti from the Cutro clans have been arrested. And on October 29, 2013, while Edoardo Archetta was awaiting trial, the carabinieri arrested 17 suspected ’Ndranghetisti, including Nicolino Grande Aracri, the suspected clan boss, and charged them with seven murders. Disbelieved in life, Lea was being vindicated in death.

On August 23 this year, at Woolwich crown court, three men were sentenced to 24 years and a fourth man to 20 years for smuggling £15.4m worth of cocaine into the UK. In January they had hired a private plane at a cost of £138,500 to fly them from Luton to Bogota, where they picked up the drugs and flew back to Farnborough three days later. Three of the men had made an almost identical trip three months earlier, using the same plane and also landing at Farnborough, where they had arranged to be picked up in a Rolls-Royce Phantom. The court heard how, on the second trip, the men and the plane’s crews had struggled to lift their 15 bulging suitcases onto the plane in Bogota and again on arrival in Britain. Shortly after they disembarked, Border Force officers found 513 packages of cocaine inside their cases covered by a handful of dirty clothes. The men’s cover story was that they were crypto-currency magnates. But they travelled under their own names and a few simple checks revealed they were bricklayers, waiters and chefs, three of them from Poole and Bournemouth and the fourth man from Spain.

The National Crime Agency, which specialises in organised crime and which co-ordinated the arrests, thinks at least three of the men were mules. Though other arrests in Thailand and Colombia have detained members of Colombia’s air force and airport officials, the network behind the operation, especially its bosses, remains elusive. “There is no doubt there’s a wider organisation behind this, but we have not made any further arrests and we are not expecting to,” said Steve McIntyre, a senior NCA investigator, after the sentencing.

The Italian and Colombian press have reported that this wider organisation is the ’Ndrangheta. That seems eminently possible, given that the court heard that one of the four who helped plan and organise the smuggling is a 28-year-old Italian called Alessandro Iembo, who is originally from Cutro and whose family is known to the police. “According to investigative sources, some members of the Iembo family are considered close to the Grande Aracri family,” reported the southern Italian newspaper Il Quotidiano del Sud, adding, “It is difficult to say what role they played in this affair.”

Britain is yet to feel the ’Ndrangheta’s presence in the same way as, say, eastern Canada, where 15 people have died in mafia violence in the past decade; or Germany, where six people died in an ’Ndrangheta shootout in 2007 and where a dozen suspected ’Ndranghetisti were arrested in co-ordinated raids in January; or Slovakia, where Jan Kuciak, a 27-year-old journalist investigating the ’Ndrangheta’s links to politicians, was assassinated with his fiancée in February; or Australia or the US, where narcotics officers describe the group as a principal bulk importer of cocaine. But this year’s busts and convictions indicate the Calabrians are ever more integrated into the UK’s criminal landscape.

Just as evident is that the UK authorities are yet to have a handle on the new threat. The NCA has not listed the ’Ndrangheta as a priority, nor even a target, and in several visits I made to NCA headquarters this year, many of its officers appear not to have heard of it. Giving evidence to the home affairs select committee in June, the NCA director-general, Lynne Owens, appealed for a wholesale reform of UK law enforcement to face the new danger from global mafias, saying that, under the current setup, “There is a lot more [about organised crime] that we do not necessarily know.” The same month, Will Kerr, one of Owens’s main aides at the NCA, told a media briefing: “We are goalkeepers. Sometimes all we hear is the ball hitting the back of the net behind us.”

Italy’s experience suggests that for any British detective looking to uncover more about the ’Ndrangheta in the UK, finding more women like Leo Garofalo might be a good place to start. But even that window might be closing. During the maxi-trial, the key witness and mafia turncoat Antonio Valerio testified that the ’Ndrangheta’s response to the arrest of so many of its men had been to start dispensing with its age-old misogyny. “Now the women are in charge of this organisation,” he said, “because their husbands, brothers and sisters-in-law are in jail.”