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Arrests in NY, Italy aim to crush 'Ndrangheta drug-smuggling ring, officials say

Federico Cafiero De Raho, fifth from right, prosecutor

Federico Cafiero De Raho, fifth from right, prosecutor of the Reggio Calabria courthouse, speaks during a joint news conference with FBI agents on Thursday, May 7, 2015, in Rome. Credit: Getty Images/ Andrea Solaro

A major cocaine-smuggling pipeline that stretched from South America through a Corona restaurant and on to Western Europe was smashed Thursday with the arrest of thirteen people in Italy and three in New York, according to officials.

Federal investigators from Long Island initiated the investigation, and Italian authorities had announced the arrests in a joint news conference in Rome Thursday morning.

The case targeted the New York connection of the little known, but increasingly powerful, Italian organized-crime group known as 'Ndrangheta, officials said.

"This case is a powerful example of the impact of international cooperation in combating criminal organizations whose activities transcend national borders," acting Eastern District U.S. Attorney Kelly T. Currie said in statement.

A part of the drug-pipeline investigation first surfaced in March, with the arrest of the operators of a now-closed Corona restaurant, Cucino a Modo Mio, on charges of smuggling kilos of cocaine into the United States from Costa Rica in crates marked as the vegetable yucca, officials said. The drugs were then distributed in the United States or transshipped to Europe.

Charged then were husband and wife Gregorio, 59, and Eleonora Gigliotti, 54, both of Malba, and their son, Angelo Gigliotti, 34, of Woodside.

The three were indicted on a superseding indictment Thursday, along with an alleged 'Ndrangheta leader, Franco Fazio, 56, of Calabria, who is also a relative and an Italian citizen, officials said. They were charged with conspiracy to import cocaine, importation of cocaine, and attempted possession of cocaine, and are expected to be arraigned in federal court in Brooklyn later, officials said.

The Gigliottis were also charged, along with Fazio, with narcotics offenses in Italy. The Gigliottis were also charged in the United States with unlawful use and possession of firearms.

Officials said Fazio will first be tried in Italy before being extradited to the United States, while the Gigliottis will initially be tried in Brooklyn.

While not as well-known as the Sicily-based Mafia or the Neapolitan-based Camorra, 'Ndrangheta, from its base in Calabria -- located on the toe of Italy's "boot" -- has become increasingly active in organized crime throughout that country and the United States, officials have said. The group has made alliances with traditional U.S. organized-crime families, sources said.

The case was investigated jointly by Italian authorities and by Assistant U.S. Attorneys James Miskiewicz and Nicole Argentieri with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the FBI.

Angelo Gigliotti's attorney, Gerald McMahon of Manhattan, said his client would be vindicated and called the case, in an interview, "a Charmin indictment -- tissue-paper thin." Eleanora Gigliotti's attorney, Richard Levitt of Manhattan, declined to comment, as did Gregorio Gigliotti's attorney, Ray Granger of Manhattan.

Most of the cocaine was meant for later transshipment to Europe, where 'Ndrangheta is a major supplier of the lucrative drug, in Italy, Spain and Holland, officials said.

If convicted, the defendants face a potential mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years in prison.

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