Italy code-crackers bust international cocaine ring

More than 400 officers in dawn raids after four-year investigation

Italian police. AFP
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Italy's finance police on Tuesday busted an international cocaine-smuggling ring run by the 'Ndrangheta crime group, after cracking a secret code, the operation's commander said.

More than 400 officers carried out dawn raids across the country, armed with 57 arrest warrants after a four-year investigation called "Crypto" into about 90 suspects, many from known mafia families.

Those arrested are accused of shifting large quantities of cocaine from northern Europe and Spain to Italy, hiding it in false bottoms of car boots, and in some cases then moving it on to Malta by boat.

"They communicated via a complex code, matching numbers to apparently random letters of the alphabet, without any spaces or punctuation," Capt Carmine Virno, whose team lead the investigation, told AFP.

'Ndrangheta families in Gioia Tauro and Rosarno in southern Italy made direct contacts with South American suppliers through an intermediary in the Dominican Republic, the police said.

Another suspect, who lives in Germany but has ties to the mountainside town of Guardavalle in Calabria, a mob stronghold, acted as courier and as go-between with dealers in northern Europe, police said.

The traffickers "used disposable German Sim cards and communicated purely by text message so that they couldn't be identified by their voices if the phones were wire-tapped," Capt Virno said.

His team painstakingly worked on the code until finally breaking it when they figured out the word "con", which means "with" in English.

On Tuesday they found the proof that they had got it right, Capt Virno said.

Officers raiding the house of a top ring member discovered a "pizzino", with the alphabet written in blue and the corresponding numbers written below in red.

A "pizzino" is a small slip of paper traditionally used by the Sicilian mafia for high-level secret communications. This one, carefully cut out of an exercise book, encoded large cocaine orders.

Once the code had been cracked, police conducted surveillance on the suspects, who were skilled in evading modern technological traps, the force said.

About €3.7 million ($4.3m) in assets were seized in Tuesday's raids.

Based in Calabria, the region that forms the tip of Italy's boot, the 'Ndrangheta is considered one of the world's most powerful crime syndicates because of its control over the movement of cocaine in Europe.

It has extended its reach around all parts of the world, and has long passed Sicily's Cosa Nostra as Italy's biggest mafia organisation.

But the investigation showed the 'Ndrangheta families thought the Sicilian mafia had its uses. They formed ties with the powerful Cappello family in Catania to set up the shipment of cocaine to Malta.

Updated: September 14, 2021, 11:11 PM