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In an investigation that underscored an Italian crime syndicate's role as a leading player in international cocaine trafficking, police in four countries arrested at least 84 suspected mobsters Wednesday in a series of carefully coordinated raids.
Those detained allegedly work for the Italian 'ndrangheta criminal network that traffics in cocaine on a global scale.
"It's almost a cliche, but the operation carried out today confirms again the great danger of the 'ndrangheta, not just in drug trafficking, where it's the undisputed leader, but (also) in the financial sphere," said Francesco Ratta, a top police official in the southern Italian region of Calabria. "It's an evolved 'ndrangheta, that we can say knows no borders ... It's an 'ndrangheta that day by day changes its skin ... but still keeps ties" to its home base in Calabria.
European officials announced the arrests at the Hague headquarters of Eurojust, the European Union prosecutors agency set up to bolster the fight against cross-border crime in the 28-nation bloc. Eurojust and EU police agency Europol coordinated the raids.
"Today we send a clear message to organized crime groups across Europe," said Filippo Spiezia, vice president of Eurojust, the EU prosecution agency that coordinated the raids. "They are not the only ones able to operate across borders; so are Europe's judiciary and law enforcement communities."
It was the second significant mob takedown in as many days. On Tuesday, Italian authorities said they had dismantled the rebuilt upper echelons of the Mafia in the Sicilian capital of Palermo by arresting 46 people, including the man presumed to have taken over as provincial kingpin.
Wednesday's raids were the culmination of a two-year investigation codenamed Pollino against the powerful 'ndrangheta criminal group on allegations of cocaine trafficking, money laundering, bribery and violence, Eurojust said.
The 'ndrangheta is Italy's most powerful criminal organization, eclipsing by far Sicily's Cosa Nostra or the Naples area Camorra.
Eurojust said the massive probe was the biggest of its kind in Europe. About four tons of cocaine were traced during the investigation. Cocaine and ecstasy pills also were seized in Wednesday's raids.
Italian police hailed the close cooperation between European police forces and Eurojust's coordination, saying it was an important new crime-fighting tactic that allowed investigators in different countries to share information in real time.
But Italy's top Mafia prosecutor, Federico Cafiero De Raho, also sounded a note of caution, saying the raids only scratched the surface of the powerful 'ndrangheta, whose tentacles and illicit activities, including huge cocaine trafficking operations, were spread all over the world.
Speaking in The Hague, Cafiero de Raho said the arrests "are nothing for 'ndrangheta. There are thousands of people who should be arrested and billions of euros that should be seized."
A leading expert on the 'ndrangheta, Catanzaro-based Prosecutor Nicola Gratteri, recently said the Calabrian-based 'ndrangheta syndicate has for years been buying up hotels, restaurants and other properties in Belgium, the Netherlands, France and Germany to both launder some of the billions of dollars it rakes in through cocaine trafficking, as well as invest that money to start "clean" businesses and earn even more revenue.
The 'ndrangheta "is the most important organized crime group in the world," said Gen. Alessandro Barbera, who commands the investigative unit of Italy's financial police corps. "Wherever there is great business to be done, there is always the 'ndrangheta."
Eurojust said Italian authorities arrested 41 suspects, mainly in Calabria.
In Germany, federal police said there had been multiple arrests in the early morning raids. The focus was on the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, which borders the Netherlands and Belgium, and Bavaria to the south.
Among the 'ndrangheta clans hardest hit by Wednesday's raids was the Pelle-Vottari crime family, investigators said. That is the same clan involved in the bloody feud that culminated in six people being shot dead at an Italian eatery in the German city of Duisburg in August 2007.
Five suspects were arrested in the Netherlands, where prosecutors got the ball rolling for the investigation in 2014 with probes into two Italian restaurants, and more suspects were detained just over the border in Belgium.
Eurojust said those arrested Wednesday included "high-ranking members of the Mafia network," but didn't release their names.
Frances D'Emilio in Rome and David Rising in Berlin contributed to this report.