ROME -- Police in Italy arrested 19 people, most from Tanzania, when dismantling a heroin ring involving more than 150 suspects in Africa, Asia and Europe, authorities said on Saturday.
The arrests stemmed from a probe begun in 2012 with a heroin seizure in Perugia, a university town in central Italy.
Investigators in Perugia told reporters that one ringleader is a Tanzanian who, from his base in Poland, directed heroin shipments from Asia to Italy for street sales. Several other suspects are from Burundi, Carabinieri paramilitary police said in a statement.
Authorities said the drug traffickers kept a low profile, living in modest homes and working as barbers, merchants and other legitimate professions.
Since the probe began, 144 drug couriers have been arrested.
Overall, heroin worth 35 million euros ($39 million) and cocaine worth 4.2 million euros ($4.7 million) was seized, including two busts at Paris airports in 2015, one at Rome's main airport in 2013, and others in Santorini, Greece, in 2015 and another at Austria's border with Italy in 2013, where heroin was found inside a fire extinguisher in a Turkish truck that had set out by ferry from Greece to Trieste, Italy.
Some of the intermediaries were based in Italy's Caserta area, where the Casalesi clan of the Camorra crime syndicate largely holds sway, and one of the suspects, from Ivory Coast, rented a villa owned by a Casalesi mobster, the Carabinieri said.
Initially using Africans, traffickers later employed Italians, Greeks, Spaniards, Bulgarians and Hungarians as drug couriers, police said.
The couriers reached Italy using cargo boats, planes, trains, buses and taxis.
Drugs were stockpiled in Turkey, Tanzania, South Africa, Brazil, Peru and Bolivia, then transported to Poland and elsewhere northern Europe where, after various handoffs, they arrived in Italy.
Before 2013, police said, the delivery route was less circuitous, with couriers departing directly from the places where the drugs were produced — heroin from Asia and cocaine from Latin America.
Those skilled at creating false bottoms in suitcases and backpacks, or cotton bags woven into underwear, were paid $1,000 per item, investigators said.