Italy, US break up mafia cocaine trafficking ring

PIANOPOLI, Italy (Reuters) - Italian and US agents broke up a major cocaine trafficking network between Central America, the United States and Europe on Thursday, detaining 13 Italians suspected of links to organised crime, police said.

Italy's elite SCO police and FBI agents captured the men as they slept in their homes in the southern Calabria region and detained them on suspicion of being part of an international drug trafficking ring.

The year-long investigation, dubbed Operation Columbus, was led by federal investigators in Brooklyn and prosecutors in Calabria, the region that is home to the 'Ndrangheta, a mainland version of the Sicilian Mafia.

American agents seized 55 kilos of cocaine hidden in two shipments of fresh cassava from Central America to Philadelphia and Wilmington, Delaware, officials said.

Last year, more than 3 tonnes of cocaine were seized in Spain and the Netherlands, all shipped in 12 m containers of fresh cassava, according to an Italian police official. Investigators suspect the same ring was behind that haul.

A Calabrian-born man who ran the "Cucino A Modo Mio" (I Cook My Way) pizzeria in the Queens borough of New York was arrested in March along with his wife and son for smuggling cocaine into the United States.

The Queens man was described by police as associated with New York's Genovese crime family. More than US$100,000 (S$133,136), six pistols and a shotgun were seized during his arrest.

The latest operation follows a similar one in February of last year in which a Calabrian mafia clan ran a cocaine smuggling operation through New York with members of the Gambino crime family.

The recent drug stings show that the 'Ndrangheta, which investigators say is Europe's biggest cocaine dealer, has replaced Sicily's Cosa Nostra as the main partner of New York's traditional Italian crime families in smuggling drugs between North America and Europe.