PETAL DETECTORS: Investigators say that mafia members secretly used a business at the Royal FloraHolland flower market in the Netherlands, above, as a front for smuggling drugs. The FloraHolland market, where many individual businesses operate, said it had no knowledge of the alleged activity. REUTERS/Yves Herman

How the ‘Ndrangheta went global

A florist in Holland acted as a front for international drug smuggling, say prosecutors. Busting the operation shows how a secretive Italian mafia has expanded across continents

ROME – To traders at the famous Royal FloraHolland flower market near Amsterdam, Vincenzo Crupi was just another businessman helping to make the Netherlands the largest exporter of cut flowers in the world.

To the police, Crupi was a mafia suspect allegedly concealing drugs worth millions of dollars alongside fragrant bouquets he trucked to Italy. By last year they were hot on his scent. So they bugged his offices at the flower market.

In conversations recorded by hidden microphones and cameras, the 52-year-old Italian was heard speaking at length about mafia affairs, according to previously unpublished details of the investigation contained in 1,700 pages of Italian court documents reviewed by Reuters.

Crupi was heard allegedly discussing drug deals, arms shipments and a lethal power struggle between mafia members in Canada. “They are killing each other over there,” he said in one recorded telephone call after returning from a trip to Toronto.

Last September, at least two decades after Crupi began working at the flower market, police swooped while the Italian was on a trip home, arresting him in the dead of night south of Rome. Prosecutors will seek trials against Crupi later this year for drug trafficking and mafia membership, judicial sources said.

Police and prosecutors say the case sheds new light on the ‘Ndrangheta – the Calabrian mafia – and the way it has spread its tentacles from southern Italy into dozens of countries across five continents. More than 50 other suspects were arrested in the same investigation.

Crupi, currently in prison, denies any wrongdoing. His lawyer, Giuseppe Belcastro, told Reuters that his client was an honest businessman. “He’s been in the flower business forever,” said Belcastro, whose office is near the Vatican. “He had a legal and functioning flower business, and there is proof of that.”

The police and prosecutors disagree. They say the ‘Ndrangheta has cleverly kept a low profile abroad, and that Crupi embodies its international business model. He ran a legitimate flower business, they say, because it was the perfect cover for the ‘Ndrangheta to expand overseas, smuggle drugs and launder illicit profits.

“The (secretly recorded) conversations confirm the full participation” of Crupi and others in an international mafia network, says the arrest warrant issued in Reggio Calabria, the capital of Calabria in Italy’s southern tip.

A spokeswoman for the FloraHolland cooperative, where Crupi had his office, said the cooperative was never aware he was a suspected mobster.

MAFIA BLOODLINE

For much of the last century, the Calabrian mafia made its money from extortion and kidnappings. Then in the late 1980s and early 1990s the group, which consists of about 160 patriarchal clans, bet big on the cocaine trade.

Its success at drug smuggling catapulted the ‘Ndrangheta past its more storied Sicilian rival, the Cosa Nostra, in both wealth and power. Italian authorities now consider the ‘Ndrangheta to be Europe’s single biggest importer of cocaine.

MAFIA SUSPECTS: Vincenzo Crupi, left, is in prison, and Vincenzo Macri, right, is wanted by police. Lawyers for both men say they deny any wrongdoing. REUTERS/Italian police/Handout via Reuters

“The ‘Ndrangheta is a trademark, or guarantee, of criminal seriousness,” said David Ellero, the head of Europol’s organised crime squad in The Hague.

Crupi grew up in a family with known mafia connections in Siderno, a town in the “toe” of Italy’s deep south, according to turncoats interviewed by prosecutors. In the early 1990s, or possibly earlier, he moved to Holland and set up in business at the FloraHolland market in the town of Aalsmeer, not far from Amsterdam, two former employees of Crupi’s company told Reuters.

In 2002, Crupi was joined by his brother-in-law, Vincenzo Macri, 51, who had spent 13 years in prison in the United States for drug smuggling, according to court documents. In the florist business, Macri was in charge of collecting unpaid bills from clients, former employees said.

To the flower traders of Holland, Crupi and Macri appeared to be ordinary businessmen. They lived on the same suburban street. On an average day, they got up early and worked late, said former employees and police. While they often dined in fine restaurants and frequently visited Italy, they were not flashy.

“These guys were up at four o’clock in the morning most of the time, and they went straight to FloraHolland,” said the police commander in charge of the Dutch side of the investigation. “They didn’t have Ferraris or big watches. If you looked at them you wouldn’t see anything strange. They seemed to be ordinary people, but they were not.”

What the employees at the flower market did not know was that Crupi and Macri were –  prosecutors allege –  part of the Commisso clan, which prosecutors say is based in the small coastal town of Siderno and is one of the ‘Ndrangheta’s most powerful arms.

“The ‘Ndrangheta is a trademark, or guarantee, of criminal seriousness.”

David Ellero, head of Europol’s organised crime squad in The Hague

Both Crupi and Macri are related to one of the three bosses who together regulated affairs for the entire ‘Ndrangheta network until the mid-70s. That man, Antonio “Uncle 'Ntoni” Macri, was the “living symbol of organised crime's omnipotence,” Italian magistrate Guido Marino wrote in a 1970 court ruling. ‘Ntoni’s daughter, Concetta, is married to Crupi. And ’Ntoni’s son is Vincenzo Macri, the business partner and brother-in-law of Crupi.

In 1975, a hit squad shot the 72-year-old 'Ntoni dead after his daily game of bocce, an Italian game similar to bowls. The murder set off a bloody mafia war that cost some 233 lives in three years, according to mafia historian John Dickie. In Siderno, a town of fewer than 20,000, an estimated 5,000 people attended the funeral of Uncle 'Ntoni.

Vincenzo, the younger Macri, is currently a fugitive and could not be contacted for comment. Maria Candida Tripodi, a lawyer who says she was hired by a family member to defend Macri, said that he is innocent.

“I’ve never spoken directly with him, but I do know he intends to defend himself or I would not have been hired,” she said. “I believe he will deny the accusations.”

Belcastro, the lawyer for Crupi, said of Siderno and his client: “It’s a very small town so it’s normal that he would know people who may have a criminal background, but that doesn’t make him a criminal.”

Crupi’s wife, Concetta, did not respond to attempts to contact her through her husband’s lawyer.

SMUGGLING NETWORK

At the FloraHolland market, Crupi and Macri ran a business called Fresh BV, which boasted on its website that it was “a major player of the Italian wholesale market” with a trucking business providing “distribution that allows us to be proud of our speed and methods.” In the mid-2000s, Fresh BV was sending about a truckload of flowers a day to Italy, former employees said. In recent years the volume had decreased, police said, but the company was still sending several trucks each week.  

The FloraHolland market in Aalsmeer is enormous, equivalent in size to 400 soccer pitches. Since speed is of the essence in delivering fresh flowers, 18-wheeler trucks rumble in and out at all hours.

With the port of Rotterdam and Schiphol airport nearby, Crupi’s flower business was perfectly positioned to receive drug shipments from South America and distribute them onwards, say police and prosecutors.

As Italian police investigated Crupi, they asked their Dutch counterparts to bug the offices of Fresh BV. The eavesdroppers allege they heard Crupi and Macri speaking at length about mafia affairs, according to transcripts. Court documents allege the two men discussed selling and shipping cocaine to a Neapolitan crime family; Macri’s desire to set up a drug trafficking operation in Venezuela; the first birthday of an alleged clan member’s son; how to fence millions of euros in stolen Lindt chocolate (see sidebar); and the deadly ‘Ndrangheta power struggle in Canada.

“The crime of mafia membership doesn’t exist anywhere in the world except Italy, but the mafia is everywhere.”

Antonio De Bernardo, prosecutor in Reggio Calabria, southern Italy

Prosecutors allege Crupi and Macri were wary of surveillance and behind closed doors spoke in Calabrian dialect. They usually referred to other suspected mobsters only by nicknames, such as “Chubby the son of Grace,” “the brigand” and “the chosen one.” Crupi often called Macri by his nickname, “pumadoru” – dialect for “tomato.”

The court documents allege that Crupi, Macri and others ran an organisation “systematically and regularly dedicated to importing from Holland large quantities of cocaine to be sold on the Italian market.” They represented the international business side of the ‘Ndrangheta, say prosecutors, rather than being feared bosses ruling home turf through clan loyalty and intimidation.

Police carried out the first arrests in the investigation in August 2014, when they witnessed an Albanian man allegedly picking up drugs in Rome from a flower-truck driver working for the Crupi family. In another operation, one of Crupi’s truck drivers allegedly picked up more than 11 kilos of cocaine from a man in Rotterdam and shuttled it to Italy in a hidden compartment, according to police eyewitness accounts and a recording from a listening device in the cabin. The driver was recorded saying he had picked up the “black tulip bulbs,” which police took to be code for the drugs.

The driver was arrested in December 2014 at an isolated warehouse district in northern Italy where he met the alleged buyer of the drugs, who was also arrested. These shipments, prosecutors allege in Crupi’s arrest warrant, were “just the tip of the iceberg.”

SPECIAL LAW

To tackle the likes of the Cosa Nostra and ‘Ndrangheta, Italy has made it a criminal offence to be a member of a mafia organisation. The offence carries a sentence of up to 24 years in prison if mafia activities have an international dimension. No other country has such a law. Italian prosecutors say the lack of such a law outside Italy is a serious impediment in tackling mafiosi operating internationally.

TRANSPORT HUB: The port of Rotterdam lies not far from the Dutch flower market that prosecutors allege mafia members used as cover for a drug smuggling operation. REUTERS/Michael Kooren.

“Italy, because the authorities have had to struggle against the mafia for decades, has the best anti-mafia legislation and the best investigators,” said Ellero, the head of Europol’s organised crime squad in The Hague. “But when you leave Italy, it’s back to square one.”

That is why many mafia operators have increasingly shifted activities and assets abroad, say prosecutors. “The crime of mafia membership doesn’t exist anywhere in the world except Italy, but the mafia is everywhere,” said Reggio Calabria prosecutor Antonio De Bernardo, who is leading the southern court’s investigation against Crupi.

In February 2015, Italy’s elite SCO police – knowing that rituals like birthday parties, baptisms, weddings and funerals remain important occasions for the 'Ndrangheta – bugged a car Crupi rented in Siderno. He and his wife drove the car to their nephew’s first birthday party at Siderno’s Hotel President.

During the trip home, he was recorded speaking to a known 'Ndrangheta member, according to court documents.

In September, Crupi was back in Italy again. This time police raided the place where Crupi was staying and took him to jail. He has remained in prison ever since.

The police investigation is ongoing. In both Rome and Reggio Calabria, prosecutors plan to seek a trial against Crupi, Macri and others for drug trafficking and mafia membership later this year, judicial sources said.

Meanwhile, some of Crupi’s former colleagues in Holland are still shocked at the accusation that he’s part of the mafia.  “If it’s true,” said a former employee of Crupi’s flower company, “then he’s a better actor than Robert de Niro and Al Pacino rolled into one.”