Italy breaks up Chinese crime ring involved in drugs, prostitution

FLORENCE, Italy (Reuters) - Italy ordered the arrest of 33 people on Thursday on suspicion of running a Chinese mafia group involved in gambling, prostitution and drugs, and which dominated the transport of Chinese goods across Europe.

The group’s base was in Prato, near Florence, a hub for the textile industry where many factories are owned and run by Chinese, police said in a statement.

But the network had members in other parts of Italy and across Europe, with arrest warrants issued in Rome, Milan, Padua, Paris, Madrid and Neuss, Germany, the statement said.

Those detained are accused of being members of a mafia organization and other crimes.

The suspected boss, Naizhong Zhang, was based in Rome. He used profits from illegal activities to build a massive transport company that dominated the trucking of goods for thousands of Chinese companies, police said.

In one phone intercept published in a court document, Zhang recounts meeting three associates in France and telling them they could stop working with him if they wished. “I only said two things. ‘If you go with me, you will live. If you go against me, you will die,’” he is quoted as saying.

“The next day, at midday, they all three came to me and said they wanted to join forces,” he added.

It was not immediately possible to contact the arrested men or their lawyers for comment.

Zhang won a near-monopoly in distribution across much of Europe through threats and violence against Chinese company owners, anti-mafia prosecutors said.

Thursday’s operation broke up “a dangerous organization that had used force to take control of trucking, and was financed by its illegal activities,” Italian Interior Minister Marco Minniti said in a statement.

Italy has a long history of home-grown organized crime, including the Sicilian Mafia and the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta, but immigration to Europe has opened the way for foreign crime groups to take root, including the Nigerian and Chinese mafias.

“Being able to shed light on mafia character of this group is almost incredible,” Federico Cafiero De Raho, Italy’s chief anti-mafia prosecutor, told a news conference.

“It’s quite unusual to be able to identify a complex Chinese mafia organization.”

The investigation, called “China Truck”, began in 2011 following a turf war in Prato between rival Chinese gangs -- one group originating from Zhejiang province in eastern China and the other from the southeastern province of Fujian.

Some 40 people were thought to have been murdered between 2005-2010 before Zhang, who came from Zhejiang, emerged from the war as the undisputed criminal boss, a judicial source said.

Magistrates estimated that his group’s business activities were worth “hundreds of millions of euros”.

Apart from the arrests, prosecutors seized eight companies and an equal number of vehicles and “a few” millions of euros.

Writing by Steve Scherer and Crispian Balmer in Rome; Editing by Catherine Evans