ROME — The Italian police on Thursday arrested more than 330 people, including politicians, lawyers, accountants and a local police chief, in one of the most extensive law enforcement operations ever against the crime syndicate known as ’Ndrangheta.
Some 3,000 officers made pre-dawn arrests in twelve Italian regions, as well as in Switzerland, Germany and Bulgaria, officials said. ’Ndrangheta has spread far beyond its historic base in the southern region of Calabria, surpassing the Cosa Nostra, based in Sicily, to become Italy’s most powerful mafia group. The group controls much of Europe’s cocaine trade, European officials say.
Nicola Gratteri, the anti-mafia prosecutor who coordinated the operation, described Thursday’s crackdown as “the biggest operation after the Palermo maxi trial,” a reference to a sweep in 1984 that led to a landmark trial against some 450 Sicilian mafia members. That case severely weakened the Cosa Nostra, but its decline permitted the Calabrian syndicate to grow more powerful.
Thursday’s operation “completely dismembered the top ranks of the Mancuso family,” the long-established ’Ndrangheta clan operating in the city of Vibo Valentia, with links to the United States, Mr. Gratteri said.
The family had infiltrated local politics and public administration, as well as the local economy, he said. The police blitz had been scheduled for Friday but was hastily brought forward a day when investigators discovered that someone had tipped off the mobsters and their associates to the impending arrests.
“Can you imagine what it means to move 3,000 men in the space of 24 hours?” Mr. Gratteri asked reporters in Catanzaro, Calabria, where he is chief prosecutor. “It’s something crazy. But we had to move crazily.”
The police arrested Luigi Mancuso, whom officials described as the head of the clan, along with dozens of others believed to have ties to the ’Ndrangheta. They also arrested a lawyer and former member of the Italian Parliament from former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party; the president of the Calabrian mayor’s association, a former member of the Democratic Party’s national assembly, and an array of civil servants and other white-collar professionals accused of working with the mob.
They face a variety of charges, including murder, extortion, usury, money laundering, drug trafficking, corruption, and belonging to a criminal syndicate.
The police also seized property and cash valued at 15 million euros, or about $16.7 million.
The Mancuso clan had dominated the area of Vibo Valentia since the 1970s, and had been “marked by prosecutors” in the past, said Enzo Ciconte, an expert in organized crime. But Thursday’s operation “could be the final blow,” he said in an interview.
Claudio Cordova, the editor of the online Calabria newspaper Il Dispaccio and the author of a recent book about links between the ’Ndrangheta and Freemasonry, said the operation had struck one of Calabria’s most powerful clans, and had exposed their links “with politicians and professionals.”
But Mr. Cordova complained that Calabria, “a difficult territory,” rarely got the support that it needed from the national government, making the eradication of criminal groups more difficult. “Calabria needs to become a national case, like Sicily was,” he said.
The Mancuso clan is “one of the most involved in international drug trafficking with international ramifications worldwide,” said Antonio Nicaso, an expert on the ’Ndrangheta and its history who has co-authored several books with Mr. Gratteri.
Mr. Nicaso added that the Mancusos were able to amass a huge amount of money from their trafficking.
Thursday’s operation “uncovered the link between the Mancuso clan with what I like to call the ‘upper-world,’” he said, citing professionals, politicians, bureaucrats and freemasons as examples. “What I try to explain all the time is that violence is the backbone but power is the lifeblood of any major criminal organization such as the ’Ndrangheta. And if you can’t combine the underworld and the upper world there will be no power and there will be no future for a criminal organization.”
Mr. Gratteri said the investigation began shortly after he was appointed chief prosecutor of Catanzaro, in May 2016. The operation was named “Scott-Rinascita.”
“Rinascita” means rebirth, referring to “the rebirth of the territory,” Mr. Gratteri explained in a telephone interview. “Scott,” he said, was added in memory of Scott W. Sieben, an agent with the United States Drug Enforcement Administration who “worked with us on many missions,” when he was based in Rome, from 2008 to 2013, and who died in 2015, after returning to the United States.
Mr. Gratteri said he believed the operation on Thursday had dealt a profound blow against the Mancuso family, but he cautioned that “you don’t resolve the problem of the mafia with overnight blitzes.” To wipe it out, he said, requires changes in the culture that has accepted it, and better laws against organized crime.
“Now it’s up to civil society to occupy the spaces that we created today, otherwise we’re back to square one, and criminals will reoccupy those spaces,” he added.