Rome: Italian police and FBI agents arrested 19 mafia suspects in Sicily and New York on Wednesday in a coordinated crackdown that brought to the fore the enduring transatlantic ties between organised crime families in Italy and the United States, according to Italian authorities.
About 200 Italian police and FBI officers carried out the raids in the Palermo region of Sicily and in the New York area early Wednesday, CBS News reported. Eighteen people in Italy and one in New York were arrested.
The arrests marked the culmination of a nearly year-long joint investigation by Italian and US law enforcement that delved into an organised crime network that has regrouped and strengthened its cross-continental collaboration, according to Rodolfo Ruperti, the chief investigator for the Palermo judicial police.
Wednesday’s operation, called “New Connection,” particularly homed in on the Passo di Rigano mandamento — a district allegedly ruled over by several mafia families — and the notorious New York-based Gambino crime family.
The Sicilian mafia, also known as Cosa Nostra, has long exerted influence over the Mediterranean island, where rival crime families have fought bloody battles against each other and against Italian law enforcement for decades. A mob war in the 1980s between the rising Corleonesi mafia family and the Inzerillo family forced the Inzerillos to flee to the United States. That family strengthened relationships with the Gambinos in New York and, in recent years, had begun to reestablish itself in Sicily.
Among those arrested Wednesday was Thomas Gambino, an American citizen and member of the New York crime family whom authorities apprehended while he was vacationing in the Sicilian beach town of Cefalu, according to Palermo prosecutor Salvatore De Luca. Authorities arrested others including Rosario Gambino, several members of the Sansone family, and Tommaso and Francesco Inzerillo.
“All mafia associations, if they’re not attacked, will get stronger, acquire local consensus, pursue their investments and, thus, get even stronger,” Ruperti said in an interview. “Now we’ve delivered a blow to this very important mandamento, which has been able to regrow itself and create relationships with all the most important Mafiosi of Palermo.”
De Luca said his office contacted the FBI after they noticed that two Italian mafia suspects they had been monitoring were “constantly in touch” with Thomas Gambino and Franky Cali, a reputed Gambino family crime boss who was killed outside his Staten Island home in March.
According to De Luca, Italian authorities then began coordinating with Keith Edelman, the assistant US attorney for the Eastern District of New York, and FBI officers. De Luca said they put in motion a joint plan: “Americans would handle searches, and we would handle the arrests.”
Investigators raided the homes of three men suspected of being Gambino mobsters in New Jersey, Staten Island and Philadelphia, CBS News reported.
FBI spokeswoman Lauren Hagee confirmed in an email that “the FBI was involved and is assisting Italian authorities” but declined to comment further.
The US attorney’s office declined to comment.
Transatlantic connections between mob families aren’t new, according to De Luca.
“These relationships have grown thicker and consolidated over time,” he said. “Contacts between the Passo di Rigano mandamento and the Gambino family of New York have always existed.”
But he said the operation Wednesday did reveal a reconfiguration of those relationships. Cosa Nostra in Sicily has weakened in recent times. Members of the Inzerillo family who had escaped to New York took advantage of that opening to return to Italy and begin to consolidate their position in Cosa Nostra once more, De Luca said. The family focuses its business on the food sector and online gambling, he added.
“This operation goes to show that they’re a mafia family with a role of ever-growing importance,” Ruperti said. “They were exiled from Sicily to save their lives … Not only did they rejoin Cosa Nostra but now they have authority and rank inside of it.”
Antonio Nicaso, a professor at Queen’s University in Canada who studies the mafia, said the raids Wednesday “showed that there is still a strong bond between Sicily and the United States.”
Nicaso said they also signalled the resurgence of Cosa Nostra, which has in recent decades played second fiddle to the ‘Ndrangheta, an organised crime network operating out of Calabria, Italy. Mob leaders in Sicily and New York seeking to breathe new life into Cosa Nostra saw joining forces as a way to strengthen mob families on both sides of the ocean, Nicaso said.
“The idea is to regain the power that the Corleonesi lost in the fight against the state,” he said.
The 18 men arrested in Italy will face trial there, De Luca said. They were charged with association with organised crime, extortion and fraudulent transfer of valuable goods, among other crimes, CNN reported. Italian authorities also confiscated more than $3 million worth of real estate and other assets, according to CNN.
It remains unclear where the suspect arrested in New York will be tried.
The arrests will deal a “significant blow” to Sicilian and American mob leaders’ efforts to resuscitate cross-continental ties, Nicaso said.
But they won’t spell the end of this collaboration, he added.
“The mafia is not an organisation that you can defeat just with a major police operation,” he said.