Rome: Police across Europe launched a vast, coordinated operation against Italy's notorious 'Ndrangheta mafia on Wednesday, arresting more than 130 people and seizing millions of euros in dozens of searches.
"It is likely the biggest operation ever carried out in Europe against the Calabrese mafia," said a spokesman for Belgium's federal prosecutors' office, Eric van Duyse, which initiated the operation.
European policing agency Europol said 132 alleged members of the 'Ndrangheta had been taken into custody during an "action day" involving 10 countries - eight in Europe plus Brazil and Panama.
They are accused of crimes including mafia association, drug trafficking, arms trafficking, money laundering and tax fraud, following a probe that has uncovered the global reach of the wealthy organised crime group.
The 'Ndrangheta is Italy's most powerful and wealthy mafia, controlling the bulk of cocaine flowing into Europe and operating in more than 40 countries across the world.
It has successfully expanded well beyond its traditional domains of drug trafficking and loan sharking, now using shell companies and frontmen to reinvest illegal gains in the worldwide legitimate economy.
The majority of the arrests were in Italy, according to authorities there, with the others concentrated in Germany and Belgium.
More than 2,770 police officers were involved in the operations in 10 countries, which also included France, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain and Romania, Europol said.
Operation Eureka "now stands as the largest hit involving the Italian poly-criminal syndicate to date", the agency said in a statement.
Italian authorities said assets and property worth 25 million euros had been seized in Italy, Portugal, Germany and France.
Belgian prosecutors said some 150 addresses were raided in eight European countries, in searches that involved 1,400 police officers in Italy and more than 1,000 in Germany.
The operation was focused on a criminal network led by several 'Ndrangheta families based in the town of San Luca, in the southern Italian province of Reggio Calabria.
A feud between rival clans from San Luca was responsible for a 2007 massacre in Germany, when six people were killed outside a pizzeria in the town of Duisburg. That crime for the first time helped raise public awareness of the 'Ndrangheta outside Italy.
The network hit on Wednesday "was mainly devoted to international drug trafficking from South America to Europe, as well as Australia", Europol said.
They had links with Colombia's "Gulf Clan" crime group and an Albanian-speaking group operating in Ecuador and across Europe, it said.
The investigation also revealed an offer to sell a container of weapons via Pakistani intermediaries to Brazilian paramilitaries, in exchange for cocaine to be delivered to the Calabrian port of Gioia Tauro.
Holidays in San Luca
A spokesman for the Belgian federal prosecutor's office said it had launched the European investigation and had been working on the case for "four, five years", in cooperation with other EU states.
Italian authorities confirmed they had begun their investigations in June 2019, at the request of the Belgians, focusing on one San Luca family active in the Belgian town of Genk.
A Belgian police officer told a news conference in Italy how he and his team befriended suspects at a port in Belgium before being "invited to join them on their holidays in San Luca".
That friendship allowed them to gather key evidence against them, he said.
The inquiry initially focused on international drug trafficking but was later widened to include money laundering, particularly in the catering, tourism and real estate sectors, and the arms trade, Italian authorities said.
Based in Calabria, the region that forms the tip of Italy's boot, the 'Ndrangheta is considered one of the world's most powerful crime syndicates due to its grip on the cocaine import market.
It has extended its reach across all parts of the world, and it has long surpassed Sicily's Cosa Nostra as Italy's biggest mafia organisation.