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Italian police arrest 67 suspected mobsters, breaking up produce market alliance

ROME (AP) — Anti-mafia police arrested at least 67 suspected mobsters in pre-dawn raids Monday, dismantling an alleged alliance of Italy's three main crime syndicates to virtually monopolize southern produce markets, officials said.

Authorities seized rocket and grenade launchers in the raids, and officers kicked in balcony doors, leapt over fences surrounding villas and hustled away the suspects. One of the suspects who was arrested had just stepped off a cruise ship in Naples after his honeymoon, police said.

The Sicilian Mafia, the Calabrian 'ndrangheta crime syndicate and the Naples-area Camorra syndicate dropped traditional rivalries to join forces to control a monopoly on fruit and vegetable sales, distribution and transport throughout central and southern Italy, anti-mafia police Gen. Antonio Girone said.

The hub was the sprawling market of Fondi, a town midway between Rome and Naples and described as Europe's largest wholesale produce market.

The unusual teaming up of the crime syndicates is especially worrying to investigators, Girone said, "because as in any military alliance, whenever there is more strength, it becomes more resistant" to law enforcement. In some cases, hidden among the produce being transported across Italy were weapons, investigators said.

The alleged "consortium" of mobsters also amounted to a kind of control on consumers' pocketbooks.

"If you ever wondered why the price of fruit is multiplied by 20 times" from the price paid to farmer to what consumers pay at the store, the investigation supplied a reason, Girone said.

"Here's how the Camorra does its business — the citizens pay, while they pocket the money," said Michele Buonomo, an official of Legambiente, a pro-consumer group which estimates 27 crime clans are involved in everything from cultivating crops to deciding which trucking companies transports the produce to what price the consumer ultimately pays.

There was no immediate estimate of organized crime's illicit revenues from the alleged ring.

Among those arrested was Paolo Schiavone, son of imprisoned mobster Francesco Schiavone, reputedly one of the top bosses of the ruthless Casalesi crime clan based in Caserta.

Paolo Schiavone had just stepped onto the docks of Naples at the end of a honeymoon cruise that had taken him around the Mediterranean, when officers handcuffed him, Caserta police special operations chief Rodolfo Ruperti said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.

The alleged ring was exposed after police began investigating the 2002 attempted murder of a produce delivery truck driver.

Using wiretaps, investigators discovered "how the Camorra terrorized those in the transport sector" to make sure their own trucking companies carried the produce from farms throughout southern Italy and that vendors agreed to the prices on their fruits and vegetables, Ruperti said.

Alleged charges on the arrest warrants included criminal association, extortion and market-rigging, he said.

"They put their own trucking companies to work," Italy's national anti-Mafia prosecutor Piero Grasso told a news conference in Naples.

The trucks sometimes doubled to move around weapons that mob bosses wanted for their crime clan wars, investigators said. Surveillance cameras installed by police at the produce market filmed alleged mobsters stashing the arms into the vegetable trucks.

Bazookas and Kalashnikovs from Bosnia were among the weapons that were trafficked, Ruperti said.

The Casalesi crime family has long been suspected of involvement in the sprawling Fondi market, where tomatoes, strawberries, melons, lettuce and other southern crops are brought for distribution to northern Italian markets as well as European ones.

But the arrest of top members of the Catania-based Santapaola and Ercolano clans showed that the business had been widened to include some of the Sicilian Cosa Nostra's most powerful crime families, investigators said.

Agriculture has also become a lucrative activity for the 'ndrangheta in heavily rural southern Calabria, where a few months ago African crop pickers and residents rioted. Investigators suspect that the 'ndrangheta is involved in the trafficking of illegal migrants.