The Sicilian port city of Palermo has for centuries been an entry point for goods – both legal and illegal – coming into Europe. Home to the notorious Sicilian Mafia, Italian officials recently unearthed information that Palermo’s black market, along with other Italian ports, is used by Mexico’s ruthless drug cartels as a conduit to bring drugs to the European market.
A 10-year investigation by Italian authorities earlier this year revealed ties between Italian groups and Mexican drug traffickers to move shipments of cocaine across the Atlantic Ocean.
The revelations by Italian authorities is just the most recent indication of Mexican cartels expanding their reach across the Atlantic as the Colombian drug trafficking organizations have slowly been fazed out of the trade.
"Over the last 20 years the Mexicans have really taken over," said Shannon O’Neil, a Douglas Dillon Fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council of Foreign Relations. "Instead of working for the Colombians, the Colombians are now working for the Mexicans."
The Italian-Mexican connection was allegedly spearheaded by Elio and Bruno Gerardi, two Italian brothers based out of Monterrey who shipped hundreds of tons of cocaine on behalf of Cosa Nostra inside of industrial ovens. While the two brothers remain at large, a number of key figures linked to the Italian organized crime group are in custody.
They’re involved in drug trafficking and they’re getting it from the bad guys down south.
"The investigation into the Gerardi operation demonstrates the degree to which Mexico has become a vital actor not merely in the U.S. cocaine supply chain, but in the global drug trade," wrote Patrick Corcoran of the Latin American security website, InSightCrime.org. "For a gang dedicated to moving South American cocaine to Europe, there was no inherent need for a Mexican connection, but the centrality of Mexican traffickers to the global trade drew the Gerardis to forge links with Mexican traffickers as early as 2002."
Also, with a kilogram of cocaine estimated at over $63,000 in Italy, compared to the average price of between $28,000 and $38,000 in New York, the cartels see Europe as a lucrative and untapped market.
"The Mexican cartels have gone global," O’Neil said. "The question is who will take over in Europe, in Russia."
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) recently announced documented links between Mexican cartels and criminal groups in Mozambique, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ghana, and Nigeria. The Sinaloa Cartel is also known to have ties not only in Europe but throughout Latin America, Africa, Asia and Australia, where a booming trade has developed in the country’s cities.
"The U.S. is not the only game in town," said Rusty Payne, a DEA spokesman, adding that tougher tactics from both the Mexican and U.S. governments have led Mexican cartels to look elsewhere.
"Europe is crazy now with coke," Payne said.
Last August, the Mexican weekly magazine M Semanal reported a sharp uptick in links between the Zetas and Italy’s ‘Nhdrangheta organized crime group.
The ‘Nhdrangheta is an organized crime family similar to the Sicilian mafia and based out of the Calabria region of Italy. It is estimated that the 'Ndrangheta earns between $30 billion and $50 billion annually, mostly from drug trafficking and pirated merchandise.
While not as infamous as the Cosa Nostra is in the United States, the ‘Nhdrangheta – which operates through small, individual groups instead of the mafia’s pyramid structure – is arguably more important to Europe’s drug trade as 80 percent of the cocaine entering the continent’s market coming through docks in Calabria, Italian officials estimated back in 2004.
Unlike in their home country and in parts of the United States, the Mexican cartels are in unfamiliar territory in Europe and need a guide to foray them in the drug trade across the Atlantic, O’Neil said.
"The Mexican cartels are on new turf and need to learn the lay of the land," O’Neil added. "The Italians are established and have well-connected networks to aid the Mexicans."
Ties between the ‘Nhdrangheta and the Mexican cartels date back a number of years, as a 2008 joint operation by U.S., Italian, Mexican and Guatemalan authorities called “Project Reckoning” led to the arrest of 175 individuals on charges related to internal drug trafficking. Despite the seized cocaine being shipped from South America via New York, the Gulf and Zetas (then part of the same organization) were allegedly the key suppliers.
"The ties between the Zetas and the 'Ndrangheta are the most frequent example of Mexicans and Italians cooperating, even beyond Reckoning," Corcoran said.
While still known for their ultra-violent tactics, dealing with the Italian organized crime groups also appears to have slightly shifted the Zetas’ operational model toward that of their European counterparts.
The Zetas now use tactics such as extraction from the local population, extortion and diversifying their products like the Italians do, Cororan said.
"Diversification helps keep the profits up because if [the authorities] crack down on drugs, the cartels have other cash outlets," O’Neil added.
With worries that Mexico’s drug violence will spill over the border into the United States and possibly the new European markets, O’Neill said that Europeans should be relieved that so far the bloodshed has remained primarily in Mexico.
"We’ve heard wiretaps where cartel members say don’t kill anybody in the U.S.," Payne said. "I would be shocked if the same wasn’t happening in Europe."
The European cocaine demand, which has risen dramatically in the last decade, paired with burgeoning trafficking routes through West Africa and Europe, has allowed Italian organized crime groups to comfortably climb in bed with the Mexican cartels.
"They’re involved in drug trafficking and they’re getting it from the bad guys down south," Payne said.