Trans-Atlantic Mob Swoop Hits New York's Gambinos and ’Ndrangheta

carlo gambino
Carlo Gambino

By Cecilia Anesi, Giulio Rubino, and Matteo Civillini

Italian police Wednesday brought charges against eight men linked to Mafia syndicates from Italy and the US in New York and the Italian cities of Milan, Trapani and Matera. Details arising from the case have further confirmed alliances between US and Italian cartels that were first uncovered in a police operation in February.

Five of the group were already in jail in Italy from previous busts: Carlo Brillante, Daniele Cavoto, Francesco Vonella, Raffaele Valente, and Michele Amabile. Three more were arrested yesterday: Francesco Palmeri, a boss from the Gambino Mafia family of New York; Giovanni Grillo and Salvatore Farina.

The warrants, issued by the judge for preliminary investigations in Potenza on a request from the local Anti-Mafia Prosecutors Office, list charges of trans-national organized crime association and attempted extortion.

The year-long investigation builds on the February 2014 ‘New Bridge’ operation, which led to the arrest of 26 people and to the dismantling of a trans-national drug cartel comprised of American and Calabrian Mafias.

New Bridge shed a light on how the ’Ndrangheta, the Calabrian syndicate, has risen to overtake the Sicily-based Cosa Nostra, in the process gaining direct links with the Gambino family of New York, which was originally Sicilian, and the Mexican drug cartel, Los Zetas.

Wednesday’s operation involved cooperation between the Italian Police’s Central Operative Service (SCO) and the Matera police. It was an outgrowth of events dating back to the 1980s, when Italian entrepreneur Lorenzo Marsilio, the chief executive officer of the Sudelettra company, allegedly borrowed € 1 million (US$ 1.25 million) from the mob.

Whether he paid it back or not remains a matter of some dispute. He says he settled the debt, but that the mobsters were attempting to extort more money from him.

Sudelettra, a multinational firm specializing in the installation of electrical equipment, boasts an annual turnover of around € 30 million (US$ 37.3 million). Sudelettra provides tools to petrochemical companies, including the refineries of Taranto, Brindisi and Gela, in southern Italy. Over the last few years Marsilio’s company has extended its reach and begun operations in the Brazilian, Saudi and Qatari markets as well as in Nigeria.

According to the latest investigation, Marsilio borrowed the  € 1 million from “king of coke” Roberto Pannunzi, an ally of the Gambino family. Police did not indicate what the loan was for.

Roberto Pannunzi

Police investigations in 2004 proved Pannunzi was a leading broker in international cocaine trafficking with ties to the Macrì clan of the ’Ndrangheta, from the Calabrian town of Siderno. Authorities established Pannunzi also enjoyed good relationships with the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, and more specifically, with Cosa Nostra member Salvatore Miceli.

Pannunzi and Miceli, who traded jointly with Colombian drug dealers, were convicted of drug trafficking in 1983. Thanks to an investigation carried out by the Antidrug Operative Group and the Fiscal Guard in Catanzaro, they were arrested and jailed in 2004. Six years later, Pannunzi escaped custody, but was arrested a third time in 2013 and is currently detained.

Marsilio had first sought financial help from Grillo, who lived in New York at the time. Grillo did not have the cash, but introduced Marsilio to Pannunzi, and basically to the Gambino family. Although Marsilio claims he paid back his debt, he was visited twice last year by Palmeri, a Gambino member.

Police say Palmeri, arrested Wednesday in New York, failed both times to obtain any money. He later tasked Grillo and his right-hand man, Farina, with getting the money.

Grillo, who was also arrested Wednesday while trying to flee to the US, had connections to both the ’Ndrangheta and the Sicilian Mafia from Castellamare, in the Trapani region, indicating again the new alliance between different Mafia groups.