Mexican Drug Cartels Join Forces with Italian Mafia to Supply Cocaine to Europe
Mexican Drug Cartels Join Forces with Italian Mafia to
Supply Cocaine to Europe
f 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. Â
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.
- Rusty Payne, DEA spokesman, on Italian organized crime involvement with Mexican cartels
"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
"The Mexican cartels have gone global," O'Neil said. "The question is who will take over in Europe,
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. Â 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
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
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