From One Mafia To The Next: Tracking The Path Of The Global Drug Trade

Two decades after the Sicilian Mafia killed magistrate hero Giovanni Falcone, crime networks have shifted drug trafficking from bases to Russia, Colombia, Burma...and beyond.

Mexican military taking on narcotraffickers
Mexican military taking on narcotraffickers
Federico Varese

Since the death of Italian anti-Mafia magistrate Giovanni Falcone 20 years ago, how much has organized crime spread internationally? The trans-continental dimensions of the Sicilian Mafia, Cosa Nostra, was already clear to the legendary prosecutor in 1980 when he took up the "Pizza Connection" case against Salvatore Inzerillo and the boss of the Gambino familiy in New York.

But in the last 25 years, the criminal world has changed radically.

The Early Years

When Falcone first became an investigating judge in 1964, drug use in Italy was virtually non-existent, and even the U.S. market was still limited. Italy was just a passage way: morphine was bought by the Sicilians in producing countries, like Turkey and Lebanon, who then moved it from Sicily to Marseille, France where it was refined. It then came back to Sicily before it was sent off to the US.

The Sicilian mafiosi could count on proven relationships with their fellow American "godfathers," but they didn't have any solid contact with their producers. So, an emissary was sent to the Middle East to test the drugs, and often pay in advance. This sleepy world of trafficking, with only occasional misunderstandings and seizures by the police, was bound to end when the demand for drugs in the U.S. grew exponentially.

At first, the Sicilian-American network was largely centered around the Inzerillo and Gambino families, and was in the best position to take advantage of the financial opportunity. So the Sicilians began to import drugs into the States at a rate of $600 million per year.

Antonio Calderone, a mob boss who turned state witness, told Falcone "(the Mafia) all became millionaires. Suddenly, just in a few years. All thanks to drugs." The trafficking revenues were then reinvested by Inzerillo's son-in-law, Rosario Spatola, in Palermo, which was run by Vito Ciancimino. During those years in the capital of Sicily, drug money ran everything.

Heroin and Drug Money

The Sicilian Mafia continued to play a key role in the drug trade into the early 1980's; when they arrived in the States approximately 80 percent of heroin was consumed in the northeast of the country. The center of this distribution system was "Al Dente"- a pizzeria in Queens that is still open today but with new management. The Sicilians oversaw the importation of the tons of narcotics on American soil, up to the point when the American "Dons" began to fear their Italian cousins who had now set up shop on the East Coast and "wanted to control everything" as recalled by Joseph Pistone (Donnie Brasco), the FBI agent who infiltrated the Bonanno family.

At the height of the Sicilian power, they still hadn't come to terms with the fact that there were some very determined investigators such as Falcone, future FBI chief Louis Freeh and future New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. It was the Sicilican investigators who discovered the connection between the drugs being sent at the same time the payments came into the offices of the Swiss Banks in Zurich and Bern.

Welcome, Chinese and Colombians

The reign of the Sicilians, who were slowed down by Falcone's investigations and arrests, was over rather fast. Very soon the Italian-American Mafia lost the heroin market and they never managed to get into cocaine. Since the mid-1970s, heroin entered the U.S. from Mexico as well as from the West Coast thanks to Chinese and Vietnamese entrepreneurs, and it came to New York without any mafiosi being able to prevent its distribution.

When the Pizza Connection trial ended in 1987, the route that went from Sicily to the port of New York dried up. Compared to the Sicilians, the Asian importers of heroin, cocaine, as well as the Colombians, had a strategic advantage: they could rely on their direct relationships with manufacturers and with their fellow compatriots, who were growing in numbers in the U.S.

New routes from Mexico

At that point in the fight against drugs, the U.S. focused on Colombia and began a dirty war against the traffickers. The effect of the defeat of the Colombian cartels and the closing of the Caribbean route that brought cocaine through Florida would end up deepening the problem.

By the end of the 20th century, the Mexicans become the leading distributors of cocaine in the States. Nearly 50,000 people have been killed since 2006 in Mexico, victims of a merciless war for the control of drug passageways. The end of the Italian reign on drug trafficking in the U.S. had the paradoxical effect of raising the supply and a reducing the price. The current situation is one of unbridled competition, without any rules.

The Calabrian mafia, the "Ndrangheta, had become strong in Italy and wanted to pick up where Sicily's Cosa Nostra had left off. Drugs arrive today from Latin America in the port of Gioia Tauro in Calabria, and distributed northward through the rest of Europe by members and affiliates of "Ndranghete.

Indeed an Italian investigation, coordinated by the prosecutor Salvatore Curcio, demonstrated how the Colombian drug lords and Calabrian mob had developed a sophisticated situation for cargo insurance: an exchange of hostages to remedy the problem of lack of mutual trust. For a "modest sum" the mafiosi importers could insure the cargo. As done in the middle ages to seal international allies, often the intermediates would live under armed house arrest until the transaction was completed.

The Eastern Mafia

One exceptional event that changed the way that global organized crime works in the last 25 years was the collapse of the Soviet Union. The departure of the Red Army from Afghanistan in 1989 allowed it to become the world's largest producer of heroin. The democratisation of Burma could have the same effect, leading to the potential increase in the production of heroin and amphetamine in the "Golden Triangle": Burma, Vietnam and Laos. Today, the drugs produced in Burma supply the ever growing Chinese market. As ever, rampant crime and economic development go hand in hand.

Not only did the fall of the USSR have a huge effect on world drug trafficking, it led to the emergence of the Russian mafia, which dominates many important aspects of daily life of both the post-Soviet state as well as crime networks in other countries too. For example, during the late 1990's, the most powerful mafia group that emerged from the ashes of the Soviet Union was the Solntsevskaya Bratva from Moscow, who counted on a boss in Rome to coordinate the Russian operations in Italy. In addition to the lack of cooperation from Russian police during investigations, the most shocking aspect that emerged from a survey conducted on Italian police for this story was how the role of the banks facilitated the transfer of dirty money. Respectable Western bankers gave Russian mob bosses useful tips on how to transfer the money in a legal way from Russia to the rest of Europe.

Goodfellas and high finance

The geopolitical landscape and the world map of organized crime have profoundly changed, but financial institutions continue to be a central element of Mafia life, as Falcone knew years ago. The only difference is in the extent of the phenomenon: two years ago the head the United Nation's Office on Drugs and Crime said that important elements of the global banking system survived the 2008 crisis because they accepted the cash that had come from the mob: $352 billion from the drug trade have has entered the legal financial system in a short time.

The intertwining of the banking system, organized crime and state bureaucracy are characteristic of our lifetime. What can be done? A lesson of Falcone that is often overlooked is as relevant as ever. Weakness, corruption and inefficiency of democratic institutions allow the mafia to become alternative authorities in their own territories, that can eventually expand elsewhere and successfully participate in complex overseas trafficking. Falcone wrote that "The mafia is not invincible," but this is battle that cannot be won by a small group of judges alone.

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January 22-23

  • Navalny saga & Putin’s intentions
  • COVID’s toll on teenage girls
  • A 50-year-old book fee finally gets paid
  • … and much more!


What do you remember from the news this week?

1. Which two words did U.S. President Joe Biden use about possible scenarios in the Russia-Ukraine standoff that upset authorities in Kyiv?

2. What started to mysteriously appear on signs, statues and monuments across Adelaide, Australia?

3. What cult movie did U.S. rocker Meat Loaf, who died Friday at age 74, star in?

4. What news story have we summed up here in emoji form? 🇬🇧 👱 💬 💼 ❌ 🥳 🦠

[Answers at the bottom of this newsletter]


Toxic geopolitics: More than ever, we need more women world leaders

The world is watching the Russian-Ukrainian border. Russian President Vladimir Putin threatening an invasion finds an ally in Iran’s Ebrahim Raisi, united against their common enemy: the United States. Back in Washington, U.S. President Joe Biden — marking his first year in power with painfully low approval rates (higher only than Donald Trump’s) — sends his Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, to Kyiv to reassure President Volodymyr Zelensky who worries that France’s Emmanuel Macron might undermine Ukraine. And we haven’t even mentioned Xi Jinping!

It’s an endless theater of world leaders beating their respective chests — and they have exactly one thing in common: they’re all men. It’s by now a decades-old question, but worth asking again: What would happen if women, and not men, were running the world? Would there be less conflict, more prosperity? More humanity?

In 2018, the World Economic Forum released a study that showed that “only 4% of signatories to peace agreements between 1992 and 2011 were women, and only 9% of the negotiators.” The report shows that in several conflict zones in the world in recent decades, citing Liberia, Northern Ireland and Colombia, women have been instrumental in achieving peace.

In Colombia, where 20% of peace negotiators for the 2016 peace treaty were women, Ingrid Betancourt, herself a victim of the 50-year conflict, has announced her candidacy for the May presidential elections. Differently from previous bids, where she focused on fighting environmental abuses and corruption, Betancourt now is putting gender issues at the center of her political agenda. Bogota daily El Espectador questions whether the former hostage will be able to ride this important political wave, with feminist movements flexing their muscle around the region demanding more rights.

In Italy, next week’s elections for the head of state are monopolized by infamously misogynous former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is hoping to be elected for the seven-year, honorary function. There is no official candidacy, but Berlusconi’s name and that of current Prime Minister Mario Draghi are the two getting the most attention. Italian feminist writer and intellectual Dacia Maraini writes in La Stampa that, yes, the very fact of electing a female president will be progress for the country — and by the way, there are plenty of women qualifed for the job.

There was also a woman politician making the news this week for actually getting elected: Maltese conservative politician Roberta Metsola, became the new European Parliament President after the death of Italy’s David Sassoli. And yet the election of the first female president of the EU’s legislature since Nicole Fontaine in 2001 has been widely criticized by female politicians — primarily for Metsola’s stance against abortion rights. "I think it is a terrible sign for women's rights everywhere in Europe," French left-wing member of the European Parliament Manon Aubry told Deutsche Welle.

The women who have risen to power in history (Margaret Thatcher, anyone?) don’t necessarily make the case that gender is the silver bullet to fix politics. Still, after watching all the toxic masculinity on the world stage this past week, we can rightfully demand fewer men.

Irene Caselli


• Record-breaking online concert of Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand”: More than 100 musicians from around the world will take part today in a performance of Mahler’s epic 8th symphony consisting of 1,200 elements, including a double chorus, children’s choir, a full orchestra and an organ. The event is a culmination of a year of work; all artists recorded their parts in isolation besides the children’s choir. Tickets can be purchased here.

Yearly Japanese festival will set a mountain on fire: Today, the grassy hillside of Mount Wakakusayama in Japan will go up in flames as fireworks go off in the background as part of celebrations for Wakakusa Yamayak. The origin of the festival isn’t totally clear, but might relate to border conflicts between the great temples in the region or to ward off wild boars.

• New insights into antiquities taken by the Nazis: Scholars are looking into how German forces during World War II looted artifacts such as on the Greek island of Crete. Nazi officials pillaged these valuables for their own personal gain, but many were also destroyed, which is why researchers around the world are hoping to gain greater insight into this often overlooked aspect of German occupation.

Exhibition of Beirut’s restored artwork: The Beirut Museum of Art has inaugurated the exhibition “Lift” featuring 17 paintings by Lebanese artists that had been damaged by the port explosion in 2020, and have since been restored as a result of a UNESCO initiative.

The world’s first vegan violin tunes up: Berries, pears and spring water are just some of the natural ingredients relied on for the construction of the instrument by English violin-maker Padraig O'Dubhlaoidh. Traditionally, animal parts like horsehair, hooves, horns and bones are used, especially to glue pieces together. The £8,000 instrument is sure to be music to some animal lover’s ears.


One year ago anti-corruption lawyer and politician Alexei Navalny was detained in Russia, marking the effective end of domestic opposition to Russian president Vladimir Putin. In the time since, more than half of the former coordinators of Navalny's headquarters fled Russia. Even Navalny's name is forbidden: Putin never says his name, calling him "this citizen."

At the same time, Navalny’s imprisonment and the de facto end of the opposition have changed Russia. The fear of persecution, the lack of alternatives and the total censorship and propaganda have caused Putin's ratings consistently downward.

An aging leader with no successors, no enemies and dwindling popular support is finding it increasingly difficult to explain why he must continue to rule forever. In such a situation, there’s nothing quite like an external threat to fuel the raison d’être of the authoritarian regime. In Putin’s eyes, the perfect threat right now is NATO expansion, and the perfect enemy is its neighbor Ukraine and its attempts to join the military alliance. Whether Russia's president is ready to engage in a real war is the great unknown, but its aggressive and uncompromising foreign policy — like his disposing of Alexei Navalny — is the latest legitimization of his increasingly absolutist rule now into its third decade.

Read the full story: What The Alexei Navalny Saga Tells Us About Putin’s Intentions On Ukraine


Íngrid Betancourt spent more than six years as a prisoner of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) terror group in Colombia, an experience that is sure to play a role in her recently announced presidential campaign. Betancourt, who is 60, is running as part of the Verde Oxígeno and is the only woman in the Centro Esperanza Coalition (CCE), a centrist alliance.

Betancourt could be a boost for the coalition and embody its goals of transforming, overcoming polarization and, as its name indicates, giving hope to Colombia. In particular, the centrist candidate who in the past has been largely focused on anti-corruption and environmental protection, has said she will make women’s rights a cornerstone of her campaign.

Read the full story: Ingrid Betancourt, A Hostage Heroine Reinvented As Feminist For President


A growing number of studies around the world show that COVID-19 and lockdown restrictions have prompted a disproportionate increase in mental health illness among teen girls. These include rising suicide rates among adolescent females in the United States, Germany and Spain and a higher prevalence of anxiety and eating disorders in Israel. But why are women being disproportionately impacted?

There’s a range of reasons. In India, for example, young women had increased difficulty accessing education resources when schools went online and shared a disproportionate burden of household tasks as opposed to their male peers. Around the world, social media also played a significant role; without access to in-person socialization and hobbies, young people spent more time online, often comparing themselves to others, impacting feelings of self-worth. The situation is particularly dire given the challenges of accessing mental health support resources during the pandemic.

Read the full story: Why The COVID-19 Mental Health Crisis Is Hitting Teenage Girls The Hardest


Norwegian mobility company Podbike has announced that Frikar, its four-wheeled enclosed electric bike, will soon hit bike lanes on home turf. The futuristic-looking vehicle does require the user to pedal, which powers a generator and drive-by-wire system that keep the Frikar running — with a speed limited to 25 km/h.


“Mãe De Bolsonaro” is the top query on Twitter in Brazil, after news that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s mother Olinda Bonturi Bolsonaro had died at age 94.


Photo of the new President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola

New President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola

Philipp Von Ditfurth/ZUMA

London’s legendary bookshop Waterstones Gower Street tweeted a photo of a letter from an anonymous user confessing to having forgotten to pay for their books some 48 years ago. Owing approximately £100 ($136), adjusted for inflation, they had sent through £120 ($163) to make up for their tardiness. Touched by the kind gesture, the bookshop reciprocated by donating the money to the largest children’s reading charity in the United Kingdom.


Dottoré! is a weekly column on by Mariateresa Fichele, a psychiatrist and writer based in Naples, Italy. Read more about the series here.

Bucket of tears

I’ve been thinking and thinking about a patient of mine since yesterday. His name is Giovanni.

Psychiatrists, you might not know, are quite often asked the same unanswerable question: "Why does one become insane?”

When I was younger, I searched and searched for an answer, losing myself in scientific explanations about synapses, neurons and neurotransmitters.

By the end of my studies, I’d realized that the only thing that was clear was that I’d been clutching at straws to justify my work and give it a semblance of scientific dignity. In the years since, I’ve forced myself, in defiance of the authority of my position, to reply with a laconic but honest: "Sorry, but I don't know."

So when Giovanni asked me that same question, he was not happy at all with my answer. “Dottoré, how’s it possible that you don't understand why I became crazy?”

When he tried to ask me again one day, I tried a different response:

"Giová, do you cry?"

"No. Why?"

"Imagine that the tears that you don't shed, that you force yourself not to shed, because that's what you've been taught to do, all end up inside your heart. The heart is an organ that pumps blood, which brings nourishment and oxygen to the whole body. But over time those diverted tears accumulate to the point that the heart begins to pump them instead of your blood. Slowly your body becomes sick, but the part that suffers the most is your brain. Because tears don't contain oxygen and nourishment, just sadness."

I expected a reaction to this fanciful explanation, but instead Giovanni kept quiet and eventually left.

The next time I saw him, he said: "Dottoré, I've thought about it. I know you told me about the tears to make me feel better, but maybe you’re right. Because sometimes I feel that I have a lake, more than a heart. But it takes a very powerful pump to pump out all that water, and my heart alone cannot do it. And now that you've explained to me how I became crazy, can you also tell me if I'll ever get better?"

"Do you want another story or do you want the truth?”

"This time, I’d rather have the truth!”

"The answer is always the same then. I'm sorry, Giová, but I don't know this either. But I can tell you one thing for sure. I'll help you slowly, slowly with just a bucket. Because the truth is, not even I have that pump."


• Italy's parliament will convene Monday to begin the process of voting for a new president to succeed Sergio Mattarella for a seven-year term.

• Qualification games for the 2022 FIFA World Cup will be held from Jan. 27 to Feb. 2 for South, North and Central America as well as Asia. Argentina’s national team will not be able to rely on superstar Lionel Messi, still recovering from COVID-19.

• Next Thursday will mark 100 years since Nellie Bly died. The American journalist is known for her record-breaking 72-day trip around the world in 1889, inspired by Jules Vernes’ book Around the World in Eighty Days

Keep reading... Show less
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