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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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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