By Nicole Winfield
An Italian-U.S. investigation into drug smuggling has resulted in two dozen arrests — including seven in the New York City area.
Anti-Mafia police in Italy say the operation targeted a cocaine trafficking route between South America and the Italian port of Gioia Tauro.
Officials say undercover agents in both countries prevented the delivery of cocaine hidden in shipments of coconuts and pineapples. They also confiscated heroin and marijuana.
Investigators used wiretaps and an undercover agent called "Jimmy" who infiltrated the Brooklyn-based mob. They thwarted the delivery to Italy of some 500 kilograms of pure cocaine that was to have been hidden in shipments of canned coconuts and pineapples being shipped from Guyana to Gioia Tauro.
Authorities say the investigation stemmed from an April 2012 meeting in Brooklyn between New York and Italy crime-group affiliates.
Prosecutor Marshall Miller says one of the U.S.-based suspects is accused of laundering money through a Brooklyn-based bank. He says investigators have seized several hundred thousand dollars.
The smuggling was coordinated by Italy's powerful 'ndrangheta organized crime syndicate and New York City's Gambino crime family. Seventeen people were arrested in Italy and another seven in New York, officials said.
The investigation underscored how 'ndrangheta is spreading its operations beyond Italy's borders as it consolidates its position as one of the world's most powerful drug traffickers, officials said. It also laid bare how the 'ndrangheta, based in the southern region of Calabria, is encroaching on territory once occupied by the Sicilian-based Cosa Nostra, since the Gambinos were the Sicilian Mafia's U.S. branch.
Italian anti-Mafia police said the "New Bridge" operation targeted a new cocaine trafficking route from South America to the southern Italian port of Gioia Tauro that united the Gambinos with the 'ndrangheta. In exchange, the Italians were to provide heroin to the American market.
The aim was to "build a bridge of criminality and corruption to stretch from South America to Italy and back to New York," said Miller.
"The 'ndrangheta can and has to be considered one of the most powerful organizations in the world for handling of international drug-trafficking," said Raffaele Grassi, head of the Italian police's central operative service unit. "The 'ndrangheta has left its territory of origin: beyond occupying areas of our country and infiltrating itself in northern Italy, the 'ndrangheta is looking for criminals beyond the borders, invading new markets to make profit."
FBI agents worked alongside Italian police in Italy and vice versa, and Miller and other officials from the U.S. Attorney's office in Brooklyn were on hand in Rome for the press conference announcing the arrests.
UPDATE: 4:42 p.m.- Authorities say a New York City man conspired with a powerful Italian organized crime syndicate in a drug trafficking plot that stretched across three continents.
Franco Lupoi was among seven people arrested on Tuesday in the New York City area. Italian authorities arrested Lupoi's father-in-law and 16 other people as part of the international investigation.
U.S. authorities allege Lupoi used his Italian connections to hatch a failed plot to smuggle cocaine from Guyana to southern Italy's region of Calabria inside frozen fish and canned pineapple. They also have accused him of selling more than a kilo of heroin to an undercover agent in Manhattan.
Lupoi has pleaded not guilty in federal court in Brooklyn. He's been ordered held without bail.