The rise of the Zetas as not just a Mexican menace but as a significant power in the international drug trade has been helped along by its growing links to a sprawling Italian mafia group known as the ‘Ndrangheta.
As M Semanal, the weekly magazine of the newspaper Milenio, reports in its most recent edition, the links between the ‘Ndrangheta and the Zetas have grown sharply in recent years. A new international investigation demonstrates that the Mexicans have turned themselves into the main suppliers of the ‘Ndrangheta by shipping cocaine through the U.S. and on to Italy.
This is not the first illustration of Zetas-’Ndrangheta collaboration. Project Reckoning, also known as Operation Solare in Italy, uncovered a sophisticated logistical network between the two groups in 2008. The investigation, which involved authorities in the U.S., Italy, Mexico, and Guatemala, resulted in the seizure of millions of dollars in cash. The operation later served as the basis for the Mexican book "Contacto En Italia," authored by the Mexican journalist Cynthia Rodriguez.
The Zetas' links to the ‘Ndrangheta and their growing weight in Europe further demonstrates the Mexican cartel's international clout. While the gang was initially no more than a squad of hit men when formed in the later 1990s, since its 2010 split with the Gulf Cartel, for whom it had worked for more than a decade, the Zetas have increased their operations in Central America (especially Guatemala), South America, and Europe. This gives them a separate base of power and source of income more resistent to the pressure from the Mexican government.
As M Semanal notes, Europe, where the cocaine industry is worth an estimated $34 billion annually is a logical target for Mexican gangs. For the time being, that means working with the ‘Ndrangheta, the dominant importer in Europe. The intimate links between the two gangs suggests that the Zetas' relevance as an international supplier will continue for years into the future, notwithstanding redoubled American and Mexican attempts to eliminate the group.
As M Semanal reports:
In 2007 the attorney general for the Italian region of Reggio Calabria, Nicola Gratteri, spoke for the first time about the participation of the Mexican cartels in the traffic of drugs to Europe. A series of seizures carried out that year “made him suppose” that the Mexican narcos were aquiring weight on the old continent thanks to their nexus with the Italian mafia group “Ndrangheta, considered the most powerful criminal organization in the world. At that time, however, he couldn’t prove the existence of a direct relationship between both criminal group. Four years later, a wide-reaching investigation in which he participated would prove his suspicions.
In Madrid, in 2009, during the release of the new edition of the book "Blood Brothers: Stories of the ‘Ndrangheta," Gratteri himself again expounded on the connection between the Mexicans and the Italians. This time he warned abut the criminal revolution that the presence of Mexican cartels would cause there. Gratteri was accompanied in the Spanish capital by Antonio Nicaso, the book’s co-author, an Italian researcher and journalist, who also warned of evidence that the Mexican cartels had been put into contact with the Italian mafia because “although they have a monopoly over the drug trafficking in the U.S., they want to enter the European market. So today there are relations between the Zetas, the armed wing of the Gulf Cartel, and the Calabrian mafia,” he explained.
A month ago -- two years later -- the conjectures of Gratteria and Nicaso were proven true. On July 14 the attorney general’s office of Reggio Calabria reported on the results of a mega-operation known as "Crimine 3," which proved that the ‘Ndrangheta have absolute control over cocaine traffic in Europe. According to the results of the wide-reaching international investigation, in which police from Italy, Holland, the US, and Spain all participated, the Italian capos are backed by Colombian traffickers that operate from Europe and by the Zetas, who do so from the US. The recently concluded "Crimine 3" substitutes the Solare Operation, which ended in September 2008 and managed to perfectly delineate what was then a new relationship between the ‘Ndrangheta and the Gulf Cartel. During three years of investigation, "Crimine 3" identified the Zetas who operated in New York and who then supplied South American cocaine to the port of Gioia Tauro, a way into the old continent.
Until now, the Mexican gangs in Europe were considered of secondary importance, after the Colombians. As in many European countries, the World Drug Report from the United Nations underestimated their participation on the continent. At the same time, Europol maintained over the last four years a discreet position on the matter. Nevertheless, in April of this year they changed their opinion by assuring that the Mexican criminal groups had increased their participation in cocaine traffic to Europe, and had alarmed authorities regarding the “levels of violence linked to their activities.”
In Europe, the consumption of cocaine has doubled in the past ten years, reaching between 4.5 and 5 million consumers, which generate revenues of up to $34 billion dollars a year, according to the UN.
The increase in demand from the old country has made groups like the ‘Ndrangheta seek more cocaine. In his investigations, Nicaso has identified two supplier groups for the drug: Mexicans and Serbians. The strategy of the Mexicans is to take the drugs directly to Italy from the U.S. at a low cost. In conrtast, the Serbians bring the cocaine “to the doors of the Italian mafia” without them having to look for it in Latin America and transport it to Europe. However, “the Mexicans don’t like the Serbians looking for drugs in Latin America to take it to Europe...This can create more violence,” Nicaso adds. He even points to confrontations betweeen the Zetas and the Serbs, because according to the author of the book "‘Ndrangheta: The Roots of the Hatred," a group of Serbians recently traveled to Mexico with the idea of exploring opportunities for their illegal businesses. Nevertheless, members of the Zetas intercepted them and killed them.