News
The ’Ndrangheta’s ‘Little Kiss’: Inside an Organized Crime Clan That Moved Cocaine Across Europe
01 Jul 2021

By Cecilia Anesi, Margherita Bettoni and Giulio Rubino, OCCRP, 30 June 2021

OCCRP — On an October evening in 2018, as Sebastiano Giorgi and a Romanian associate skipped and swayed at a fancy Stuttgart nightspot, they were blissfully unaware that their every move was being eyed by police. The cops had watched the pair polish off a meal before following them and their “dates” onto the dance floor, believing the gangsters were meeting up to talk about drugs. In fact, they were busy with the sex workers they had taken out on the town.

German authorities and Italian anti-mafia police had been watching Giorgi — known as “Bacetto,” or “Little Kiss” — for years. A rising figure in Italy’s ’Ndrangheta criminal organization, he was based a two-hour drive away in the picturesque lakeside town of Überlingen, where he ran an Italian eatery frequented by tourists. While Bacetto’s restaurant hasn’t always earned the best reviews from diners, he does get high marks from investigators for his other business — managing a multi-million-euro cocaine pipeline from Latin America to Europe.

Back in the ’Ndrangheta’s spiritual home of San Luca in Italy’s southern Calabria region, the Giorgis — known as “Boviciani” to distinguish them from other local Giorgis — had hammered out alliances with top ’Ndrangheta families to form a cartel of drug buyers. From his base in southern Germany, Bacetto extended the network to include international gangs who wanted in on the action.

The ’Ndrangheta’s reach stretches well beyond Europe, to Colombian and Mexican cartels. Through brokers in Paraguay and Uruguay — with logistics provided by a feared prison gang in Brazil — they ship drugs to the ports of Antwerp in Belgium, Rotterdam in the Netherlands and Hamburg in Germany, often via West Africa. Once the cocaine hits northwestern Europe, the Italians take control.

IrpiMedia and OCCRP used court and police documents, and interviews with law enforcement sources, to reconstruct a years-long police investigation into a network of Albanians, Romanians, Colombians, Mexicans and Brazilians, spanning not just the ports of Rotterdam and Antwerp, but also into the criminal hubs of Latin America and West Africa.

On May 5 this year, the investigation known as “Operation Platinum” culminated with around 800 police and tax investigators arresting 32 alleged mobsters in Italy, and Germany. One German prosecutor called it “a bad day for the dark side of power.”

Bacetto’s bad day had already happened nine months earlier.

A family member once jokingly described him as lazy, saying that he “wakes up early in the morning, has a coffee, and then goes back to bed.” And in July 2019, the wanted mobster sleepwalked right into custody after he drove by a military police checkpoint near his hometown and was stopped for having tinted windows, according to a local media report. Military police then arrested him for prior offenses.

Bacetto and other central characters in the following case are still awaiting trial, and allegations outlined by police sources and in official indictments have not yet been proven in court. Multiple attempts to contact a legal team known to have represented the Giorgis have gone unanswered.

The Giorgi-Boviciani Clan

Despite its picturesque waterfront location on Lake Constance in Überlingen’s town center, the Ristorante Paganini garners lackluster reviews. Customers online bemoan the “awful salad,” spaghetti that’s “overcooked and tasteless,” and “a fly in the tortellini,” although one concedes the Italian staff are “friendly enough.”

Paganini rates a lowly 61st out of 62 restaurants in Überlingen on Tripadvisor. But food is not likely the Giorgi-Boviciani clan’s main concern: The ’Ndrangheta cell, investigators say, have established a criminal fiefdom in Überlingen over the past decade, backed by key narco families back home in San Luca.

In particular, the Giorgis are allied with the ’Ndrangheta’s Romeo-Staccu clan, which in turn works under the Pelle-Gambazzas, ’Ndrangheta royalty who lord over one of the three territories into which the group has divided the Italian province of Reggio Calabria.

The Giorgis are no ’Ndrangheta aristocrats, but under this rigid structure, they played a crucial bridging role, buying cocaine from Latin America-based Italian brokers, arranging for it to be shipped to Europe, then selling it to smaller buyers, who distributed it to street dealers. As cover, they used restaurants and an import-export company. Police records show how they used food trucks to move cocaine from the Netherlands and Spain across the continent to Italy.

In Überlingen, the Giorgis were represented by Bacetto and his brother-in-law Sebastiano Signati, while Bacetto’s three brothers — Domenico, Francesco, and Giovanni — remained in Italy. Domenico and Francesco lived in San Luca, and Giovanni lived in Alghero, Sardinia.

According to investigators, the Giorgis imported food from Italy and sold it to other Italian restaurants in Germany, either directly or through retailers, ignoring sales taxes and apparently funnelling illegal profits back home. Some bought the goods out of fear when they heard the name “Giorgi,” a police source said. Others bought them simply because they were cheap.

Though wanted in Italy since 2012, Bacetto operated freely in Germany, where he was tasked with ensuring cash flow for his family, because his Italian arrest warrant was never brought to the attention of international law enforcement, the source said.

According to Operation Platinum investigators and the related Italian order for custody, the Giorgi family would buy food products in Italy and sell them to Italian restaurants in Germany through companies they’d set up there, without paying sales tax. Then the German companies would be closed. At a recent press conference, German chief public prosecutor Johannes-Georg Roth estimated they evaded over two million euros in taxes in total.

Reporters were unable to sample the food during a visit to the Paganini in January 2020 because the eatery was closed for winter. But clues about the Giorgis’ European partners were easy to spot. A mailbox on the building’s left side included a long set of names; some were Giorgis and their Calabrian associates, but three with Romanian surnames made the list as well.

The Cops Catch a Break

Despite their impressive efforts to conceal illegal activities within the legal economy, the Giorgis let themselves down in other crucial areas — especially when it came to their internal communications. They would also be undermined by one-time allies who had decided to speak to police.

Operation Platinum narrowed in on the Giorgis in 2017, when anti-mafia police in Turin noticed a family member stopping in their city as they made their way north from Calabria to Überlingen. The investigation soon involved German police from the town of Friedrichshafen, a 30-minute drive along Lake Constance from Überlingen, who tracked the Italians on the reverse trip south.

The Giorgis used encrypted EncroChat phones, making it impossible to intercept their communications. But Turin investigators caught a break in mid-2018 when Bacetto’s brother Giovanni, who had been under house arrest in San Luca, was granted permission to move to a home in Sardinia. Bugging this property, investigators could listen in on Giovanni’s conversations with relatives and friends, who would make pilgrimages from Calabria or Piedmont to meet the Giorgi family leader.

Bacetto mostly stayed put in Überlingen, striking cocaine deals in Belgium, the Netherlands, and elsewhere with the Romanian, Albanian, and Colombian gangs who play key roles in the drug trade surrounding the ports of Antwerp and Rotterdam.

The high-stakes industry, it seems, put a frequent strain on family relations.

In one bugged conversation with his nephew Antonio, Giovanni slammed Bacetto for keeping too much of his earnings for himself and his associates in Germany, when more should have gone to the cassa comune, a family kitty used to finance drug purchases.

Antonio accused his relatives in Germany of swiping 3,000 to 4,000 euros per day every time they’d “work” — his euphemism for dealing with drugs. He also complained that Bacetto said he didn’t have money for the cassa comune because of expenses for the Paganini restaurant.

Although slighted by his own family in the bugged chats, Bacetto was in fact the “soul” of the Giorgis’ cocaine business, according to a longtime investigator of the ’Ndrangheta who requested anonymity to protect ongoing operations.

Investigators believe it was through Bacetto that the Giorgis were in touch with a key contact: Denis Matoshi, one of the heads of Albania’s Kompania Bello cartel. Matoshi ran a gang of Albanians in Rotterdam and Antwerp, overseeing cocaine shipped via Latin America to Europe.

Giuseppe Tirintino, a longtime ‘Ndrangheta trafficker who began cooperating with authorities in 2015, said that Bacetto, armed with a fruit-buyer’s license, had used a refrigerated truck to disguise cocaine shipped through Rotterdam among fruit consignments.

Read more at OCCRP

RiskScreen: Eliminating Financial Crime with Smart Technology

Advance your CPD minutes for this content, by signing up and using the CPD Wallet

FREE CPD Wallet