Der Bankier der Mafia
Millionen, Milliarden hat Vito Roberto Palazzolo zwischen den Steueroasen dieser Welt hin und her geschoben
There was a bank, in Kenya, that managed bank accounts as a cover-up. Its real purpose was a massive money laundering machine.
Called Charterhouse Bank, it was owned by John Harun Mwau, one of Kenya's hundred richest men. The United States Embassy in Nairobi regarded Mwau as among the most powerful drug traffickers in Kenya, and a man who knows how to move untracked. Between 2004 and 2006, Mwau funneled dirty money into bank accounts of two companies registered within Charter House. He would then regularly skim and divert payments to colluding entrepreneurs.
This is how capital was laundered to appear clean. Among the names listed as CHB money launderers was Paolo Sattanino, an Italian who denies any involvement in the scheme. This story began ten years ago, but has yet to have an ending. Perpetrators, despite the denounces of PricewaterhouseCopper, Central Bank of Kenya and the Kenyan media, have never been prosecuted by Kenyan authorities. IRPI reporters have travelled to Kenya to discover more.
For an Italian tourist in Malindi, on the coast of Kenya, catching a drink at the Pata Pata Beach Club is a must.
Pata Pata is one of Kenya's most important night-time spots. Its manager, Mario Mele, is an Italian entrepreneur coming from the beautiful island of Sardinia, where he directed similar clubs on the island's shores. Mele left Sardinia after an arrest warrant was issued for evading €17 million in Italian taxes. When the Fiscal Guard checked Mele's bank accounts, agents found an invoice issued by a company owned by the Sicilian mafia clan D'Agosta.
Which links do exist between Mele and D'Agosta?
Er ist jetzt fast immer allein, eingesperrt in einer winzigen Zelle. Kein Kontakt zu anderen Gefangenen. Keine E-Mails, keine handgeschriebenen Briefe. Nur Stille und Schweigen, und einmal pro Monat darf ein Verwandter kommen, der dann hinter dickem Panzerglas sitzt und über einen Telefonhörer mit ihm spricht.
June 2011. The United States President Barack Obama signs the Kingpin Act to stop the flows of assets towards the US coming from all those the White House considers international narcos.
Among the blacklisted was also John Harun Mwau, former MP in Kenya from 2008 until 2013, also involved in the Charter House Bank scandal. Mwau always denied his involvement. He claimed to be internationally persecuted, and strongly cried out for his innocence. But the Kingpin Act is only part of a larger picture, of which Mwau is a key character. What emerges is a Kenyan oligarch, fostered by votes and drug trafficking since the year 2000.
Despite a political twist in Kenya, Mwau enjoys complete impunity.
(Related countries: Zimbabwe)
Harare, Zimbabwe, early January 2011. An Italian man buys one million carats of blood diamonds using rustling American dollars. It was a single transaction worth tens if not hundreds of millions. He is young, good-looking and incredibly rich and powerful. His name is Antonino Messicati Vitale, and he is a boss of the Sicilian mafia, Cosa Nostra.
A few weeks later, in Pretoria, South Africa, Antonino sits at a bargaining table with six other people. They are discussing a contract that will give rise to a new venture in the diamond trade. The agreement, 'Zimbabwe Diamond Opportunity',secured, processed and marketed 30,000 carats of uncut diamonds per month to wealthy European.
Diamonds are a perfect means for mafia money laundering. They don’t have a fixed value. And if they are blood diamonds, banned ones, in the hands of the mafia they travel parallel paths and still end up on some unaware rich ladies’ necks. What has the Cosa Nostra done over the last four years to obtain diamonds from Sub Saharan Africa?
Between 2009 and 2010 the Casalesi clan of the Camorra, from the Campania region of Italy, tried to infiltrate the economy of the Central African Republic. Antonio Iovine, one of the most powerful Casalesi bosses, was on the run. He instructed his lawyer, Michele Santonastaso, to make him an honorary consul of the African country.
Santonastaso is well-known for an incident occured in 2008 when, representing two mafia clients in court, he read a 60-page defense which largely consisted of menacing threats to magistrates and journalists. A year later he approached Maurizio S., an entrepreneur from the North East Italian region of Veneto, who was active in humanitarian projects and supported by the NGO Fondazione Mondo Migliore.
Santonastaso promised Maurizio investments in the humanitarian project. He obtained a draft of the project and a list of all the local contacts including local priests, General Rivera Sancez of the American secret services, Elie Dote, a representative from the President of Central African Republic, and the very President Francois Bozize.
Maurizio was involved in rural agricultural projects in CAR, and asked to install radio antennas for phones and the Internet. Only later did he discover that Santonastaso' s real interest was in resources exploitation and a honorary consul title for his mafia client, when the lawyer was arrested in October 2010, two months before Iovine.
Maurizio told IRPI he abandoned his humanitarian projects in the country when civil war sparked again. He also told prosecutors that it is possible the Camorra used his contacts and achieved its aims in the country. In 2014, Santonastaso was convicted in first instance to 11 years of jail for mafia association.
(Related countries: Tunisia, South Africa)
Alvaro and Piromalli clans of the 'Ndrangheta are two powerful families who control the Gioia Tauro area, close to Reggio Calabria, where it is located one of the most important ports in Italy.
In 2006, the clans decided to bring their investments to Tunisia, South Africa and DRC, thanks to the intermediation of a Roman entrepreneur, Pietro D'Ardes, owner of a large supermarket chain. D'Ardes was sentenced to 11 years following the 'Cent'anni di storia' 'a hundred years of history') investigation.
Plans for investments in Africa were discussed with Giuseppe Mancini, the lawyer of the Casamonica clan of the Roma mafia of Rome. The first step was the creation of a base of operations in Malta considered, in their own words, a 'free territory'. Giuseppe Mancini, also sentenced to nine years in jail for external participation in mafia type activity, was ready to invest Pietro D'Ardes's capital, especially in the DRC.
Police wire taps from 2006 recorded Mancini explaining to a business partner that although Tunisia offers nice profits, accessing the DRC's raw and precious mines would make the mafia 'money–a lot of money, real money'. So confident is the 'Ndrangheta clan of the returns, it is willing to fund the construction of a new port to serve the mines they will acquire.
Sometimes there is no master plan to the presence of mafia affiliates in Africa.<br/><br/>For Ignazio Gagliardo, a high ranking member of the Di Gati clan of the Sicilian mafia, South Africa was a place to evade justice, perhaps inspired by childhood fantasies. 'When I was a kid I was fond of adventure stories', he said in an interview. 'I loved when the television talked about the pyramids and I loved Africa.'<br/><br/>In 1999, Gagliardo was sentenced for murder and mafia association, and fled to South Africa. He arrived in Johannesburg before moving to Crystal Park, where he bought a toy shop and started a new life. The story of Ignazio Gagliardo shows how mafia not only destroys the lives of its victims, but also of its own members.
Son of a poor Italian miner, Ignazio had four brothers. Two of them entered the Carabinieri (the Italian military police) while the others, like Ignazio, became part of the Di Gati clan. The eldest, Salvatore, was killed in an internal mafia war. The remaining one, after serving a jail term for mafia association, killed himself and his parents in a murderous rampage in 2012. Ignazio, safe from extradition in South Africa, repented and delivered himself into the hands of prosecutors in 2006. His change of heart was an act of love: back in Italy his wife, recently diagnosed with leukemia, was in need of a bone marrow transplant. Ignazio sent a heartfelt letter to the Italian authorities, saying that he was ready to collaborate if he could live with his wife and son.
After a three-year investigation, operation 'Annibale' brought down an international drug-trafficking ring shipping cocaine from Colombia to Italy through Ghana. The key player of the gang was a Peruvian national who managed logistics from a monastery based in Milan, Italy.
The cocaine cargos travelled from South America to the African country. Once in Spain, the narcotics travelled by truck through France, finally arriving in Italy where they were sold in the central and northern areas. Among the 33 people arrested in May 2015 there were two renown entrepreneurs from the city of Piacenza, Italy. They used their transportation company's logistics to safely deliver the drugs, police said. The businessmen relied on two 'Ndrangheta affiliates – belonging to the powerful family of the Pelle-Vottari – who were crucial in establishing a fruitful partnership between Colombian drug-cartels and the Italian ones.
'Ndrangheta is a Mafia-style crime syndicate originating in the region of Calabria, Italy. It is believed by many to be among the most powerful criminal organizations worldwide. Many reports indicate the 'Ndrangheta as the leading crime syndicate in transnational drug-trafficking. The Peruvian national worked as keeper of the Milan's monastery, which was used to allow drug-mules to travel freely between South America and Italy, under the pretence of pilgrimages, prosecutors say.
The gang was also found in the process of defrauding FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization for the United Nations), obtaining dubious funds for the development of facilities linked to the fishing industry in Ghana, that police believe was used as a crucial hub for the transportation of narcotics.
(Related countries: South Africa, Ivory Coast, Senegal)
In 1995 the Italian police discovered that mafia fugitive Mariano Tullio Troia was hiding in South Africa. Troia was considered the number three of Cosa Nostra and was also wanted for ordering the homicide of Palermo's mayor Salvo Lima and 39 other killings.
Local police discovered that Troia was at the Johannesburg's premises of the Sicilian coffee manufacturer, Salvatore Morettino, in the African country since the 60s. Attempts to arrest Troia failed due corruption in the local police force. The kingpin was arrested in Palermo only two years later, in 1998. Authorities believed Vito Roberto Palazzolo, another crucial member to the Cosa Nostra in South Africa, was also aiding Troia. In June of '96 police raided Palazzolo's La Terra de Luc farm in the Western Cape hoping to find Troia.
He was not there, but police did find traces that two other mafia fugitives, Giovanni Bonomo and Giuseppe Gelardi, had been recent guests. Both were close associates of Giovanni Brusca, a sadistic mafia crime boss, and Bonomo was the 'capo mandamento' (commission boss) of Partinico. Bonomo escaped Italian justice just in time. After entering South Africa he was hidden by Palazzolo at La Terra de Luc and then smuggled into Namibia, where he stayed for a while in another farm of Palazzolo's.
Bonomo spent several years in Namibia, exactly when the cocaine trafficking by Vito Bigione was taking place, later moving around Africa until he was apprehended in Senegal, in 2003. Palazzolo did admit hosting Bonomo and Gelardi, but he maintained he did so before any charges were brought against them. Troia and Bonomo weren't just hiding. They set up profitable businesses and laundered money locally, with the help of those associates who were already in Sub Saharan African like Palazzolo, police reported.
In the early 2000s Namibia was used as an hub for the cocaine trafficking by the Agate Clan of Mazara del Vallo, Sicily, as the Operation Igres uncovered. Cocaine was being shipped from the Colombian Narcos to Vito Bigione, aka 'the accountant'. He used large boats to transport it from Namibia to Sicily.
In 1999 Bigione opened a restaurant, 'La Marina Restaurant', on the beach of Swakopmunt using an old, converted oil train. Italians who tasted his spaghetti assure they were the best in Namibia. But Bigione was not a normal pasta maker. He was in fact a Cosa Nostra member using La Marina as a cover. Co-managed with his French wife, La Marina was attended by local VIPs and politicians. Igres heralded a change in the management of cocaine trafficking and the power balance between the different Italian mafias. Until mid 90s, the Sicilian mafia was the undisputed provider of Colombian cocaine to Europe: it had strong contacts with the local narcos and the American Gambino and Bonnano families.
By the end of the 90s the 'Ndrangheta from Calabria had quietly grown richer and stronger, becoming a major sponsor of the Agate's clan cocaine trafficking. Vito Bigione was in direct contact with the powerful 'Ndrangheta brokers Alessandro and Roberto Pannunzi, who even paid a ransom to save the Agate Clan's boss Salvatore Miceli from the Colombian Narcos. The economic supremacy and organisation of the 'Ndrangheta made Vito Bigione self-coordinating with the Pannunzi.
Yet Cosa Nostra did not want to lose the grip, and the Agate Clan sent various members to Namibia to assist Bigione in different occasions. Despite a request of extradition, Namibia never handed Bigione to Italy because the crime of 'mafia association' does not exist there and the drug trafficking charge, prosecutor Nico Horn explained to IRPI, could not be proved in court. Bigione was among the thirty most wanted criminals of the world, and was handcuffed in Caracas, Venezuela, in 2004. Roberto Pannunzi, being 'Europe's most wanted drugs trafficker', landed in jail only in 2013.
In 2008, the Mondragone clan of the Camorra, the organised crime from the Campania Region, decided to invest in bread factories in the Ivory Coast. Clueless proxies were needed, and the Mondragone found them among the entrepreneurs of northern Italy. Using a reliable frontmen, Mr. Cesare Salomone, working as an official at the Supreme Court, the Mondragone clan hooked an engineer, Claudio T., for the drafting of the project and a group of entrepreneurs.
Salomone brought businessmen and credible investors together, with the help of the engineer Claudio and Sergio B., a known entrepreneur in alternative energy markets. Sergio B. was eager to aid Salomone’s projects in the Ivory Coast because of a desire to install GPL gas plants and wind power turbines.
Sergio B. told IRPI he learned with shock Salomone was a frontman for the Camorra as he never suspected that. He also said projects for alternative energy did not go further because Salomone was not reliable.
Among those hooked by Salomone was a prominent doctor belonging to Berlusconi’s The People of Freedom party (PDL) who introduced the Ivory Coast consul to the project, and intended to propose the venture to Claudio Scajola, who was, at the time, Minister of the Economic Development. Scajola was arrested in 2014 for aiding and abetting a fugitive, a shipowner from Calabria considered to be too close to the Ndrangheta mafia.
In December 2013 Mr.Salomone, the Camorra members and the engineer Claudio T. were arrested and jailed December 2013. Prosecutors considered the engineer aware of the fact the people he was drawing the projects for belonged to the Camorra, as meetings in Italy and trips to the Ivory Coast would prove. Charges against the engineer were dropped in March 2015.
The bread-baking plants were constructed, and it remains likely that were or are managed by frontmen for the Camorra’s clan.
(Related countries: Tanzania)
In July 2013, a large police operation known as 'Breakfast' broke down on the one of the city's most powerful 'Ndrangheta families, the De Stefano. The aim of the operation was to untangle their networks and friendships among politicians protecting their financial empire from seizure. The investigation revealed a web of brokers and intermediaries helping a politician close to the mafia clans redirect illicit capital into offshore havens. This is the case with Amedeo Matacena, a famous shipowner and politician sentenced in 2001 for the crime of complicity with the mafia.
Matacena owns two companies in Liberia, 'Amju International Tanker' and 'Athoschia International', which were both being assigned to proxies, as operation 'Breakfast' disclosed. Matacena's magic circle was composed mainly of his wife Chiara Rizzo and the politician Claudio Scajola, who together tried to sneak Matacena into Lebanon after Italian authorities asked Dubai, where he lives, to extradite him. According to prosecutors, Matacena's case provides strong evidence for the existence of a group of invisible brokers working for the most important clans of the Italian mafia.
One of these 'professionals' is lawyer Bruno Mafrici who appears to be linked to another scandal involving the bursar of the Lega Nord party, Francesco Belsito. The politician is accused of bagging 'Ndrangheta money and buying commodities, which would keep their value in time and be a secure investment for the Lega Nord. One of these commodities was diamonds, which he tried to acquire in Tanzania via a Cypriot bank using money donated to the party by entrepreneur Stefano Bonet. The financial intermediary in charge for this risky operation was Paolo Scala, a broker in Cipro, considered by the prosecutors a man of Bonet.
According to the investigations of the Italian Anti-Mafia authority, there is a decades-old relationship between the Italian mafias and the underworld of North Africa. In recent years this relationship has grown stronger, especially for drugs and toxic waste trafficking.
In March 2006 operation 'Ibisco' uncovered how the Parrello clan of the 'Ndrangheta (the organized crime syndicate of Calabria), in collaboration with specialists of the drug trade based in Rome, organised the trafficking of hundreds of tonnes of hashish from Morocco and cocaine from South America. The drugs coming from Colombia arrived via ship to logistic bases the criminals secured in Morocco and Cabo Verde, then they were transferred to Spanish and northern European ports.
The Italian police identified and seized some of these shipments, finding up to seventeen tonnes of hashish and over two tonnes of pure cocaine in a single cargo. According to Prosecutor Lucia Lotti 'It was a consortium of criminal interests. These people were really hard to identify: they move on private jets, from Montecarlo to South America, to buy parcels of drugs'. The Roman branch of the organization was also specialised in laundering the profits of the trade, using proxies and shell companies to buy real estate in Europe and Northern Africa.
On 20 January, 2015, Italian police blasted a 'Ndrangheta cell in Rome linked to the Clans of Pelle-Nirta-Giorgi alias 'Cicero', which was particularly active in international drug trafficking. The drugs were arriving from Colombia and Marocco. In the North African country there was a broker living there and working for the syndicate called Marco Torello Rollero. He boasted in an police wiretap that after the arrest of Roberto Pannunzi, he was the last great drug broker.
Marco Rollero liked to be called 'Remo'. His affiliates would make sure that enormous amounts of cocaine would be loaded safely on ships in Colombia, and directed to Morocco. From there, where he had his operational base, Remo made sure that the hashish coming from inland and cocaine cargoes from South America reached Italy.
Supply was as great as the demand. The narcotics reached street markets in Rome, Florence, Genoa and Turin. In January 2015, the Fiscal Guard and the police of Rome put an end to a criminal organization based there which had significant ties with the powerful 'Ndrangheta clan of the Pelle-Nirta families. According to prosecutors, the gang wanted the monopoly of the drug trade in Rome, not only providing brokering services to the 'Ndrangheta but also to Naples-based Camorra. Marco Torello Rollero was arrested on 13 April 2014, after a chase that lasted for five years.
The Piromalli clan of the 'Ndrangheta had an idea to make money. It intended to use NGOs to sell medicine donated by the Italian State to African countries. The plot was uncovered by the 'Cent'anni di storia' (100 years of history) investigation led by Antimafia prosecutor Roberto di Palma.
On 23 July 2012, Aldo Miccichè was arrested in Caracas, Venezuela, and subsequently sentenced to 11 years for acting as a middleman between the ruthless Piromalli clan and Senator Marcello Dell'Utri of the People of Freedom party.
Prosecutor Di Palma was following the traces left by a 'Ndrangheta member called Gioacchino Arcidiaco, when he stumbled into Miccichè and Dell'Utri. The investigation files show how in 2007 mafia boss Antonio Piromalli (whose father is detained under 41bis jail condition, designed for mobsters) told Aldo Miccichè about 'Operation Doro' in Africa.
The operation is believed to be named after a mafia clan-member in the United States, 'Doran Cat'. It was to be expanded to Latin America and Asia. Intercepted conversations reveal that its true purpose was to sell, via brokers, medicines donated by the Italian state and its taxpayers to NGOs in Africa.
Gioacchino Arcidiaco and Miccichè began by discussing a scam involving a man called Lima going to Nigeria to buy cement in a deal Arcidiaco described as 'a work of art'. It is not known whether the deal actually took place because, as Arcidiaco explains, Lima needed a 'mandate' – permission from 'Ndrangheta bosses – to operate, 'otherwise, how can he walk around?'.
Arcidiaco and Miccichè then turned to the topic of medicine. Arcidiaco proposed using an NGO to get free medicines from the Italian state, and then sell them to African countries. To back up his idea, Miccichè told Arcidiaco that brokers have already sold a lot of medicines in this way. It emerged later that Miccichè was also involved in the selling of oil, via American brokers, to China, United States and Africa, by falsely declaring Australia as its destination.
Aldo Micciché has been an important political character in Italy during the years of Democrazia Cristiana. He moved Venezuela in 1991, where he lived as a free man and respected entrepreneur. In reality, he was a broker for the 'Ndrangheta.
The 'Ndrangheta syndicate of Seregno, close to Milan, owned a fake bank in town. The boss of the clan of Seregno was Giuseppe Pensabene, who ruthlessly ruled over the Brianza area.
In 2015 prosecutors charged him with usury, extortion, abusive exercise of the credit, false registration of goods and companies, among which was the fake bank. Investigations uncovered how the crime syndicate laundered dirty money from illicit business in Switzerland and San Marino, attempting also to traffick counterfeit gold from Senegal to Switzerland. For the latter operation the clan needed a respectable frontman.
Marcel Astolfi, an Italian born in Denmark known by authorities for having committed various frauds, was considered the perfect proxy for the syndicate in Dakar. In order to sneak the gold to Italy, via Switzerland, Astolfi set up a company called 'Euro Africa Trade', but the import attempts failed twice.
With 30 people arrested and six tons of cocaine seized, the 2012 'Magna Charta' operation dismantled an international drug trafficking ring. Head of the criminal gang was a Bulgarian national, Emil Banev, aka 'Brendo', who is a well-known entrepreneur in Bulgaria according to Italian prosecutors.
Among those arrested were seven Italians, a small part of a group from Bulgaria, Spain, The Netherlands, Slovenia, Romania, Croatia, Finland and Georgia. The narcotics were destined to the region of Piedmont, Italy. Crucial to the smuggling were Italians Lucio and Fabio Castellan, two brothers in charge of finding skippers and ships suitable for the operations. Boats, according to Italian investigators, left from the port and airport in La Romana, Dominican Republic. Planes would land in Milan, Italy, or Amsterdam.
During the operation, Italian police also seized €30 million worth of assets, among which there were several bank accounts in Switzerland.
Tunisia was chosen by the boss of the 'Ndrangheta in Platì as place of refuge and business. The powerful and ruthless 'Ndrangheta clan of Platì Salvatore Strangio, the boss, was put in charge of infiltrating, controlling and managing the economic activities of the Milan roadworks and excavating company Perego Strade. Strangio had to guarantee an equal division of tenders in roadworks among the 'Ndrangheta clans in Lombardy giving the 'Ndrangheta of Erba, led by Pasquale Varca, a good amount of business.
Along with Pasquale Varca, Strangio was invited to a summit at Giuseppe Pelle's house, one of the most powerful bosses of Calabrian organised crime. The meeting, held near Milan, was also attended by Michele Oppedisano, nephew of Domenico, who was 'capo crimine', namely the highest ranking member of the 'Ndrangheta.
Oppedisano was representing the interests of the 'Ndrangheta from the flatland of Gioia Tauro, where the strongest and bloodiest clans are located. Not long after the summit, in September-October 2009, the Italian press started to report on the 'Ndrangheta infiltration of the construction works for the International exhibition Expo 2015 in Milan, disclosing details about the excavating companies of both Strangio and Varca.
Strangio, alerted by Varca in person, feared an arrest and decided to leave Perego Strade and to flee to Tunisia. Ye, he always intended to return to Milan and work for Expo 2015 once the situation calmed. Wiretaps showed how Strangio was planning a subterranean electric system in Libya and the opening of a Tunisian company for the exporting of excavators from Italy. Salvatore Strangio was arrested in 2010 during operations Infinito and Tenecia, later sentenced to 12 years in jail.
Although the 'Ndrangheta crime gang is native to Calabria, south of Italy, it built itself a new stronghold, or 'locale', in Erba, Lombardy. It is this small mafia enclave that the 'Ndrangheta tried to replicate in Tunisia. The Erba's boss was Pasquale Varca, one of the highest ranked members in the 'Ndrangheta system. Pasquale Varca was in fact representing the interests of the detached 'Ndrangheta clans in the excavation business in Lombardy – making him, theoretically, a competitor of the Platì clan. The Platì clan appointed Salvatore Strangio with the task of infiltrating the roadworks company Perego Strade.
Having numerous properties in the North African country, Varca also organised the hiding of 'Ndrangheta fugitives Paolo Lentini and Antonio Morelli, belonging to the Arena clan and both caught before leaving Italy for Tunisia. Varca was also managing the trafficking of old excavators exported from Italy to Tunisia.
Thanks to this revenue-making cover-up, Varca managed to organise the shipping of caterpillars and excavating machinery of unknown origin to Tunisia thanks to intermediaries. The 2010 police operation 'Infinito', one of the largest attacks against the 'Ndrangheta, saw Varca arrested and discovered that the excavators were obtained by Varca from Italian bankrupt or financially troubled Italian entrepreneurs. The machinery was shipped to Tunisia by Badri and the 'Ndrangheta from ports in Genoa, Naples and Marselle. It was discovered that the owners of the excavators were forced by the 'Ndrangheta to hand over the equipment – and after telling the police the machines were stolen, they were pressured into handing over the insurance money too. Varca was sentenced to 15 years in jail.
Millionen, Milliarden hat Vito Roberto Palazzolo zwischen den Steueroasen dieser Welt hin und her geschoben
An insight into Vito Roberto Palazzolo
An insight into its main banker