Rome

'Narco Prince' set for Sardinian lockdown

'We'll make sure Roberto Pannunzi doesn't flee again'

'Narco Prince' set for Sardinian lockdown

(By Denis Greenan). Rome, July 9 - Italy's 'narco prince', the world's biggest cocaine trafficker and a Scarlet Pimpernel of organised crime who eluded justice and made two prison breaks until a spectacular arrest in Colombia at the weekend, is set to be locked down in one of the country's highest-security jails, on the island of Sardinia. "We aim to make sure Roberto Pannunzi won't get out again," said Justice Minister Anna Maria Cancellieri as she unveiled the world's top drugs broker's likely lockup, a spanking new facility in the Bancali district of the central Sardinian city of Sassari. "Bancali will be run according to the (tough anti-mafia) prison regime of 41-bis, which has worked well for generations of mafiosi," said Cancellieri, a former prefect of several rough cities and the interior minister in the previous government of Mario Monti. Cancellieri denied reports that the ex-prison island of Asinara, a fastness that has held political and other prisoners since Emperor Augustus exiled his ex-favourite Postumus there, would be reopened especially for Pannunzi. "There really isn't any need for that, but of course we will take on board any suggestions from the (Sardinian) regional government, should they wish to make any". Years of sending mafia chieftains to Sardinia, which mainly lives off tourism, have sparked resistance on the island west of the central Italian mainland. On Tuesday an MP in ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi's People of Freedom (PdL) Party, Mauro Pili, reiterated assertions that the jewel of the Mediterranean was "better off without these mafiosi, who are lumped together and can conspire better because of it". Cancellieri rejected the suggestion from the PdL MP, saying that "the 41-bis mandate solitary confinement and severely restricts family visits, as mandated by parliament, and we have seen that it works". Pannunzi aka Bebe' (Baby), Europe's most-wanted drugs trafficker whose arrest made headlines worldwide Saturday, is said to have links to all Italy's crime syndicates including Cosa Nostra in Sicily, for whom he once peddled heroin from Palermo. But the half-Roman, half-Calabrian kingpin married into a Calabrian 'Ndrangheta mafia family and began to work almost exclusively with the Calabrian Mob, helping it become Italy's richest and most dangerous organised-crime group. Pannunzi helped set up 'Ndrangheta drug routes from South America to Europe through Canada, one of the countries where the Calabrian gangs, once poor relations to their better-known Sicilian cousins, began to spawn a sprawling worldwide network including Germany, the United Kingdom, Eastern Europe and Australia. According to anti-mafia writer Roberto Saviano of Gomorrah fame, Pannunzi was so highly regarded by the Medellin cartels that his word alone was enough to have a Cosa Nostra hostage released by Pablo Escobar, to whom he has been compared, when a massive drugs deal went belly-up in the late 1980s. "But unlike Escobar, who built up a huge paramilitary defence organisation and was eventually brought down by that confrontational approach, Pannunzi remained fundamentally a down-to-earth, seemingly legitimate businessman, someone whose word was taken as surety across the global crime networks," Saviano wrote in Italian daily La Repubblica this week. Most of the cocaine he ordered entered Europe through the vast Calabrian container port of Gioia Tauro, where 'Ndrangheta operates thanks to massive bribes despite regular police crackdowns. Pannunzi was captured in Bogotà on Friday night and swiftly expelled to Italy where he was arrested by Italian police. It was the third time Pannunzi has been arrested following a 1994 prison stay and a 2004 imprisonment for a 16-year sentence, from which he escaped while being treated for a heart ailment in a Rome clinic in 2010. When he was first arrested in Medellin in 1994, Pannunzi offered agents a million dollars in cash to let him go. Prosecutors have urged the government to make sure that Pannunzi doesn't slip through their fingers again. "He belongs in a high-security prison, the tightest there is," said anti-'Ndrangheta prosecutor Nicola Gratteri, who like Saviano has been living in police protection from the Mob for many years. "We're only now beginning to make progress against 'Ndrangheta's control of their heartlands and their entrepreneurial empire elsewhere," Gratteri said. "I'm hoping Pannunzi might turn state's evidence and give us a much-needed boost in the fight," he added. According to a recent report from the Eurispes research agency, annual drugs profits for 'Ndrangheta are now the equivalent of 3% of Italian GDP. 'Ndrangheta (from a Greek word meaning 'heroism' or 'virtue') once lived in the twin shadow of Cosa Nostra and the Camorra in Naples. While those two syndicates, notably the Sicilians, were growing fat on the transatlantic heroin trade through operations like the infamous 'French connection', 'Ndrangheta was only just emerging from its traditional stock-in-trade of kidnappings in the Calabrian highlands. It has since become a highly sophisticated global network, Italian officials say. As well as being the richest, 'Ndrangheta is also regarded as the most impenetrable of Italy's mafias, with its close-knit family-based organisation outdoing the Sicilian mafia in its ability to defeat police efforts to turn members into State witnesses.

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