Police in the US and Italy have broken up a major transatlantic Mafia ring, arresting 24 people accused of plotting to move hundreds of millions of dollars in drugs between South America, Italy and North America, officials say.
The US Federal Bureau of Investigation and Italian agents jointly carried out Operation New Bridge simultaneously just after midnight in Brooklyn, New York, and just before dawn in Italy, American and Italian officials announced in Rome on Tuesday.
Those arrested were accused of international drug-trafficking, money-laundering and membership in organised crime, the Reuters news agency said.
The "sting" operation involving undercover agents and phone-tapping offered more evidence that the Calabria-based 'Ndrangheta had overtaken its Sicilian cousin, the Cosa Nostra, and was trying to make inroads in the US by forging ties with one of the traditional New York organised crime families, the Gambinos.
The clans of the Calabrian 'Ndrangheta, a version of the Sicilian Mafia on the southern mainland of Italy, and members of the Gambino Mafia family in New York, were in the advanced stages of plans to smuggle 500kg of pure cocaine from Guyana in South America to the port of Gioia Tauro in Calabria.
Italian investigators estimated the street value of the cocaine after cutting at about $1bn.
The drugs, supplied by Latin American drug cartels, were to have been sent to Italy hidden in shipments of canned fruit.
Some of it would then have been smuggled to the US.
"The 'Ndrangheta determined to move deadly narcotics across international boundaries," Marshall Miller, US assistant attorney, said.
He said the operation struck at "the heart of international organised crime".
The operation began in 2012 when investigators detected a plan by members of the Ursino clan of the 'Ndrangheta to smuggle large amounts of drugs.
An undercover agent was dispatched to Italy and was successful in infiltrating the clan.
Federico Cafiero De Raho, chief prosecutor in Reggio Calabria, said the US undercover agent, named "Jimmy" , was granted special dispensation by the police to operate in Italy and had played "a key role" in the operation, the AFP news agency said.
The 'Ndrangheta organisation was "willing to work through familial connections to work hand in glove with other crime families," Loretta Lynch, a US prosecutor in New York, said. Her office is prosecuting those arrested in New York.
Investigators have said that in recent years 'Ndrangheta clans have made inroads in criminal activity in northern Italy and elsewhere in Europe, particularly in Germany, and now want to expand in the US.
"What we see here is 'Ndrangheta attempting to gain a foothold in the New York area and the United States," Miller
"We also see efforts to forge cooperation between the 'Ndrangheta and the Cosa Nostra."