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Italy arrests 300, including alleged mafia boss, in sweep

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    Photo Caption: The man believed to be the 'ndrangheta's top boss, Domenico Oppedisano, center, was picked up in Rosarno.

    Suspected leader Domenico Oppedisano is among those captured. 'Ndrangheta, a network of 155 families, controls much of Europe's cocaine trade and is thought to have eclipsed the feared Sicilian mafia.

    Reporting from Rome and London — Italian police swooped on the powerful 'Ndrangheta mafia Tuesday, arresting more than 300 people — including the group's suspected top boss — and seizing millions of dollars in assets in one of the biggest operations against organized crime in the country's history.

    About 3,000 police officers fanned out across the country in the early morning sweep, which caught some suspects still in bed. Although the 'Ndrangheta is based in the Calabria region in the south, many of the arrests took place in the north, around Milan, where the group has increasingly shifted its operations.

    Among those netted in the raid was 80-year-old Domenico Oppedisano, the man believed to be the syndicate's No. 1 boss. Oppedisano was arrested in Rosarno, in the south; news of his capture reportedly brought lawmakers to their feet, cheering, in Italy's senate.

    Authorities said the sting hit the 'Ndrangheta's nerve center and resulted in the dismantling of some of its key structures and clans. Charges to be filed include murder, drug trafficking and extortion.

    "This is one of the most important operations against the 'Ndrangheta in recent years," Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni said.

    The organization controls much of the European trade in cocaine and is thought to have eclipsed even the feared Sicilian mafia in power and ruthlessness. Its tentacles have spread throughout Italy and even beyond; six Italians were gunned down in Germany in 2007 in an attack allegedly involving a feud within the 'Ndrangheta.

    Diego Trotta, a senior police investigator, said in a telephone interview that Tuesday's dragnet was based on intelligence gathered over the last year largely in Calabria, where authorities had bugged a dry cleaner belonging to Francesco Commisso, a suspected member of the organization.

    "It was almost like a confessional," Trotta said. "People would go and see him every day and tell him about their problems and discussions they had with other mafia members. Francesco would take decisions on who would get a certain building contract, who would get a share of the traffic of toxic waste, drug trafficking, etc. This wiretapping was fundamental for all those arrests."

    Despite the 'Ndrangheta's expansion into northern Italy, "all the strings went back to Reggio Calabria," one of the main cities in Calabria, with Oppedisano as the ultimate puppet master, Trotta said.

    The Italian news agency ANSA said Oppedisano was selected as head of the syndicate at a wedding last August and assumed command about two weeks later.

    The organization, a shadowy network of 155 families, was born in the hills of southwest Italy and grew into one of the most brutal and cunning gangs in Europe. Working from its base in the "toe" of Italy's boot, it built up relationships with Colombian cocaine suppliers and eventually controlled a multibillion-dollar empire spanning five continents.

    The 'Ndrangheta has long been described as a loosely organized group without a central hierarchy, which made it tough for authorities to combat.

    But Trotta said that the authorities' intelligence-gathering revealed a more hierarchical, pyramid-like command structure akin to that of the Sicilian mafia, the notorious Cosa Nostra.

    "We have finally disarmed the apex of the 'Ndrangheta," Trotta said.

    By Maria DeCristofaro and Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times

    July 13, 2010 | 11:45 a.m.
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