ROME — A fugitive Italian organized crime boss who prosecutors allege arranged monthly shipments of tons of South American cocaine to Europe and was one of the world’s most powerful drug brokers, has been captured in a Bogota, Colombia, shopping mall, Italian and Colombian authorities said Saturday.
Roberto Pannunzi “at the moment is the most important broker for cocaine trafficking from South America to Europe,” Gen. Andrea De Gennaro, an anti-drug official in Italy’s customs police, was quoted as saying by the Italian news agency ANSA.
De Gennaro described Pannunzi as being able to “move thousands of kilos (pounds) of cocaine -- out of every 10 shipments, eight passed through” Pannunzi’s hands, De Gennaro said, as Italian law enforcement officials and prosecutors rejoiced over his capture.
Italian news reports said the fugitive, who fled while under arrest in a private Rome clinic in 2010, was captured on Thursday.
Colombian police said Pannunzi had a false Venezuelan ID when nabbed earlier in the week and alleged that he imported 2 tons of cocaine every month from Colombia to Europe.
Italian prosecutor Nicola Gratteri told reporters in Italy that Colombia had agreed to expel Pannunzi, and that the convicted drug dealer’s arrival aboard a flight to Rome was scheduled for Saturday night.
Pannunzi, 67, a stockily-built, chubby-faced man, had fled twice from arrest in Italy, including the 2010 escape from the hospital, where he had been admitted after telling authorities he felt unwell. In 1999 Pannunzi escaped from yet another Italian clinic while under house arrest which had been permitted for purported health reasons. The first spell on the run ended with his arrest in Madrid in 2004.
When Colombian and Italian authorities captured him in Bogota, Pannunzi, perhaps hoping again for lenient treatment, told them,”I feel sick,” ANSA quoted Gratteri as saying.
Pannunzi is a reputed boss of a crime clan of the ‘ndrangheta,” an organized crime syndicate based in Calabria, southern Italy, that Italian investigators say has eclipsed Sicily’s Cosa Nostra in power and influence thanks to aggressive efforts to dominate cocaine trafficking from Colombia.
Gratteri said Pannunzi was such an influential trafficker “he was the only one able to succeed in selling (cocaine) both to the ‘ndrangheta and to Cosa Nostra.”
“He is surely the most powerful drug broker in the world,” Gratteri said, according to ANSA.
The Mafia in Sicily dominated heroin trafficking to Italy a few decades ago. But defections among Cosa Nostra’s ranks helped Italian authorities to capture the mob’s top bosses. The ‘ndrangheta, more organized around tight-knit family clans, has suffered from far fewer setbacks from turncoats. While the Sicilian mob was taking its blows from the state, the ‘ndrangheta rapidly muscled in on much of the lucrative cocaine trafficking between South America and European markets to the point where their mobsters live in Colombia and cut deals directly with local drug lords, Italian prosecutors say.
Gratteri said Pannunzi organized purchases of 3.5 tons of cocaine at a time.
The LaPresse news agency reported that in earlier decades, Pannunzi had lived for some 10 years in the United States and also had dealings with U.S-based Mafiosi.
AP writer Vivian Sequera contributed to this report from Bogota, Colombia.