ROME -- The FBI and Italian police broke up a global heroin and cocaine trafficking ring Tuesday after stumbling on a fledgling alliance between a Calabrian mafia and associates of New York's notorious Gambino crime family.
Twenty-four arrests were made in Italy and the United States following a two-year operation that relied both on wiretaps and on an American undercover agent named by investigators as "Jimmy," who infiltrated the Gambinos and fooled Italians into believing he was a heroin dealer. Of the two dozen arrests, 17 were in Italy and seven in the U.S.
The coordinated sting halted the planned shipment, with help from Mexican cartels, of more than a ton of cocaine, with a street value of $1 billion, from Latin America to Italy in liquid form, smuggled inside boxes of coconuts and pineapples.
Speaking at a news conference in Rome, U.S. and Italian officials said the mob alliance was also planning to smuggle heroin into the U.S., encouraged by the revival of the drug, which now sells more cheaply than cocaine. Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose body was found in a New York apartment earlier this month, is suspected to have died of a heroin overdose.
The alleged transatlantic team-up rekindled ties between American and Italian organized crime syndicates, which date back to the so-called "Pizza Connection" trafficking of drugs between U.S. mob outfits and Sicily's infamous Cosa Nostra in the 1970s and '80s.
Three decades on, the Gambino associates forged ties with the rising 'Ndrangheta crime group from Calabria, in the toe of Italy, which has supplanted Cosa Nostra in the international drug trade. The group is a trusted partner of South American cartels and is renowned for its tightknit blood ties.
"The international trafficking of drugs is almost monopolized now by the 'Ndrangheta," Italian anti-mafia investigator Raffaele Grassi said Tuesday.
Officials said the mafia alliance was forged at a meeting in Brooklyn.
"What we see here is an attempt by the 'Ndrangheta to gain a foothold in the New York area. We stand ready to prevent the 'Ndrangheta from gaining that foothold," said Assistant U.S. Atty. Marshall Miller.
Gennaro Semeraro, chief of police of Reggio di Calabria, said the 'Ndrangheta had initially been suspicious of "Jimmy," the American undercover agent who made trips to Calabria, "but he worked well and eventually he entered into their confidence."
The traffickers planned to use the port of Gioia Tauro in Calabria, which is being used as a staging post for chemical weapons being shipped from Syria for destruction.