24 Defendants With Ties To Powerful Italian Organized Crime Syndicate Known As The ‘Ndrangheta Arrested In Coordinated U.S.-Italian Takedown
‘Ndrangheta Member, Gambino Associate, Bonanno Associate And Four Others Charged In United States With Drug Trafficking, Money Laundering And Firearms Offenses Investigation Reveals Ties To Mexican Drug Cartels And Corrupt Italian Port Official
BROOKLYN, NY- A fifteen-count indictment was unsealed this morning in federal court in the Eastern District of New York charging seven defendants with narcotics trafficking, money laundering and firearms offenses based, in part, on their participation in a transnational heroin and cocaine trafficking conspiracy involving the ‘Ndrangheta, one of Italy’s most powerful organized crime syndicates.1 The defendants – ‘Ndrangheta member Raffaele Valente, also known as “Lello,” Gambino associate Franco Lupoi, Bonanno associate Charles Centaro, also known as “Charlie Pepsi,” Dominic Ali, Alexander Chan, Christos Fasarakis, and Jose Alfredo Garcia, also known as “Freddy” – were arrested earlier today. In a coordinated operation, Italian law enforcement authorities arrested 17 members and associates of the ‘Ndrangheta in Calabria, Italy who were involved in the narcotics trafficking conspiracy, among other crimes.
The seven defendants arrested in the United States are scheduled to be arraigned this afternoon before Chief United States Magistrate Judge Steven M. Gold, at the United States Courthouse, 225 Cadman Plaza East, Brooklyn, New York. The case has been assigned to United States District Judge Sterling Johnson, Jr.
The charges were announced by Loretta E. Lynch, United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, and George Venizelos, Assistant Director-in-Charge, Federal Bureau of Investigation, New York Field Office (FBI).
“The ‘Ndrangheta is an exceptionally dangerous, sophisticated and insidious criminal organization, with tentacles stretching from Italy to countries around the world,” stated United States Attorney Lynch. . “The defendant Lupoi sought to use his connections with both ‘Ndrangheta and the Gambino crime family to extend his own criminal reach literally around the globe. Today, thanks to the vigilance and sustained cooperation of the Department of Justice and its law enforcement partners in Italy, the ‘Ndrangheta’s efforts to gain a foothold in New York have been dealt a lasting blow.” Ms. Lynch praised the outstanding investigative efforts of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and expressed her thanks to law enforcement partners in Italy, including the Prosecutor of the Republic of Reggio Calabria; the Italian National Police (INP) and, in particular, the Squadra Mobile of Reggio Calabria and the Servizio Centrale Operativo; the Direzione Centrale per i Servizi Antidroga; and the Direzione Nazionale Antimafia. Ms. Lynch also expressed gratitude to the U.S. Department of Justice Attaché and the Office of the FBI Legal Attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Rome, who coordinated extensive evidence-sharing and coordinated undercover operations.
“As alleged, ‘Ndrangheta’s clan members conspired with members of the Gambino organized crime family in New York in an attempt to infiltrate our area with their illegal activities. Under the auspices of legitimate shipping businesses, the two criminal groups worked together to establish a plan of moving cocaine and heroin between the United States and Italy. Little did they know, there was an ongoing collaboration between the FBI and the Italian National Police to investigate and identify their scheme. This international cooperation between our great law enforcement agencies is one that was established at the beginning of our investigation, and it remains in place today. With every arrest made, both here and in Italy, FBI agents and Italian National Police officers closely coordinated their operations and share the success of this operation,” said FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge Venizelos.
As detailed in the indictment and detention letter filed today, defendant Franco Lupoi, a Brooklyn resident who has lived in Calabria, used his close criminal ties to both the Gambino organized crime family and the ‘Ndrangheta, an Italian criminal organization akin to the Mafia in Sicily and the Camorra in Naples, to pursue criminal activity that stretched across the globe. The Italian charges unsealed today reveal how the ‘Ndrangheta has operated for decades in Calabria in localized clans – known as ‘ndrine – based primarily on close family ties. In this case, Lupoi’s father-in-law, Italian defendant Nicola Antonio Simonetta, is a member of the Ursino clan of the ‘Ndrangheta. In 2012, Simonetta traveled to Brooklyn and met with Lupoi and an undercover FBI agent, who recorded Simonetta and Lupoi discussing plans to ship narcotics between the U.S. and Italy via the port of Gioia Tauro in Calabria, an infamous hub of ‘Ndrangheta activity. Simonetta revealed that his ‘Ndrangheta associates at the port would guarantee the safe arrival of container ships containing contraband.
As alleged in court documents, Lupoi exploited these underworld connections to link his criminal associates in New York with those in Calabria, forming conspiracies to traffic heroin and cocaine. On the Italian side, he allegedly engaged Italian defendant and ‘Ndrangheta leader Francesco Ursino and others as suppliers of heroin and buyers of cocaine. During two joint FBI-INP operations in Italy, Lupoi and Ursino sold over 1.3 kilograms of heroin to an FBI undercover agent for what they believed was eventual distribution in the United States. In New York, Lupoi, Chan and Garcia sold the undercover agent more than a kilogram of heroin.
As alleged, Lupoi also set into motion a plot to transport 500 kilograms of cocaine, concealed in frozen food, in shipping containers from Guyana to Calabria. In the course of these conspiracies, Lupoi assured his confederates of his relationship with a corrupt port official in Gioia Tauro, indicating that in return for €200,000, the official could guarantee passage of unlimited containers of contraband. In New York, Lupoi joined forces with defendants Alexander Chan and Garcia to orchestrate the Guyana-Italy cocaine conspiracy. In conversations recorded by the undercover agent, the conspirators discussed their connections to Mexican drug cartels operating in Guyana, South America, and plotted to transport 500 kilograms of cocaine internationally, hidden in shipments of frozen fish or pineapples. On the Italian side, Ursino and his coconspirators planned to use a fish importation company to receive the shipment. As set forth in Italian court documents, the conspiracy slowed when shipping containers originating from the same Guyanese shipping company were seized in Malaysia and found to contain over $7 million in cocaine hidden in pineapples and coconut milk.
As set forth in court documents, Lupoi also worked closely with U.S. defendant and ‘Ndrangheta member Raffaele Valente, who sold an illegal silencer and sawed-off shotgun to the FBI undercover agent at the Royal Crown Bakery in Brooklyn. In conversations intercepted on Italian wiretaps, Valente revealed that he had assembled a group of well-armed men in New York and that their base of operations was as secure as “Fort Knox.” Valente also discussed his devotion to St. Michael the Archangel as the purported “patron saint” of the ‘Ndrangheta and exhorted Italian defendant Andrea Memmolo to wear a special ring as a sign of pride and mutual recognition. Valente and Lupoi are charged with conspiracy to transfer a firearm, and Valente is charged with two counts of illegal possession of a silencer. Valente is also charged in Italy with the crime of mafia association based on his role in establishing an ‘Ndrangheta cell in New York.
As alleged, Lupoi further maintained a network of money laundering associates in New York. He and his codefendants Dominic Ali, Charles “Charlie Pepsi” Centaro, and Christos Fasarakis, an employee of Alma Bank in Brooklyn, laundered more than $500,000 in funds that they believed were the proceeds of narcotics and illegal weapons trafficking. Centaro was recorded describing his access to bank accounts with millions of dollars through which he could launder and conceal criminal proceeds.
If convicted, Lupoi, Chan and Garcia face a maximum sentence of life imprisonment; Ali, Centaro and Fasarakis face a maximum sentence of twenty years’ imprisonment on each money laundering charge; and Valente faces a maximum sentence of ten years’ imprisonment on each firearms charge.
The government’s case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Cristina Posa, Kristin Mace and Kevin Trowel.
CHARLES CENTARO, a.k.a. “Charlie Pepsi”
New York, NY
RAFFAELE VALENTE, a.k.a. “Lello”
JOSE ALFREDO GARCIA, a.k.a. “Freddy”
New York, NY
E.D.N.Y. Docket No. 14-CR-042 (SJ)
1 The charges contained in the indictment and complaint are merely allegations, and the defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.