The Mafia and the Latin American Drug Trade

Pablo Escobar, the infamous Colombian drug trafficker with ties to the Mafia.

It is common knowledge that the Mafia engages in violent criminal activities to build their power and profits.

For decades, books, movies, and other media have secured audiences by recounting the Mafia’s global influence and detailing the scope of illegal activities, including human trafficking, money laundering, and the drug trade. Despite many fictionalized accounts, the Mafia continues to create very real conflict and engage in global acts of violence. Of particular interest is the Mafia’s involvement in the highly lucrative Latin American drug trade.

Ties between the Sicilian Mafia and Colombian drug cartels have been suspected for years, with one FBI informant, Antonino Giuffre, linking the Sicilian Mafia to Pablo Escobar. Giuffre, the former right-hand man to the chief of the Sicilian Mafia, leaked to the Italian press that the two groups had close relations. He detailed how the Cosa Nostra advised Escobar’s Medellin Cartel on military tactics and business practices for expanding the drug business and related criminal activity.

Escobar sent drugs to Sicily in exchange for advice. These drugs were forwarded to the American Mafia, which would exchange them for weapons and money. This created an efficient and highly prosperous global supply chain that was hard to track. Although Escobar was a cocaine dealer, he was adept at winning over locals by building schools, soccer fields, and hospitals. Despite that he ruled with an iron fist, he was often bolstered by the local community.  Many poor people saw Escobar as helping their community; he seemed to serve their urgent needs better than the government.

A similar process occurred in Mexico with equally strong global ties and profitable outcomes.

Mexico has borne witness to an increasingly bloody drug war. It has escalated violence in areas cartel controlled areas. The cartels’ influence is strengthened in opposition to the government. Two of the most prominent Mexican groups, the Zetas and the Drug Cartel, do business with one of the most influential Mafia organizations, the ‘Ndrangheta, which has connections to the New York and Calabria Mafia. As demand for cocaine and heroin in Europe increases, the Mafia turns to Mexican cartels for a steady stream of drugs. The ‘Ndrangheta has been successful at engaging directly with local growers and producers, eliminating intermediaries, and selling directly to the European market. Increasing pressure from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and Mexican and Italian police forces are limiting some supply routes, cleaving the supply chain. This disruption to the cross-Atlantic drug trade is putting pressure on the Mafia and the cartels who are looking for new ways to reinforce existing channels of distribution and create new ones.

Outside Colombia and Mexico, drugs and Mafia-related activities are less prevalent, but still, create an atmosphere of fear and violence that crosses national boundaries. Tomasso Buscetta, a former boss of the Sicilian Mafia, was arrested twice in Brazil and extradited to Italy. After his first arrest in 1972, Buscetta was imprisoned for running a small cocaine operation in Sao Paulo’s countryside. At the time, Buscetta was extradited to Italy, where he was accused of additional crimes in relation to former Mafia business. In 1980, he escaped Italy while on parole and returned to Brazil where he reorganized his network. Buscetta’s goal was to build a drug empire that would rival Colombia and Mexico. He wanted to cement Brazil’s status as a key supplier in the large-scale production and trafficking of Latin American drugs.

Buscetta managed to organize the planting of 10 million cocaine bushes, however, before he was able to dry and manufacture the cocaine, the enterprise was shut down by the Brazilian Military Police’s Operation Frederico.

Buscetta was extradited again and as part of a 1983 plea, he cooperated with law enforcement and was instrumental in building the Maxi case which led to the arrest of 474 Mafiosi, and 360 eventual convictions for serious violent crimes. To this day, Buscetta is known as one of the most famous informants, or pentito, on the Mafia.

In a globalized world, any notion that organized crime is localized is an illusion.

As is the idea that drugs are a Latin American problem. The Mafia’s violent impact can be felt in Mexico, Italy, the U.S., the Netherlands, and Honduras. With such a strong global reach and vast financial resources, it will take international cooperation across law enforcement agencies to curb the Mafia’s violent influence and the drug trade. In the Maxi trial, authorities helped judges Falcone and Borsellino obtain evidence in other countries to locate individuals and follow the fiscal chain as they created a strong case to charge the criminals. This level of cooperation is critical for curbing the global drug trade. In addition to international law enforcement agency cooperation, a more robust legal framework that provides better enforcement and transparency will be beneficial.

Italian law enforcement authorities continue to support these international initiatives and believe they will not only help in terms of information sharing but also in combatting corruption in the supply chain and enforcement agencies as transparency and accountability are increased. This has been evident in the cooperation between the US, Colombia, and Mexico and their ability to identify, track, and prosecute drug traffickers. Finally, countries that suffer from drug violence can be incentivized to invest in community-based approaches, including better training and pay of police officers and development of community resources such as schools and hospitals, so neighborhoods are not forced to rely on cartel funding.

Roberto Malta is a Brazilian born, George Mason University student pursuing a B.A. in Global Affairs, with minors in History and Economics

Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellini, Italian judges responsible for the Maxi Trails vs. the Mafia. (Wiki)


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