In a tale that sounds like the plot of a Mario Puzo novel, a family-owned pizzeria in Queens, New York was the center of a trans-Atlantic drug trafficking operation that smuggled cocaine in refrigerated containers of cassava from Costa Rica.
The cocaine was distributed in New York and Italy to members of the ’ndrangheta organized crime ring, Italy’s principal importer and wholesaler of cocaine.
A total of 17 people have been arrested in Italy and the U.S., including the alleged ringleader and pizzeria owner, Gregorio Gigliotti. Gigliotti is a native of Calabria, ‘ndrangheta’s heartland in southern Italy. He had moved to the Queens district of New York where he ran a pizza restaurant called Cucino a Modo Mio with his wife and son.
Gregorio and Eleonora Gigliotti, their son, Angelo, and another relative have been arrested and charged in Federal District Court in Brooklyn. Italian police arrested another 13 people suspected of being involved in the trafficking ring on Thursday, The New York Times reported.
The Gigliottis traveled to Costa Rica — sometimes separately, sometimes together — nine times starting in 2012, according to Costa Rican immigration records. During one of Eleonora Gigliotti’s five flights into Juan Santamaría International Airport in 2014, she delivered $400,000 to the family’s Costa Rican suppliers, according to court documents.
When an expected shipment did not arrive during the summer of 2014, Gregorio Gigliotti called one of the Costa Rican sources saying:
Listen to me. If I don’t have the container by this next week, I’ll go over there. I know where you live, where they live. Don’t make me blow my mind. Do your job, send me the container.
All but one of the couple’s stays in Costa Rica lasted less than five days.
In October 2014 police uncovered 44 kilograms of cocaine in a shipment marked “fresh cassava” on its way to the family’s wholesale produce warehouse and another 15 kilograms in December inside the cardboard boxes carrying the food.
The street value of the cocaine was estimated at $2 million, The New York Times reported.
Drugs often move through Costa Rica’s ports in containers of food or flowers. Dutch authorities in Rotterdam uncovered 3.5 metric tons of cocaine hidden in a shipment of cassava from Costa Rica in December 2014.
Spanish authorities found 2.5 metric tons of cocaine in boxes of pineapples from Costa Rica in May 2014.
Costa Rica seized more drugs than any other country in Central America last year.
AFP contributed to this story.