Home Society The Godfather of Maasmechelen — How Italy’s ‘ndrangheta mafia went global
The Godfather of Maasmechelen — How Italy’s ‘ndrangheta mafia went global

The Godfather of Maasmechelen — How Italy’s ‘ndrangheta mafia went global

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The Godfather of Maasmechelen — How Italy’s ‘ndrangheta mafia went global

Once a clique of Calabrian mountain dwellers, the criminal organization has become one of the biggest in the world by teaming up with the competition.

By GREGORIO SORGI
in Maasmechelen. Belgium 

Photo-illustration by Guillermo Flores for POLITICO

Speaking Italian can get you a long way in this sleepy postindustrial town on Belgium’s eastern edge. The empty sidewalks of Maasmechelen are studded with shabby pizzerias, delis, coffee bars and sports shops showcasing selections of Italy merch — the legacy of a wave of Italian immigration that started in the late 1940s.

Recently however the Flemish town was also the site of another, more sinister Italian import. On an early spring morning earlier this year, Belgian police carrying an international arrest warrant swooped in on a gated villa. Then came a loud knock on the door, and Lucio Aquino — known as the “Godfather of Maasmechelen” — was handcuffed and led to a waiting police car.

The arrest was part of a pan-European bust, as police in 10 countries stormed the bolt-holes of Europe’s most feared mobsters in May, seizing stacks of cash, bags of cocaine and cases of Rolex gold watches. Their target: the international branches of the feared ‘ndrangheta, a criminal organization with origins in rural Calabria, the toe of the Italian boot, that has spread across Europe to control the lucrative cocaine trade.

“This is the biggest-ever crackdown on the ‘ndrangheta in Europe,” trumpeted the Belgian prosecutor Antoon Schotsaert. Police arrested 13 people in Belgium and seized illegal weapons, luxury vehicles and €60,000 in cash. In an operation that involved thousands of police officers, more than 130 people were taken into custody in Belgium, Italy, Germany, France, Spain, Portugal, Romania and Slovenia — among them Lucio Aquino.

Aquino’s story — how he and his family came to live in Belgium and how he joined a global network that stretches from the hilltops of Calabria to places as far-flung as Colombia and Australia — offers a window into the modern mafia. Where organized crime, especially in Italy, was once linked to the soil, with tight-knit clans controlling family territories; today, the ‘ndrangheta operates internationally, expanding not only through hit jobs and turf battles but through something akin to a franchise system, with local players like Aquino operating as part of a worldwide network of crime.

Setting up a foreign outpost for the ‘ndrangheta “is like opening a McDonald’s store,” said Antonio Nicaso, an author and expert on the Calabrian criminal organization. 

“The link to Calabria is what gives you credibility, and a recognizable brand,” Nicaso said. “Without that, you’re like a raft in the ocean.”

Belgian Sopranos

Lucio Aquino may have worked with the Italian mob, but he was born and raised in Maasmechelen. Ironically, his father left Calabria in the 1970s partly because he was fed up with the ‘ndrangheta, relocating with his wife and two kids to Limburg, a Belgian region abutting the Netherlands, where the a now-defunct coal-mining industry had attracted waves of earlier Italian immigration.

“Since I was nine I have been to Italy twice. On vacation with my parents!” Lucio recalled in a rare interview with the local daily Het Laatste Nieuws in 2015. Soon after the Aquinos arrived, the Limburg mines started to shut down, plunging the region into economic decline. The family grew to include eight siblings and it wasn’t long before some were pulled into the burgeoning criminal underworld. Of the six brothers and two sisters, Antonio, Lucio and Mario would be sentenced for drug trafficking and Pasquale would be sentenced in 2017 for headbutting a jailer while visiting his brothers. A fifth brother, Silvio, was murdered while awaiting trial on drug charges. 

“They were poor and didn’t want to ask their parents for money. That’s why they started hanging out with the wrong people,” recalls Loredana Capocciuti, a childhood friend of the Aquinos and the owner of Gianni’s, a 1960s-style Italian grocery shop in Maasmechelen where the clan still buys their edibles.

The Italians in town remember Lucio Aquino as a teenager like many others: He hung out with friends in the miners’ community and had an eye for women and flashy sports cars. 

“But you could tell that he was the most serious of all brothers; he’s someone who would mind his own business,” recalled Franco, a 60-year-old man who grew up with Aquino in the Italian emigré circle but, he said, distanced himself when his friend joined the underworld.

Franco — who preferred not to disclose his surname — stood on the sidewalk in an SSC Napoli football tracksuit and a flashy black watch. He said that Lucio’s rise to power started with small robberies in the Netherlands and cash-for-protection arrangements with local businesses when he was in his teens. Other members of his family joined him, setting up a sprawling drug trafficking network funneling tons of cocaine from South America to the ports of Antwerp and Rotterdam in fruit crates.

Within a matter of years, the Aquino organization became among the most profitable family businesses in the Limburg region. 

For many years the family operated undetected, said Guido Vermeiren, the prosecutor general in Limburg. “When they did appear on the radar, the police needed time to gather sufficient evidence against this clan.”

Though Lucio is now in jail, his immediate family has stayed behind in what neighbors call the “White House,” a gated villa shielded by guard dogs and solar panels. Twenty minutes away, his older brother Antonio — nicknamed “Rafke” — lives in a brick townhouse overlooking a forest.

“I’m not speaking while my brother is in [prison], but I promise I will if you come another time,” he said politely when a reporter knocked. He leaned on a crutch, flanked by an intimidating guard dog. His brothers could not be reached for comment.

The rise of the Aquinos

Being a family business was one of the Aquinos’ early secrets to success. Unlike other drug gangs, the clan was bound by blood ties, ensuring a degree of loyalty to the firm. 

“They only work with people they can fully trust … They’re Italians, and family is a big deal for Italians,” said a person with intimate knowledge of the Aquino family who spoke on condition of anonymity.

There was no godfather-like figure presiding — decision-making was collegial. The family insider described Silvio as the early leader of the clan, with his brother Mario in charge of the logistics.

Bald and beefy, with dark sunglasses seemingly perched permanently on their heads, the Aquino brothers became well-known figures among the Belgian public.

“Everyone in Belgium was afraid of them simply for how they looked,” said the Flemish lawyer Walter Van Steenbrugge, who came across the Aquino family when he defended one of their associates.

Criminal operations are by their nature vulnerable to machinations by rival clans — and the Aquino family was no exception. Their rise to power was punctuated by personal vendettas and family drama. 

In February 2015, four men broke into the apartment of Lucia Aquino — one of Lucio’s sisters — and tortured her for hours hoping to find a hidden family stash. “If there was any crime money, do you think we would hide it with our sister?” snapped Lucio in the interview with Het Laatste Nieuws.

Like many other Italians in Maasmechelen, the Aquinos liked to frequent a restaurant owned by Martino Trotta — a man they thought was a friend, wrongly as it turned out.

“Martino might have had a limoncello or an Averna too much,” recalled Franco. “He decided to kidnap Silvio Aquino in exchange for money.” But the plan went terribly wrong.

On an August evening in 2015, Silvio and his wife Silvia Lišková were suddenly cut off as they drove on a shady, wooded street near the nearby village of Opglabbeek. Things apparently didn’t look right to the seasoned drug dealer. “Run, Silvia, run!” he shouted, pulling out his gun. In the ensuing chaos, he was struck by seven bullets, two in the body and five in the head.

Silvia had broken free and escaped into the woods to call Lucio, who arrived before the police. Silvio was dead in the street, his pockets stuffed with 4,050 in 50 notes, according to media reports. His assailants, members of a Bosnian clan, fled in a Jaguar — one of them fatally shot in the chest — and were quickly arrested. Trotta, it turns out, had recently served time with members of the Bosnian clan and was in regular contact with them in the days before the assault. In 2020, Trotta and the four Bosnian hitmen were convicted over the killing of Silvio Aquino. 

For Maasmechelen, it was the end of an era — and Lucio’s turn to helm the firm. It was during his tenure at the top that the family opened up to powerful outsiders. 

In 2020, Lucio joined forces with the ‘ndrangheta, working with powerful clans like the Nirta and Strangio families, according to his arrest warrant, to funnel cocaine from South America to Europe and abroad, as far as Australia.

Lucio brokered deals with the local underworld across different continents; oversaw the delivery of drug shipments to the port of Gioia Tauro in Calabria; and laundered the profits from these operations to buy bars and restaurants in France and Germany, according to the warrant. 

Prosecutors describe Aquino as the leader of the drug network, “the big man, the one who set everything up,” his Belgian lawyer Jan Keulen told POLITICO. 

The Aquino family is “the largest gang we have ever caught in our country,” a spokesperson from the Limburg prosecutor’s office told journalists after Lucio’s arrest. “It is a family at the head of an international organization … In addition to accountants, they even have a court interpreter on their payroll.”

The mafia moves north

Once a clique of Calabrian mountain dwellers specialized in shootings and kidnappings, the ‘ndrangheta now operates in around 40 countries, according to Jürgen Stock, the secretary-general of Interpol. Present in Canada, South America and Australia, it has become one of the biggest and most international criminal organizations in the world. Estimates of its annual revenues run as high as €60 billion.

While the ‘ndrangheta once had a reputation for brutal violence, it has generally tried to maintain a low profile since a 2007 massacre outside a restaurant in the German city of Duisburg left six dead and made headlines across Europe. “They are not conducting this type of violent crime, but remain silent, doing their business trying to remain under the radar of law enforcement,” Stock said.

The group is “more interested in cash than blood,” according to Nicola Gratteri, the newly appointed prosecutor general of Naples, who has become a household name in the fight against the ‘ndrangheta in Calabria. “The mafia is there to buy cocaine and reinvest the money to buy hotels, restaurants, and pizzerias. It is no longer necessary to shoot.”

The change in tactics has facilitated the ‘ndrangheta’s international expansion. Rather than trying to control territory, the group has been content to team up with other organizations worldwide. “It’s better to invest together with the competition,” said Koen Voskuil, a journalist for RTL Nieuws, a Dutch news program, who has written extensively about Italian crime in the Netherlands.

It has become standard practice for different criminal groups to jointly invest in drug shipments from South America and split the profits, said Paul Vugts, a Dutch journalist who is an expert in drug-related crime.

And the organization has expanded rapidly. With Italian authorities cracking down on organized crime at home, dozens of ‘ndrangheta families have relocated abroad, to countries including Belgium and the Netherlands, where authorities are still unused to their activities. “Belgian counterstrategies have not been as specifically developed as the Italian ones,” said Vermeiren, the Limburg prosecutor general. Belgium, he added, has scaled up efforts in recent years.

Rather than trying to conquer territory, the ‘ndrangheta has expanded through a system akin to a restaurant franchise. Setting up shop abroad requires the approval of the crimine di San Luca — a committee made up of seven elders in Calabria, according to Gratteri. He added that franchisees pay annual dues of tens of thousands of euros — known as a fiore (flower). In exchange, they enjoy full autonomy abroad.

The scattered structure has made it harder to crack down on the organization. “These decentralized operating models are like terrorist cells,” said Stephen Kavanagh, executive director for police services at Interpol. “It’s very horizontal and clans operate almost uniquely from each other on occasions, and this makes it far more difficult for us to support member countries in understanding the threat.”

The Dutch police estimate that as many as 100 known mobsters from Calabria operate in the Netherlands. Voskuil, the Dutch journalist, described the ‘ndrangheta “as a multinational” that is active both in Colombia and in key European entry points such as Amsterdam and Rotterdam.

The Limburg region where the Aquino family lived was the perfect place from which to base an operation. It is close to the ports of Antwerp and Rotterdam, where cocaine enters Europe, and to the production sites of ecstasy and cannabis plantations in the south of Holland, according to Letizia Paoli, a professor of criminology at the University of Leuven.

Aquino’s role in the network wasn’t as a formal member of the ‘ndrangheta. Experts described him as a “broker” — someone who offers his know-how to different criminal organizations, without belonging to any single one.

Criminal nostalgia

In Maasmechelen, the Aquino family is mostly remembered fondly. Nowadays new gangs, from the Balkans or North Africa, have moved in, turfing out the local mobsters. “It’s worse than living in Naples or Calabria,” said Franco. “Most Italian mobsters went into retirement, and the new generation is worthless.”

For the Italians in town, the Aquinos are either a childhood memory, a local success story, or mysterious next-door neighbors. “They’re always so polite,” said Loredana, the owner of the local grocery shop. “I don’t know what they do for a living, and how they can afford their lifestyle. I just say that they’ve been very lucky.”

“They are quite loved within their community,” said the individual with knowledge of the family. “The assumptions we have from movies like ‘The Godfather’ or the story of [Colombian drug lord] Pablo Escobar are true in their case.”

Franco Roselli, a childhood acquaintance who runs a barber shop, said the Aquinos remind him of “the Daltons,” the criminal brothers from the Lucky Luke comic books who look nearly identical — in the case of the Aquinos with round faces, chubby cheeks and shaven heads. “It must be 20 years since I’ve last seen him [Lucio] in my hair salon,” said Roselli. “I used to go to school with one of the siblings; but since then, we’ve lived parallel lives.”

Lucio was already in trouble with the police before he was arrested in May, in and out of prison during a long-running trial, on charges of shipping thousands of kilos of cocaine from South America in cahoots with a retired policeman gone rogue.

The new charges are more serious and could land him a life sentence. Prosecutors accuse him of helming the drug network from his prison cell near the city of Leuven, with the help of jailers who would smuggle him kebabs and encrypted telephones.

For the moment, he’s the object of a tug-of-war between Italian prosecutors, who insist he should face trial there because of his use of the port of Gioia Tauro, and his lawyers, who have been fending off attempts to extradite him.

“He should have stopped long ago,” mused Franco, his childhood friend. “If you always want to make more and more money, you’ll eventually get caught.”

Elisa Braun contributed reporting for this article.

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