U.S. News

02.12.14

Mafia’s Cocaine-in-a-Can Bust

A kooky cast of characters from Italian crime ring Ndrangheta, including one “Charlie Pepsi," were arrested for a drug deal Tuesday. FBI intercepted, and now they're cooling on ice behind bars.

To smuggle 500 kilograms of Mexican cocaine in frozen fish from Guyana to Italy would require as many as 5,000 fish.

“They put a hundred grams, two hundred grams in each fish,” an alleged conspirator named Franco Lupoi was recorded saying.

And then there’s the question of recovering it all.

“It takes a day to defrost and then it takes a day to take out,” Lupoi says on the recording.

The alleged conspirators were still ready to go ahead and even bought a fish wholesaler in Italy before deciding it might be easier just to hide the stuff in pineapples and charcoal.

Their plans were then delayed when a cocaine shipment from the same shipping facility in Guyana they intended to use was intercepted en route to Malaysia by law enforcement.

In the meantime, court documents say, Lupoi and other alleged conspirators engaged in some kilo-weight heroin dealing and money laundering.

Lupoi, and a fellow he describes on the recordings as “the Mexican with the cartels,” and another gentleman called “the Chinese guy,” met in a Dunkin’ Donuts in Manhattan with a man who agreed to purchase 1.5 kilograms of heroin. Lupoi is said to have sold 1.3 kilos of heroin to the same man when they were in Italy. Lupoi is further alleged to have arranged for the man to purchase a sawed off shotgun and a semi-automatic pistol equipped with a silencer.

As it happens, the customer who bought both firearms as well as the heroin was an undercover FBI agent who was no less brave than the legendary Donnie Brasco. The FBI was working in conjunction with its counterparts in Italy, and on Tuesday, 17 people were arrested.

Another seven were picked up in New York. They included Lupoi and Raffaele Valente, the alleged firearms supplier. Valente allegedly moved from Italy to New York so he could set up an outpost for the ‘Ndrangheta crime syndicate.

“Valente has been recorded on Italian court-authorized wiretaps bragging about the armed and violent group he has assembled in New York,” court papers say. 

The papers offer some insight into the group’s long held traditions, adding, “Valente also explained his allegiance to Saint Michael the Archangel, the patron saint of the ‘Ndrangheta, whose followers are required to wear a ring as a symbol of their allegiance. He explained, “We have bought the Saint Michaels, all the statues of Saint Michael at Christmas, we all gave them as presents to each other, they are lovely, do you know how lovely the statues of Saint Michael are? With the devil under his feet … so nice.”

In court, Valente showed he knows how to dress for a perp walk, sporting a striped shirt and a purple scarf. Lupoi, on the other hand, wore a dumpy black coat and generally looked like a Brooklyn schlub. Another defendant, alleged Bonanno crime family associate Charles Centaro—who is known as “Charlie Pepsi”—actually wore a blue nylon jacket bearing the Pepsi logo and as well as the name “Charlie.”

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A suspect is escorted by FBI agents from their Manhattan offices in New York February 11, 2014. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

All seven defendants in Brooklyn federal court entered not guilty pleas. The three lesser players, Charlie Pepsi among them, were granted high bail. The more major figures were remanded. They included Lupoi, who looked sheepishly glum as he nodded to a woman who is apparently his wife amongst the spectators. He was the one who introduced the undercover FBI to everybody, and those who had been arrested in Italy as a result included his father-in-law, alleged ‘Ndrangheta associate Nicola Antonio Simonetta.

As if that alone wouldn’t cause him trouble at home, the court papers noted that Lupoi had taken up with a Polish woman who lived in Brooklyn before immigration issues forced her to return to her native land.

“Lupoi told the undercover agent that he met with the woman on his most recent trip to Italy in January 2014 and he explained that she still resides in Poland,” the court papers state. “Lupoi has told the undercover agent that he has considered moving to Poland to be with the woman.”

Oh.

On the bench beside the recipient of Lupoi’s nod was what appeared to be Valente’s wife or girlfriend. She received not just a smile, but a fluttering wink and a blown kiss from the dashing Valente. He then raised his right hand to his mouth to signal he would be telephoning her.

Valente lends some credence to the description of the Ndrangheta being the most powerful organized crime group in the world.

“So handsome!” another woman exclaimed.

Also remanded was “the Chinese guy,” Alexander Chan, who had served five years on a 1997 heroin conviction. The prison time was followed by an extended period of probation, which his lawyer sought to end early with a 2008 letter that described his client as a dedicated family man who has built up a construction business (Dream Homes, Inc.) that purportedly does charitable work.

“Mr. Chan, in his release, has rehabilitated himself to a degree

which is rarely seen in our society,” the lawyer had written.

The supposed “Mexican with the cartels,” Jose Alfredo Garcia, was remanded in part because of a comment he made on the recording from the Dunkin’ Donuts huddle. Court papers quote him telling the others “don’t stress” about the possibility somebody might be scamming them for $12,000.

“I could go directly to his house, say listen, what happened? And I could take him in. We could take him and make him disappear,” Garcia supposedly said.

The Daily Beast correspondent in Italy, Barbie Latza Nadeau, reports that the arrests there have been called a "maxi-blitz," and described as "proof of the bridge between 'Ndrangheta and Cosa Nostra."

To look at Lupoi and his pals, it would seem to be a bridge to nowhere.

Valente lends some credence to the description of the Ndrangheta being the most powerful organized crime group in the world. But the other New York defendants seem just a bunch of guys united not by ethnicity or tradition, but simply by the desire to make a dishonest buck.

The drugs are the same, poisonous and life-destroying, be they supplied by the French connection of old or the Mexican-Guyanese-Italian-Chinese-American connection of the present case.

Meanwhile, if you face arrest, you might take a fashion tip from Valente.

Or, you can always roll like Charlie Pepsi.