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4 held in killings by Italian mob

The suspects, members of a secretive clan with a global reach, are tied to the slayings of six at a pizzeria in Germany.

December 19, 2007|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

REGGIO DI CALABRIA, ITALY — Italian and German police on Tuesday arrested four figures from Italy's most powerful organized crime clan, the 'Ndrangheta, in a murder case that illustrates the widening reach of the notorious organization.

Two of the suspects were taken from their home village here in the southern Italian province of Calabria, and another two were arrested in Germany. They are wanted in connection with the execution-style slaying of six people from a rival clan, among them a 16-year-old, outside a pizzeria in Duisburg, Germany, in August.

A fifth suspect, Giovanni Strangio, 28, who prosecutors say was one of two triggermen, remains a fugitive.

The killings brought the 'Ndrangheta under unusual scrutiny and allowed police to make inroads into the normally low-profile, secretive group. The slayings also exposed the growing presence of the crime syndicate in Germany, where it has been on a largely unfettered shopping spree, buying up restaurants, discotheques and other businesses for years, according to Italian authorities.

Italian officials made a point Tuesday of praising German police for their cooperation in the latest arrests. They spoke at a news conference here, attended by officers from two Italian police forces, the German homicide police and a team of Italy's leading national and regional organized crime prosecutors.

"This is an important new phase in the fight against organized crime," state prosecutor Vincenzo Macri said. "We are no longer talking about an Italian problem. This has become a problem for Europe, a European mafia."

The killings in Duisburg were the bloody explosion of a long-running family feud and gave rise to fears of a chain of revenge violence. The arrests, both those Tuesday and others in August, may have stopped it, at least for now, officials say.

"The family has had a chance to reflect and realize [the Duisburg hit] was a huge error," Nicola Gratteri, the leading organized crime prosecutor in Calabria, said in an interview. In addition, he said, some of the top 'Ndrangheta families have imposed a kind of cease-fire because of the unwanted attention the case has stirred.

Investigators have eavesdropped on thousands of Calabrese clan members to build their case. Among the taped conversations was one in which Strangio is heard attempting to buy an M-16 for 2,000 euros, or about $2,900, according to the criminal complaint.

The other men arrested Tuesday are accused of having ties to organized crime and gun smuggling and are believed to have provided logistical support to Strangio, prosecutors said.

Piero Grasso, Italy's top organized crime prosecutor, said he wanted the clans to see that official justice and not private vendettas is the way to end feuding "that is in no one's interest."

"We want their children to grow up not having, as a duty, to look for the enemies of the family in order to kill them," Grasso said.

Italian authorities acknowledged that their work in finding the suspects in the Duisburg killings will do little to impede the 'Ndrangheta's principal business: cocaine trafficking. Based in the jagged, hostile Calabrese countryside, the 'Ndrangheta has built a multibillion-dollar trafficking empire that extends throughout Europe, to Latin America and beyond.

wilkinson@latimes.com

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