The italian mob is peddling pills to Isis

Bar­bie Latza Nadeau ROME — Ame­ri­cans may love their fen­ta­nyl, a power­ful opioid respon­si­ble for a public health cri­sis and coun­tless acci­den­tal over­do­se casual­ties, inclu­ding tho­se of pop stars Prin­ce and Tom Pet­ty. But ter­ro­rists appa­ren­tly pre­fer tra­ma­dol, a chea­per num­bing opioid that is legal in the Midd­le East. And they are get­ting plen­ty of it on the black mar­ket thanks to Ita­lian Ndran­ghe­ta mob­sters, accor­ding to Italy’s finan­cial poli­ce. In the last year along, the cops have con­fi­sca­ted near­ly 100 mil­lion tra­ma­dol table­ts meant for ISIS ope­ra­ti­ves in Libya. Once in Libya, the pills are used to pump up fighters the­re, or they’re smug­gled into Egypt and Syria, or they are sold to Boko Haram fighters in Nige­ria, accor­ding to Mar­ta Sara­fi­ni, who­se recent expo­sé in the Ita­lian dai­ly Cor­rie­re del­la Sera unra­vels the tra­ma­dol tra­de. “They end up in the hands of the despe­ra­te in Gaza, the pro­sti­tu­tes in Amman, and child labo­rers in Tur­key,” she says. “They are the drug for anyo­ne who wan­ts to esca­pe mise­ry.”

They may also find their way into the Ame­ri­can mar­ket, and with a ven­gean­ce. The bar­riers are low. On the Drug Enfor­ce­ment Administration’s list of “sche­du­led” drugs, or “con­trol­led sub­stan­ces,” whe­re heroin, LSD and, yes, mari­jua­na are Sche­du­le I; fen­ta­nyl is among tho­se listed as Sche­du­le II; keta­mi­ne and Tyle­nol with codei­ne are Sche­du­le III, tra­ma­dol is only Sche­du­le IV: a sub­stan­ce with “a low poten­tial for abu­se rela­ti­ve to sub­stan­ces in Sche­du­le III.” As the Wall Street Jour­nal repor­ted in 2016, tra­ma­dol is “the opioid cri­sis for the rest of the world.” And the com­bi­na­tion of low penal­ties in the U.S., the orga­ni­zed pedd­ling by the mob, along with the finan­cial needs of the embat­tled “Isla­mic Sta­te” crea­te a situa­tion ripe for orga­ni­zed cri­me to push tra­ma­dol as a new drug of choi­ce for opioid addic­ts. In Euro­pe and North Afri­ca, pedd­ling the pills, which have a street value of around $5 a pie­ce, is fast beco­ming one of the Cala­brian Ndran­ghe­ta cri­me syndicate’s most suc­ces­sful enter­pri­ses. Gae­ta­no Paci, an anti-mafia pro­se­cu­tor in Cala­bria, con­fir­med the nar­co­tic traf­fic­king links bet­ween the dead­ly Cala­brian mob and ter­ro­ri­st groups late last year after a third shi­p­ment of mil­lions of tra­ma­dol table­ts was disco­ve­red in the sou­thern Ita­lian port of Gio­ia Tau­ro, wide­ly kno­wn as the mafia gateway for all things illi­cit.

The spra­w­ling Cala­brian mafia port has been at the cen­ter of a num­ber of recent raids whe­re eve­ry­thing from sto­len anti­qui­ties to dead bodies have been found hid­den in car­go cra­tes. The ave­ra­ge dai­ly value of con­tra­band and traf­fic­ked mate­rials suspec­ted to be run throu­gh the port is esti­ma­ted to top $1 mil­lion, accor­ding to Italy’s finan­ce poli­ce. Most of the ille­gal goods are hid­den in shi­p­men­ts of pineap­ples, fro­zen fish and coco­nut milk, which often are rushed throu­gh becau­se of their shor­ter shelf life.

(The port, the lar­ge­st in Ita­ly, was also the curious choi­ce by the Orga­ni­za­tion for the Pro­hi­bi­tion of Che­mi­cal Wea­pons (OPCW) to faci­li­ta­te the 2014 trans­fer of 700 metric tons of Syrian che­mi­cal wea­pons and their pre­cur­sors, which were deli­ve­red, trans­fer­red and even­tual­ly neu­tra­li­zed on board the U.S. Navy ship Cape Ray. Some spe­cu­la­ted that the port was cho­sen becau­se of the appa­rent high sur­veil­lan­ce by poli­ce thanks to mafia acti­vi­ties. Others spe­cu­la­ted that if some­thing went awry, they could just bla­me it on the mob. Nothing went wrong with the Syrian wea­pons ope­ra­tion, at lea­st as far as anyo­ne kno­ws.)

Italy’s anti-drug traf­fic­king agen­cy esti­ma­tes that 80 per­cent of all Europe’s cocai­ne comes in from Colom­bia throu­gh the Cala­brian port, which is also the main hub for ille­gal wea­pons, so it is lit­tle won­der it would be the port of choi­ce for tho­se pushing ter­ror nar­co­tics, too. Gio­ia Tau­ro is now the main gateway for tra­ma­dol brought in from pill mills in India and Sri Lan­ka redi­stri­bu­ted to ISIS in Libya, accor­ding to Paci, who says the 24 mil­lion pills found hid­den in a fabric shi­p­ment in Novem­ber were easi­ly worth €50 mil­lion. They have also found smal­ler shi­p­men­ts of Cap­ta­gon, ano­ther wide­ly used psy­cho­sti­mu­lant kno­wn as che­mi­cal cou­ra­ge, which, unli­ke tra­ma­dol, is ille­gal in the Midd­le East and North Afri­ca.

“Eve­ry­thing pas­ses throu­gh Gio­ia Tau­ro, so it comes as no sur­pri­se to find a traf­fic­ked sub­stan­ce of this kind the­re,” he told the Ita­lian dai­ly La Repub­bli­ca recen­tly. “For a whi­le we have kno­wn about ties bet­ween ’Ndran­ghe­ta and orga­ni­za­tions in the Midd­le East. Even if the port has beco­me a less secu­re zone for the clan, thanks to the pres­su­re from inve­sti­ga­tions, we have tra­ced some traf­fic­king links and are try­ing to put the dots toge­ther.” Simi­lar shi­p­men­ts had been seque­ste­red in Greek ports in 2016 and 37 mil­lion pills were hid­den among sham­poo bot­tles arri­ving by con­tai­ner in Genoa in nor­thern Ita­ly in ear­ly 2017, all desti­ned for a distri­bu­tor in Libya who has sin­ce been pro­ven to be affi­lia­ted with Isla­mic Sta­te mili­tan­ts the­re, Paci says. Paci poin­ts to the fact that tra­ma­dol was found in the apart­men­ts and bodies of the ter­ro­rists who attac­ked the Bata­clan in 2013, and in the beach mas­sa­cre in Tuni­sia in 2015, as a wor­ry­ing fac­tor.

Tra­ma­dol, when mixed with com­po­nen­ts like caf­fei­ne, has the same effect as a power­ful amphe­ta­mi­ne, era­sing fear, pain and fati­gue and alte­ring the sen­ses. Paci’s team is con­cer­ned that the recent spi­ke in pills coming throu­gh Cala­bria may mean ISIS fighters are pre­pa­ring for more attacks or sup­ply­ing others, like Boko Haram mili­tan­ts, to rain down ter­ror in Nige­ria. “They are cer­tain­ly not inten­ded for the Libyan peo­ple,” a sour­ce clo­se to the Ita­lian anti-drug inve­sti­ga­tions told The Dai­ly Bea­st. “They will be used by the fighters or sold by them.” On Wed­ne­sday, the Guar­dian repor­ted that Inter­pol has iden­ti­fied 50 forei­gn fighters who have come into Ita­ly throu­gh Libya on the migrant trail in the last year, appa­ren­tly rea­dy to launch new attacks in Euro­pe. A day later, Europe’s bor­der patrol agen­cy, Fron­tex, laun­ched a new ope­ra­tion cal­led The­mis, named after the Greek god­dess of law and order, under which they said they would employ an “enhan­ced law enfor­ce­ment focus.”

“We need to be bet­ter equip­ped to pre­vent cri­mi­nal groups that try to enter the E.U. unde­tec­ted,” Exe­cu­ti­ve Direc­tor Fabri­ce Leg­ge­ri said in a sta­te­ment. “This is cru­cial for the inter­nal secu­ri­ty of the Euro­pean Union.” Rita San­ta­cro­ce, head of the Research Cen­tre on Secu­ri­ty and Cri­me in Vicen­za, Ita­ly, is lea­ding a stu­dy cal­led Nar­co­Map about the new ter­ro­ri­sm drug traf­fic­king tra­de. She told The Dai­ly Bea­st that Euro­pe is increa­sin­gly invol­ved in nar­co-ter­ro­ri­sm in three distinct ways. “As a manu­fac­tu­rer of psy­choac­ti­ve sub­stan­ces, as a rou­te of their traf­fic­king, and as a desi­gna­ted vic­tim of the terrorists—often into­xi­ca­ted by drugs that may come from the very same pla­ce they aim to destroy.”

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