Italy's finance police on Tuesday busted an international cocaine-smuggling ring run by the 'Ndrangheta crime group after cracking a secret code, the operation's commander said.
Over 400 officers carried out dawn raids across the country armed with 57 arrest warrants after a four-year investigation dubbed "Crypto" into over 90 suspects, many from known mafia families.
Those arrested are accused of shifting large quantities of cocaine from northern Europe and Spain to Italy, hiding it in false bottoms of car boots, and in some cases then moving it on to Malta by boat.
"They communicated via a complex code matching numbers to apparently random letters of the alphabet, without any spaces or punctuation," captain Carmine Virno, whose team lead the investigation, told AFP.
'Ndrangheta families in Gioia Tauro and Rosarno in southern Italy forged direct contacts with South American suppliers through an intermediary in the Dominican Republic, the police said in a statement.
Another suspect, who lives in Germany but has ties to the mountainside town of Guardavalle in Calabria - a mob stronghold - acted as both courier and as a go-between with dealers in northern Europe, it said.
The traffickers "used disposable German sim cards and communicated purely by text message, so that they couldn't be identified by their voices if the phones were wiretapped," Virno said.
Cracking the code
Virno's team painstakingly worked on the code until finally breaking it when they figured out the word "con", which means "with" in English.
On Tuesday they found proof they had got it right, the police captain said.
Officers who raided the house of a top ring member discovered a pizzino, seen by AFP, with the alphabet written in blue and the corresponding numbers below in red.
A pizzino is a small slip of paper traditionally used by the Sicilian Mafia for high-level secret communications.
This one, carefully cut out of a squared exercise book, encoded large cocaine orders.
Once the code had been cracked, police resorted to old-fashioned surveillance techniques to gather evidence against the suspects, who were skilled in evading modern technological traps, it said.
Some €3.7 million in assets were seized in Tuesday's raids.
Based in Calabria, the region that forms the tip of Italy's boot, the 'Ndrangheta is considered one of the world's most powerful crime syndicates due to its control over the movement of cocaine in Europe.
It has extended its reach across all parts of the world, and it has long surpassed Sicily's Cosa Nostra as Italy's biggest mafia organisation.
The investigation showed the 'Ndrangheta families nevertheless thought the Sicilian Mafia had its uses.
They formed ties with the powerful Cappello family in Catania to set up the shipment of cocaine to Malta.