A Maltese man suspected of being a key figure in a major Italy-Malta cocaine trafficking ring has been arrested in Malta on the back of a request from Italian authorities.
John Spiteri, 56, known as Gianni, was arrested on Friday in Malta on the strength of a European Arrest Warrant issued by the Italian police.
He is expected to be arraigned on Saturday afternoon, with a court set to decide whether to transfer him to Italy where he will face charges of conspiracy and racketeering linked to a major trans-European drug trafficking operation.
Last year, Spiteri had been among a group of 16 people arrested in Italy as part of a covert police sting to bust a drug ring that moved cocaine and cannabis into Malta and Italy.
'Operation La Vallette’
Codenamed 'Operation La Vallette’, the Italian investigation had found how the criminal organisation moved drugs from Albania and the Italian regions of Puglia and Calabria into Sicily and Malta, where they were sold.
Spiteri is suspected of handling the Maltese end of the operation.
A total of 430kg in cannabis, cannabis resin and cocaine was seized by Italy's Guardia di Finanza as part of the bust.
Some 100 officers from Italy's financial police Guardia di Finanza in Catania, Sicily and the serious crimes unit were involved in the probe, which was made in Catania, Ragusa, and Syracuse in Sicily and in Calabria in mainland Italy.
Wiretaps, murder and drugs - court documents criminal conspiracy
The major Malta-Italy drug ring was laid bare in Italian court documents which detail how cocaine and cannabis were smuggled into the island using a local ferry company before being hidden in an Attard fruit and vegetable shop.
The documents, seen by Times of Malta, include reams of transcripts of recorded conversations from inside drug smugglers’ cars as well as intercepted telephone calls between Maltese and Italian traffickers who eventually turned on one another.
At one point they even discussed killing one of their associates whom they suspected of collaborating with the police.
Fabian Catania, also 55, was named as one of the Maltese players but was not arrested in 'Operation La Vallette'.
He is already facing criminal proceedings in Malta for alleged drug trafficking dating back to 2018.
Documents compiled by Italian prosecutors paint a picture of how Spiteri and the Italian Rosario Amico organised shipments of drugs from Puglia to Malta between 2018 and 2019 and how Catania had acted as a courier driving a Malta-registered Isuzu.
Other Italians and Albanians had also delivered shipments to Italy and Malta.
The investigation began with a focus on Amico, with the police working their way out from him, building a web of known associates across Sicily, southern Italy and Malta.
Living well beyond his means
Video surveillance of Amico’s home and his multiple trips to Malta in quick succession led the police to review his finances with the tax authorities who found he was living well beyond his means.
He would routinely buy new luxury cars and boats and owned two prestigious properties while declaring a modest income.
Checks with Maltese ferry company Virtu Ferries established that he was travelling to Malta multiple times a year, as was an associate of his, Albanian national Eriseld Hoxhaj, known as Riku.
“Various [drug] transfers to Malta were monitored through the boarding lists provided by the Virtu Ferries company by Hoxhaj, Amico and others,” the documents read.
Amico’s son, Ray would also travel with the group and the Italian investigators established that he was delegated by his father to collect payment for drug shipments and to maintain contact with Spiteri, who headed the Maltese side of the operation.
Wiretaps of conversations between Amico and Spiteri are described by the Italian prosecutors as “typical of the dynamics of narcotics trafficking” in which they discuss prices of shipments and new methods of delivery.
The prosecutors claim there was a heated payment dispute with Spiteri following the shipment of packets of cannabis.
In one intercepted conversation, two of Amico’s associates are heard discussing how they feared Spiteri wanted them dead.
“Surely Gianni [Spiteri] paid them to kill me... he wanted to kill me!” one unnamed suspect says in a lengthy transcript.
Later, the documents discuss how the office of the Maltese Attorney General had informed Italian prosecutors that Catania had been arrested in Malta in June 2018 after he was found in possession of 85kg of cannabis.
An Attard fruit and vegetable shop
The drugs, believed to originate from the same smuggling operation, were found hidden inside a fruit and vegetable shop in Attard. A garage and a warehouse in Marsa have also been identified.
In another section of the court documents, the Italian prosecutors detail how Amico and Spiteri met in Sicily and at one point discussed the use of plastic beverage containers to smuggle drugs into Malta.
During that meeting, Amico warned Spiteri that their Albanian associates were growing aware of him.
“They are convinced that you are dangerous, reckless and that when you try to make more and more money you aren’t cautious enough,” Amico tells Spiteri in an intercepted conversation.
Amico goes on to implore Spiteri to be careful. Prudence, he says, is essential if they are to avoid any “unpleasant surprises”.
“You cannot neglect this otherwise you’re done. People end up in jail; are we going to end up there too? Police have their eyes open. We aren’t importing sweets or cakes here. You understand?” Amico tells him.
'Papa they’re waiting for you'
Spiteri then tells Amico that he fears he and his brother are in grave danger. He tells Amico that “the Croats” are looking for him over an €80,000 debt and that he fears they intend to kill him.
Later, Spiteri tells Amico that they have a problem with one of their drug couriers and that they may have to take matters into their own hands.
“We need to get rid of that asshole... that guy who opened his mouth... that guy who drove the truck,” Spiteri says.
In a subsequent transcript, ostensibly fearing the closing noose of law enforcement, Amico tells Spiteri that he is convinced that if he travels to Malta he will have his passport seized.
“My son Pietro told me when he last returned: ‘Papa they’re waiting for you there’.”