Deals are concluded from Belgium between the Calabrese mafia and cocaine suppliers in Latin America. Knack and The time offer a unique insight into the Limburg underworld.
On September 20, 2020, the Maersk Buton, a rusty container ship, departed from the Colombian port city of Santa Marta. One container on the ship, with the code MMAU1087695, also interested two residents of Genk: Lucio Aquino and his cousin Donato. The Aquinos are known in Limburg as ‘the gang of chatters’.
The container contained 930 kilograms of cocaine hidden in 72 boxes of bananas. The traffic had been prepared since at least March 2020. There was nervousness because the coronavirus could throw a spanner in the works. But before the shipment reached its destination in Antwerp, Aquino was arrested in our country at the end of September in a major drug investigation codenamed Costa. Yet he managed to maintain contacts with the Colombians through his cousin and seal the import. A Limburg prison guard who worked in the auxiliary prison of Leuven had given Aquino an encrypted telephone.
Members of the ‘Ndrangheta, the infamous criminal organization from Calabria in southern Italy, also followed the transport. The money for the 930 kilograms of coke came from the powerful Nirta and Strangio families. ‘News from Rotterdam?’ one of the financiers asked in a chat with cousin Donato, after Lucio Aquino had been jailed. The import seemed to go according to plan, but after a stopover in the port of Rotterdam, things went wrong.
Lucio Aquino arranged a delivery of 620 kilograms of cocaine from his Belgian cell.
On October 4, customs in Antwerp discovered the shipment of coke. What the drug traffickers did not realize is that from then on their shipment had been replaced by a fake shipment, which was tracked by the federal police. After several stops in Belgium and the Netherlands, the transport ended in Breda, where two smaller shrimps were picked up. But the court was also hot on the organizers’ heels. An undercover agent had infiltrated the Calabrian criminal circles in Genk, where Limburg scions of the Nirta and Strangio families also lived. In a popular pizzeria in Genk, members of those families swore that they had lost hundreds of thousands of euros because of the catch.
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Three years later, on Wednesday, May 3, 2023, more than 5,000 police officers were deployed in ten countries, from Belgium and Italy to Brazil and Panama. In the file codenamed Eureka, ‘the largest investigation ever into the ‘Ndrangheta’, 147 suspects were arrested that day, including six from Limburg. In addition to Lucio Aquino, who was at home with an ankle bracelet, and his cousin, there were two brothers from the Nirta family and two brothers from the Strangio family.
The investigation gained momentum in 2020 and 2021 when the court was able to crack the encrypted phones of the Encrochat and SkyECC brands. The suspects were so confident that those smartphones were safe that they exchanged details and even photos about their cocaine trade in the chat.
For international journalistic research NarcoFilesled by the OCCRP collective Knack and the newspaper The time together with the Italian IrpiMedia access to more than 2,300 pages from the Eureka court file. The documents expose how the ‘Ndrangheta and its Belgian acolytes arranged large cocaine shipments from Belgium. Even during the corona crisis, they were still able to import more than four tons of cocaine from South America, of which at least three shipments arrived in the port of Antwerp and fourteen in the Italian port of Gioia Tauro.
The business model
The business model behind the cocaine traffic followed two tracks. Or the Belgian and Italian organizers paid for the cocaine from South America in full themselves, before shipment, at around 7,000 dollars per kilogram. They could then resell that cocaine ‘without price restrictions’. Or they mainly took care of ‘removing’ and distributing the cocaine and discussed in advance with the South American suppliers a minimum sales price per kilo. The Belgians and Italians were then allowed to reap the profits from higher sales prices, good for around 2000 euros per kilogram. They sold the cocaine on the European market at 26,000 to 33,500 euros per kilogram.
From Belgium, Lucio Aquino is said to have played a key role as organizer and financier. He is not a real member of the ‘Ndrangheta, but he was trusted to arrange everything. Aquino maintained contacts with suppliers in South America, collected the necessary money and distributed the profits. Aquino, who speaks both Spanish and Italian, had strong connections to the largest Colombian drug cartel, the Clan del Golfo.
For example, from his Belgian cell, Aquino arranged a delivery of 620 kilograms of cocaine, which arrived from the Panamanian port of Cristobal to the Italian port of Gioia Tauro on December 9, 2020. Aquino was still able to chat about this from prison with his smuggled-in SkyECC phone. The 620 kilograms of cocaine ended up in a warehouse in Calabria, from where the Italians resold them at an average price of 32,500 euros per kilogram. Subsequently, approximately 10 million euros in cash turnover from Italy had to flow back to the Colombians and the Belgians.
In just ten months, from August 2020 to May 2021, more than 22.3 million euros moved through our country from lenders in Calabria to suppliers in Panama, Colombia, Brazil and Ecuador. More than 7 million euros came to our country in just three journeys. This happened via couriers who drove back and forth between southern Italy and Genk, with the money hidden in the double bottoms of their vehicles.
At least 14.8 million euros was collected and transported with the help of a specialized Chinese network of cash couriers. The Chinese couriers, who the investigators could not identify, never transported less than 1 million euros per trip in exchange for a commission of 14 to 16 percent. For example, they received more than 1.3 million euros at their address in Rome, which had to reach Aquino in Belgium. “DONE (…) HE COUNTED IT,” an Italian sent to Aquino when the cash was delivered to the Chinese, accompanied by a photo of a 5-euro banknote with the serial number visible. As with other transactions, Aquino had also given a 5 or 10 euro banknote with a specific serial number with the Chinese courier, so that everyone could be sure they were giving the money to the right man.
The Chinese regularly used a Mercedes A-class to deliver the money at an agreed location. As proof of payment, photos were sometimes taken of the plastic bags with money on display. Even when Aquino was arrested in September 2020 and continued to organize transports from the cell, money transports continued to pass through the other suspects in Limburg.
7 million euros were brought to Belgium in cars with double bottoms.
According to the court, among other things, a Genk pizzeria run by the Nirta brothers was founded to justify illegal proceeds. Yet the brothers in the file are only co-suspects for one cocaine import. An undercover police officer would have witnessed their close ties with the Italian ‘Ndrangheta families, for example, talking to him about the ritual that new members must perform: after a finger prick, a statue of Mary would be smeared with blood and set on fire.
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The money laundering machine
But there was also talk about the money laundering aspect of the business. “You first have to have a real company before you can do anything else,” one of them allegedly confided to the undercover agent. In this investigation, the money laundering trail led not only to the purchase of luxury cars and watches, but also to an Italian restaurant in France, and to ice cream parlors and a car wash in Germany. Cash drug money from a safe in Calabria, for example, was then transferred in cash to Munich, where it was booked as fictitious income at companies.
The entire Eureka file will be brought to trial in Italy at the Italian request. Yet it could take years before Lucio Aquino ends up in an Italian cell. On Friday, November 10, the council chamber in Tongeren will decide on his referral to the criminal court in that other major drug file, Costa, about the smuggling of about 25 tons of cocaine. Because of his role in the Costa dossier, Lucio Aquino has not yet been extradited to Italy in the Eureka dossier, where he will face the strict prison regime for mafiosi.
Lucio Aquino’s lawyer, Hugo Vandenberghe, did not respond to questions Knack. The lawyer for Aquino’s cousin Donato, Frank Scheerlinck, only responds that ‘the process is being conducted in court’.
An email leak at the Colombian Public Prosecution Service exposes the entire cocaine trade to Europe, from the jungles of South America to the discos of Antwerp.
Knack and The time collaborated on NarcoFiles: The New Criminal Order, the largest international drug investigation ever.
On knack.be/narcofiles you will read new revelations every day this week.
What are the NarcoFiles?
The project NarcoFiles: The New Criminal Order started with a massive email leak at the Colombian Public Prosecution Service. The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and the Centro Latinoamericano de Investigación Periodística (CLIP) were given access to the data.
They shared it with more than 40 media channelsunder which Knack and The time. Journalists out 23 countries were given access to the highly secured database of leaked emails.
Together we searched more than 7 million emails of the Colombian Public Prosecution Service, including correspondence with embassies and other authorities around the world.
The files, which also include wiretaps, spreadsheets and ongoing investigations, date back to the period 2017-2022.