An Italian mafia capo alleged to be the biggest cocaine trafficker in the world was set to be deported to Italy yesterday, a day after being arrested in a Colombian shopping mall, prosecutors said.
Roberto Pannunzi, 65, who fled from a Rome prison in 2010, was detained in Bogota with a fake Venezuelan identity card in a joint operation by Colombian police and the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
"He is the biggest cocaine importer in the world," said Nicola Gratteri, deputy chief prosecutor in Reggio Calabria in southern Italy - a bastion of the 'Ndrangheta crime syndicate Pannunzi belonged to.
"He is the only one who can organise purchases and sales of cocaine shipments of 3,000 kilos and up," Gratteri said. "Pannunzi is the only one who can sell both to the 'Ndrangheta and to Cosa Nostra. He is definitely the most powerful drug broker in the world."
Pannunzi has to serve out a 16- and-a-half year prison sentence in Italy.
He had escaped from a private clinic in Rome to which he managed to have himself transferred from prison because of a heart condition - repeating an earlier flight in the same way in 1999. He had previously been detained in Colombia at a mafia funeral in 1994, when he reportedly offered the arresting officers a million dollars in cash to walk away.
The arrest of Pannunzi, known by his associates as "Bebe" (Baby), is being hailed as a major victory.
"Bebe is not a mafioso, not a killer, Bebe is a broker," said Roberto Saviano, an Italian investigative journalist who published a book on the global cocaine trade earlier this year.
"His arrest could change the history of drug trafficking in Italy and internationally," he said.
"He was a sort of Copernicus of cocaine. He changed the way the business works," Saviano said. "He collected money from the various families, often rival families, and bought cocaine in Colombia. He could manage fleets of ships to bring it to Europe."
Italian media said Pannunzi had close ties with the leaderships of Colombian and Mexican drug cartels, as well as historic Sicilian Cosa Nostra godfathers like Bernardo Provenzano.
He reportedly mediated in the release of a Sicilian mafia boss who was being held hostage by Colombian drug traffickers over a deal gone bad.