ROME, Italy – A drug trafficker believed by Italian investigators to be the biggest cocaine smuggler in the world was deported back to Italy from Colombia on Saturday after being arrested in a Bogotá shopping mall with fake Venezuelan papers.
Media reports said Roberto Pannunzi, who fled from an Italian prison in 2010, smiled as he arrived at Rome’s Fiumicino Airport on a scheduled Alitalia flight escorted by Italian and Colombian police and dressed in a white polo shirt with dark trousers.
Referred to by Colombian authorities as the “Pablo Escobar of Italy,” Pannunzi was a member of the Calabrian mafia from southern Italy but had close ties with Colombian and Mexican drug cartels as well as the Sicilian Cosa Nostra.
Investigators said the 65-year-old Pannunzi, known by his associates as “Bebe” (Baby), organized massive shipments of cocaine from South America to Europe but managed to remain relatively anonymous in the criminal underworld.
“Bebe is not a mafioso, not a killer, Bebe is a broker,” said Roberto Saviano, an Italian investigative journalist with extensive knowledge of the Italian mafia who published a book on the global cocaine trade earlier this year.
Pannunzi, who has to serve out a 16-and-a-half year sentence in Italy and was on Interpol’s most wanted list, was arrested in a joint operation by Colombian police and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
“He is the biggest cocaine importer in the world,” said Nicola Gratteri, deputy chief prosecutor in Reggio Calabria – a bastion of Pannunzi’s ‘Ndrangheta crime syndicate.
“He is the only one who can organize purchases and sales of cocaine shipments of 3,000 kilos (6,600 pounds) and up,” Gratteri told reporters.
“He is definitely the most powerful drug broker in the world,” he said, adding that Pannunzi was a businessman above all and could do business even with rival gangsters.
Pannunzi’s capture is being hailed as an important victory in the decades-long struggle to crack down on one of the most lucrative drug routes in the world.
“His arrest could change the history of drug trafficking in Italy and internationally,” Saviano said.
“He changed the way the business works, he understood the new dynamics of the cocaine market. 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,” Saviano added.
In April, Colombia captured another suspected top mafioso, Domenico Trimboli, allegedly a lynchpin between the Medellín drug cartel and the ‘Ndrangheta.
Pannunzi fled Italy after having himself transferred from prison to a private clinic complaining of heart trouble and then apparently simply walking out of the hospital – repeating an earlier flight in the same way in 1999.
He was previously detained in Colombia at a mafia funeral in 1994, when he reportedly offered the arresting officers a million dollars in cash to walk away.
Italian media reported that Pannunzi mediated in the release of a Sicilian mafia boss who was being held hostage by Colombian drug traffickers over a deal gone bad.
They also said he was a snappy dresser who ran an upmarket fashion boutique in Rome as a cover in the 1980s when he was making his way in the heroin business.
The shop was called “Papavero” (“Poppy”).
To organize a major shipment from Colombia he once bought a Greek container ship in cash, the Mirage II, which subsequently sank with its cargo lost, the reports said.
Gratteri said that during Friday’s arrest, Pannunzi had told Colombian and U.S. officers that he was ill.
He said he hoped the trafficker would not be granted house arrest in a hospital in Italy again.
“He could attempt a third escape,” he said. “It’s exhausting having to go around the world to find him every time he escapes.”