BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) _ Federal agents ended the Mafia’s days of wine and roses, busting up a drug ring in the United States and Italy that smuggled heroin into this country in wine bottles and shipments of flowers.
The sting operation, which began in a small suburban Buffalo storefront, shut down a massive American and Sicilian Mafia narcotics operation that was selling millions of dollars worth of heroin in the United States and cocaine in Italy, the FBI and federal prosecutors said Thursday.
As a result of the three-year investigation, which broadened to include FBI offices nationwide, the FBI and Italian authorities have charged more than 200 people, including Sicilian Mafia figures and associates of the Gambino crime family in New York. A total of 68 people were charged in the United States and 133 in Italy.
Some of the heroin smuggled into the United States was liquified and put into bottles purported to be Sicilian wine, without the knowledge of the vintner. The bottles were brought from Italy by female couriers who strapped the drugs to their bodies, officials said.
″It actually looked like wine in the wine bottle,″ said James Fox, assistant director of the FBI’s New York office.
Heroin also arrived in shipments of roses, among other subterfuges, authorities said.
Although the international food trading company set up in Buffalo by agents never handled any drug shipments, it allowed the FBI to establish contacts with organized crime operations in the United States and Italy, G. Robert Langford, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Buffalo office, said Thursday.
Agents traveled to Italy and posed as buyers who discussed making major drug purchases, the FBI said.
Substantial amounts of imported heroin were sold to the Gambino Mafia family in New York, which allegedly arranged for nationwide distribution, according to a complaint filed in the case in Philadelphia. Some of the heroin was passed to buyers in U.S. pizza parlors. Other drugs were concealed in wine shipments.
One of those arrested in the police roundup was Giuseppe Gambino, a nephew of Carlo Gambino, the late reputed head of the Gambino crime family.
A complaint filed in Manhattan against 28 people alleged that the organization ″obtained cocaine in the U.S., transported the cocaine over to Italy, exchanged the cocaine for heroin, so the cocaine was sold in Italy, and the heroin was sold in the U.S.,″ U.S. Attorney Rudolph Giuliani said.
″They found the best market for their product,″ the U.S. attorney added.
″This is the largest example so far of the Mafia’s involvement in cocaine, which is something that was unheard of a few years ago,″ Giuliani said.
″They were selling kilos of heroin for approximately $200,000 a kilo; they were trading in multi-kilo quantities,″ said Fox. ″There were millions and millions of dollars.″
What had started as an independent FBI probe of drug trafficking in Philadelphia, code-named ″Iron Tower,″ was coordinated with the Buffalo probe when some names of suspected traffickers turned up in both, said the FBI. The Philadelphia probe was named after a town in Sicily called Torretta, the FBI said. One of those being sought in the case in the United States, Tommaso Scalici, is an Italian citizen from Torretta, said an FBI spokesman in New Jersey, James Knights. Scalici is charged with conspiracy to distribute heroin.
The operation in Buffalo began when agents learned from an informer in a 1983 drug bust that organized crime families in Sicily wanted to set up an import-export company as a front for drug operations.
Buffalo was chosen because of its proximity to the Canadian border, Knights said, adding that the Peace Bridge connecting Buffalo and Fort Erie, Ontario, was an entry point for earlier drug shipments from Italy to the United States.
Undercover agents began working on the case, dubbed BUSICO - an acronym for the Buffalo-Sicilian Connection, in 1985.
With the cooperation of the U.S. Customs office in Buffalo, the FBI rented a storefront in a shopping plaza in the Buffalo suburb of Hamburg and set up the company called BSC Wholesale Inc.
The export-import business, which did buy and sell tomato paste and olive oil, never materialized as a major drug distribution point.
But at the same time, the Buffalo agents began making purchases of heroin, cocaine and other drugs from various drug dealers who claimed to have international connections. Most of the deals took place in other cities and gradually came to involve FBI offices throughout the country, Langford said.
U.S. Attorney Dennis Vacco called the operation ″a classic sting.″
Arrests were made in Baltimore; Buffalo, N.Y.; Miami; Newark, N.J.; New York; Philadelphia; San Francisco; and Rockford, Ill. In Italy, arrests were being made in Palermo, Bologna and Florence.