Captured 'Nrangheta mafioso Nicola Pignatelli (center)

Authorities in the Dominican Republic have arrested a key operative from Italy's 'Ndrangheta mafia who was allegedly developing a cocaine trafficking route, underscoring the group's growing presence in this region.

Nicola Pignatelli was arrested on April 27 in the town of Juan Dolio, about 30 kilometers east of capital Santo Domingo. His capture was the result of a one-month intelligence operation coordinated by international police body Interpol in conjunction with Dominican and Italian police, reported Spanish newspaper El Pais.

Pignatelli appeared on Italy's 100 most dangerous fugitives list and had previously been sentenced to more than 13 years in prison for his involvement in criminal operations conducted by the Mazzaferro Ursino Aquino, a branch of the 'Ndrangheta. During the operation, authorities learned that Pignatelli maintained contact with Roberto Pannunzi, a powerful cocaine broker arrested in Colombia in 2013.

The Italian police had been searching for Pignatelli since 2011. He is currently being held in Santo Domingo awaiting deportation to his homeland.

InSight Crime Analysis

This capture provides the latest indication of the 'Ndrangheta's expanding influence in Latin America. In spring 2013, two high-level operatives of the group were captured in Colombia and in February this year, a billion dollar trafficking operation exporting cocaine from Guyana to the United States via Italy was busted. The 'Ndrangheta has also been linked to the Zetas in Mexico.

Considered Italy's most powerful organized crime group, the 'Ndrangheta reportedly controls 80 percent of cocaine entering their home country. In March it was reported that in 2013 the group earned up to $33.6 billion from drug trafficking alone.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of European Organized Crime

The Dominican Republic is a strategically important location for drug traffickers, acting as a transit point for cocaine heading to both the United States and Europe, so the apparent attempt by the 'Ndrangheta to establish a presence there is perhaps unsurprising.

The recent discovery of a cocaine lab, reportedly the largest ever found in the Caribbean, indicates that drugs are also being processed within the country.

The 'Ndrangheta's expansion in Latin America shows no signs of slowing down, and the organization's presence in the Dominican Republic likely represents a strategic effort to continue developing a global network reported to include 60,000 operatives across 30 countries. 

Investigations

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