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The Cassava Connection: Mafia-linked drug smuggling bust in New York echoes infamous 1980s racket

The Cucino a Modo Mio pizza restaurant at 51-01 108th St. in Queens, New York. (Google)

When authorities in the United States and Italy on May 7 announced charges against four people in an international drug smuggling operation run by organized crime from a pizzeria in Queens, New York, it brought to mind the infamous “Pizza Connection” case of the 1980s, when twenty-two Sicilian-born Mafia members were nearly all convicted or entered guilty pleas for trafficking heroin out of pizza parlors in the East and Midwest.

But the latest caper might be better dubbed the “Cassava Connection.” Fifty-nine-year-old Gregorio Gigliotti, tied to the Genovese crime family in Queens, teamed with his wife and son to import cocaine hidden in boxes of cassava root – typically used to make tapioca pudding – from Costa Rica, shipped in forty-foot cargo containers and destined for sale in New York and Italy on behalf of the ‘Ndrangheta, (non-grang-uta) of Calabria, Italy, considered the world’s most dominant organized crime group.

Compared with the Pizza Connection case, the Gigliottis’ drug trafficking was at a much lower level in terms of monetary value, barely reaching $13 million. The 1980s “pizza” drug ring involved the movement of 1,650 pounds of heroin worth $1.6 billion shipped from Sicily to New York from 1979 to 1984. The operation, led by former Sicilian Mafia leader Gaetano Badalamenti and Bonanno family captain Salvatore Catalano, involved heroin distribution and money laundering using pizzerias in New York, New Jersey, Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois as fronts. In 1987, after a seventeen-month trial, Badalamenti, Catalano and all but one – Badalamenti’s son Vito — of the other living defendants were convicted of being part of the ring. One defendant out on bail was killed in 1986 and another was shot in early 1987 but survived.

The prosecution for the Pizza Connection case was famously led by Rudy Giuliani, who later became the mayor of New York, and Louis Freeh, who later became the FBI director.

What could make the Cassava Connection memorable, beyond being controlled by a major Italian syndicate, is the almost comical examples of bravado by Gregorio Gigliotti, in conversations with his wife, Eleonora, and son Angelo that were recorded by the Justice Department from wiretaps on their domestic and international phone calls. Gregorio claimed to have broken the nose of a man in the drug conspiracy, and last August told his wife that he once ate the kidney and part of the heart of a conspirator who had misplaced about $20,000 in drug money. In September, in a recorded conversation with Angelo, Gregorio said he wanted to beat to death a man who owed him money in the way two brothers were killed with baseball bats in the movie Casino.

Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn, New York, allege that Gregorio Gigliotti, a native of Calabria and a naturalized U.S. citizen, and American-born Angelo, thirty-four, both associated with the Genovese organized crime family, in particular with Anthony “Tough Tony” Federicci, a top Genovese capo regime, or captain, living in Queens, who invested in the Gigliottis’ scheme. FBI Assistant Agent in Charge Diego Rodriguez described the plot as an attempt “to establish a global cocaine ring.”

5-15 Cassava-Guns

On March 11, federal law enforcement officers raided the Cucino a Modo Mio pizza restaurant in Queens, New York, and seized this cache of firearms, including a Keltec 9mm handgun and a .38-caliber derringer with no serial number. (U.S. Justice Department)

The elder Gigliotti, prosecutors contend, based his family’s drug dealing out of Cucino a Modo Mio, a pizza restaurant on 108th Street in the Corona section of Queens that received rave Yelp reviews before its closure by federal authorities. It was run by Gregorio and his fifty-four-year-old wife, Eleonora, also a naturalized citizen formerly of Calabria. The main goal of the operation was first to smuggle bundles of cash to Costa Rica where the cocaine was purchased, have the drugs hidden in the cardboard boxes of cassava, and occasionally pineapple, exported by ship to a port in Wilmington, Delaware, and then trucked to the warehouse of the Gigliottis’ Fresh Farms Export Corporation, a produce business in the Bronx serving as a front. The cocaine was transported by a commercial ship or shipping company to Italy for sale where a fourth conspirator, Gregorio’s 56-year-old cousin Franco Fazio, knew a customs agent in the southern state of Calabria who would look the other way and allow the drugs to be distributed by the ‘Ndrangheta.

Based on shipping manifests from September 16, 2012, through March of this year, the defendants sent to the United States thirty-seven refrigerated cargo containers purportedly with “fresh cassava,” a vegetable also called “yucca,” through Dole Ocean Cargo Express and the Isabella Shipping Company. The boxes were shipped from Costa Rica to the Port of Wilmington, Delaware for delivery to Fresh Farms. U.S. authorities estimate the Gigliotti enterprise brought in about $12.6 million worth of cocaine during those two and a half years.

About a year ago, the FBI and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement started gathering evidence in the case, which they called Operation Columbus. In late June, they obtained judicial approval to wiretap the Gigiloittis’ phones. Later, they used physical surveillance and an unnamed confidential informant, a foreign national who had served a term in an American prison for narcotics trafficking and is seeking asylum in the United States, according to federal prosecutors.

The arrests of the Gigliottis and Fazio came after years of investigations in the United States and Italy into drug trafficking by the ‘Ndrangheta in the New York area. The inquiries revealed that Gregorio and Eleonora Gigilotti may have been running drugs from the city to Italy since at least 2008, accepting payment in Euros in Italy and then exchanging them for dollars at New Jersey casinos.

In a March 11 court filing in New York, U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch stated that going back to 1990, the ‘Ndrangheta had been conducting narcotics smuggling through metropolitan New York with syndicate members in Calabria and Toronto. The criminal gang currently operates throughout Europe, Canada, the United States, Australia and parts of South America.

“Italian and American law enforcement authorities identify ‘Ndrangheta as the most powerful crime syndicate in the world, controlling billions in assets and annual profits from a variety of sources ranging from their infiltration of legitimate units called ‘ndrines, whose members are all blood relatives, typically originating in a particular town or other geographic area within Calabria, and whose ancestors were all previously inducted members of the ‘ndrine.”

In 2007, the Italian Justice Ministry and Italian law enforcement began investigating the ‘Ndrangheta’s drug trafficking activities with people in Italy and New York and Mexican drug dealers, Lynch stated. The probe led to the arrests of hundreds of suspects in America and Italy, including an Italian national in Queens named Giulio Schirippa and an American, Christopher Castellano, both charged with drug trafficking in New York in 2008.

Castellano, in exchange for being freed on bail in New York in March 2009, agreed to “sing” to U.S. prosecutors, saying that he and Schirippa bought cocaine from a source in New York for about $30,000 a kilo and then exported the drugs to Italy where Schirippa would sell them for about $50,000 per kilo. Castellano said that in about April 2008, he observed a foreign national – who later became a government informant – starting to meet with Gregorio Gigilotti, whom he learned bought $50,000 worth of cocaine. (Castellano was shot and killed on July 4, 2010, in Queens and the homicide case is yet to be solved.)

In 2008, the informant admitted to authorities he was supplying Castellano and Schirippa with cocaine while working at a legal business owned by the Genovese-connected Federicci and that Federicci was in some sort of business activity with Gigliotti. The informant said he sold three kilos of cocaine to Gigliotti, who then told him he was shipping the drugs to Italy with a commercial carrier or shipping company.

“According to (the informant), Eleonora Gigliotti would travel to Italy, where (Gregorio) Gigliotti controlled a commercial carrier employee who would allow packages with drugs to pass through Italian Customs,” Lynch stated. “Eleonora Gigliotti would then retrieve the package with the drugs for further distribution to others in Italy. She would then return to the United States with payment for the drugs in Euros, which Eleonora and Gregorio Gigliotti would convert into U.S. dollars at different casinos in Atlantic City, New Jersey.”

5-15 Cassava-Cocaine

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement last year recovered these flattened packages of cocaine hidden within boxes labeled “fresh cassava” inside refrigerated cargo containers taken by ship from Costa Rica and intended for a produce warehouse in Bronx, New York, that served as a front for trafficking the drug by oversees ship to Italy for the ‘Ndrangheta organized crime group. (U.S. Justice Department)

Then in early 2014, Italian law enforcement told U.S. authorities that Gregorio Gigliotti was negotiating with an Italian national to sell ten kilograms of cocaine for $40,000 per kilogram to members of the ‘Ndrangheta, that Gregorio had traveled to Italy that year and he and Eleonora, through their produce company Fresh Farms, had imported cargo containers of produce.

U.S. officials then sought and received authority to intercept phone calls made by the Gigliottis. The calls came from the pizza restaurant’s phone and cell phones used by Gregorio and Angelo. From wiretaps, surveillance of suspects by FBI agents in San Jose, Costa Rica, and other techniques, they developed a criminal case on the international narcotics trafficking plot starting from July 1, 2014, to March 11.

The Gigliottis imported fifty-five kilograms of cocaine with a street value of $2 million during that time, federal prosecutors allege. Eleonora, who boasted of her unique ability to hide many bundles of cash inside her baggage, traveled to Costa Rica in August with $400,000 concealed in two pieces of luggage to deliver to their sources of cocaine. In September, under Gregorio’s instructions, Angelo gave $170,000 to his mother, who put the cash in suitcases and flew to Costa Rica to meet Fazio, who had flown there from Italy to use the cash to buy more cocaine to be smuggled to New York.

Federal agents kept their eyes on the Gigliottis and Fazio in Costa Rica while Italian authorities kept tabs on Fazio in Calabria.  The Justice Department used a translator to transcribe phone conversations in the Italian slang of Calabrese between Gregorio and Eleonora, who both at times expressed their desire to commit violence on others. The informant supplied American authorities with details about the plot.

The Gigliottis’ plan started to unravel in October, when U.S. Customs agents intercepted their shipment of cassava from Costa Rica that was meant for Farm Fresh in New York. From a search of the cardboard boxes of cassava root, agents found about 40 kilograms of cocaine – bought by Fazio — wrapped in dark-colored, flattened packages.

Gregorio found out and then had a second shipment from the South American country sent to a different port, this time in Philadelphia. But U.S. agents were on to it, and on December 29 they recovered another fifteen kilograms of cocaine from the boxes of cassava.

On March 11, the FBI and other law agencies arrested the three Gigliottis in New York on suspicion of conspiracy to import more than fifty-five kilograms of cocaine. In Calabria, Italy, the SCO, a special operations unit of Italian state police, arrested Fazio. In April, a U.S. grand jury in New York, in a superseding indictment, charged Gregorio, Eleonora and Angelo with conspiracy to import cocaine, two counts of importing cocaine, conspiracy to import cocaine with the intent of selling it, attempted possession of cocaine and unlawful use of firearms.  The grand jury charged Fazio with four counts related to drug trafficking

A search by law enforcement that day of the Cucino a Modo Mio pizzeria in Queens yielded a 12-gauge shotgun, a loaded .357 magnum revolver and five other firearms, brass knuckles, more than 100 rounds of ammunition and $100,000 in cash. In the homes shared by Gregorio and Eleonora in Whitestone and East hills, New York, authorities found a loaded .45-caliber handgun and $18,000 in cash. The grand jury ordered the Gigliottis to forfeit to the government $12.6 million in drug proceeds, the cash, bullets and weapons that were seized, their 2010 Mercedes-Benz SUV and the pizza restaurant itself on 108th Street.

5-15 Cassava-Money

The federal raid also seized brass knuckles, $100,000 in U.S. currency and some Euro bills. (U.S. Justice Department)  

Eleonora’s lawyers filed a series of documents in support of her release — she agreed to wear a GPS ankle and turn over her passport — on $4 million bail backed by property put up by her other family members. But prosecutors opposed releasing any of the defendants, saying they were dangerous to community safety. They also might take flight to avoid prosecution since Gregorio and Eleonora bought a home in Italy, recently transferred $350,000, and know they could face a minimum mandatory sentence of fifteen years in prison. Angelo, because of his two previous felony convictions, could be sentenced to life in prison. All three have pleaded not guilty. It is not known if Fazio has entered a plea.

Prosecutors, to bolster arguments against allowing the defendants to post bail, cited conversations by the Gigliottis in which threats were made to hurt others to protect their interests in the drug trade.

In one instance on September 19, Gregorio, while telling Angelo he wanted to beat a fellow drug trafficker to death, had this exchange about a scene in the movie Casino, when two brothers are driven to a cornfield and one is made to watch his brother beaten to death with a baseball bat before the other is beaten and both are buried:

Gregorio: Do you remember the move Casino?

Angelo: Casino?

Gregorio: Yes. Did you remember what happened to the two brothers?

Angelo: Yes.

Gregorio: This is what I have to do to him. Both.

Angelo: No problem.

Gregorio: I have a plan ready, a plan to set him up.

U.S. District Judge Sandra Townes in Brooklyn cited statements made by Eleonora on the phone with Gregorio about encouraging her husband to commit acts of violence against Fazio in a town in Italy to punish him for failing to pay drug-related debts.

Gregorio: . . . I’ll throw him on the ground and I’ll beat him up so badly, I’ll leave him in the middle of the square. And his brother come, ‘cause if his brother does dare to come, I’ll just shoot his brother. Hum! He better be careful.

Eleonora: In my opinion they did use it together.

Eleonora: . . . Angelo wants to come. Heh-heh.

Gregorio: Come for what, we will look like sh–.

Eleonora: Well, you too. Hurting him in front of his kids, Grego, we’re going to look bad.

Gregorio: Who the f— cares if I hurt him in front of them. What the f— do I care. Who cares.

Eleonora: . . . Then bring him here and bang him up over here. You have someone grab him here at night. He’ll learn. You gonna have it done there?

Gregorio: We’ll see.

Eleonora: You’re alone there.

In another recorded phone conversation cited by the judge in denying her bail, Eleonora said to Gregorio about Fazio, “tell him … there’s jail … will break his head. Tell him … six months in the hospital, you should say…let him get a beating.”

The criminal case is in the discovery phase and no trial date has been set in the federal court in Brooklyn.

Jeff Burbank, a longtime journalist, is the content development specialist for The Mob Museum. Contact him at jburbank@themobmuseum.org.