Chasing the Trail of the Italian Mafia in the Czech Republic
IN THE BLEAK WINTER MONTHS OF 2015, investigative journalist Pavla Holcová received a phone call from her Slovak colleague Ján Kuciak. He wanted to tell her about the suspicions he had about the Slovak Prime Minister’s newly appointed advisor, Maria Trošková, a 27-year-old former model with no previous political experience.
The only public information he had been able to find about Trošková was that she had previously been a joint shareholder in a company with an Italian businessman named Antonino Vadala. They dug a little further and found that Vadala had himself been implicated in an Italian court case involving the Ndrangheta, the Calabrian mafia organization responsible for 90% of the European cocaine trade.
So they started making phone calls.
“I started to read a lot and talk a lot with my Italian colleagues about how the 'Ndrangheta works,” Holcová said. “I started to understand the organization's patterns, the families involved, their names. And at some point, I began to find the same patterns in the Czech Republic.”
Before Holcová and Kuciak’s investigations, virtually no one had looked into the 'Ndrangheta’s ties in the Czech Republic.
“That's why it was much more difficult,” she said. “We were starting from zero.”
With her team of journalists at www.investigace.cz, the investigative news site she runs out of Prague, she began to piece together how the 'Ndrangheta had been using Czech and Slovak real estate as a way to launder the money they were making from trading cocaine.
She traced how the group had invested more than 500 million euros in Eastern European real estate, which was dirt cheap after the fall of the communist regimes in the 1990s, only to leave the properties completely untouched.
“Money laundering means that you've got something that looks legit, and you report that it is super profitable,” Holcová explained. “So back in Italy they could say ‘Yeah, we have this super luxury hotel in Prague'—but of course the 'luxury hotel' could be a totally abandoned building.”
She also found that the group has been using Prague as a sort of logistical center for its global traffic of cocaine.
“These ‘Ndrangheta members are sitting in Prague, sipping coffee as we are right now, deciding whether, for example, it's going to be safer to buy the next ton of cocaine in Peru and ship in through Callao, or if it would better to ship it first through Brazil and then send it on to Europe,” she said. “The cocaine doesn’t even need to touch the Czech Republic.”
Holcová says this strategy of decentralizing its operations is one of the main reasons the 'Ndrangheta has been so successful. By keeping the people handling the finances in Prague entirely separate from the people loading the cocaine onto the boats in Peru, the organization’s activities had up until now been very difficult to trace.
But since Holcová and her colleagues first started reporting on this story in 2015, things have been become more complicated for organized crime syndicates in the Czech Republic. As of January of this year, banks have steadily begun closing accounts linked to the ‘Ndrangheta members that her team has exposed.
Yet despite the impact her team’s reporting has had—a rarity in investigative journalism—Holcová doesn’t seem phased.
“We are journalists. Our aim is to provide information, not to prosecute people or judge them,” she shrugged. “We just want to understand how the world works—in its complexity, not just its 'official' explanation.”
This article appears in Are We Europe #4: This Is Not An Elections Issue