Mob Allegations Turn Rome's 'Sweet Life' Sour

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Alessandra Tarantino / AP

A cleaner sweeps the entrance of the Café de Paris in Rome's Via Veneto on July 22, 2009. Italian authorities seized some $284 million in assets of the 'Ndrangheta crime syndicate, including this cafe of La Dolce Vita movie fame

"In all Europe there is no street quite so lively, quite so cosmopolitan or quite so zany as Rome's Via Venetos" So began a 1959 TIME story trumpeting Café de Paris as the new must-see-and-be-seen spot on the then already famous leafy boulevard. Fifty years later, the sidewalk locale is as luxurious as ever (though not quite as lively), attracting both well-heeled Italians and tourists looking for a hint of the breezy, post-War sweet life celebrated in Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita, in which the café was a key location.

On Wednesday, Café de Paris was back in the spotlight for different reasons: Even as sharply dressed customers and summer travelers in shorts sipped cappuccino, police seized the premises on suspicion that it had fallen into the hands of the increasingly powerful Calabrian Mob. The café was one of a dozen pieces of prime Roman real estate, with a combined worth $284 million, sequestered as part of a citywide crackdown on suspected money-laundering and tax-evasion.

The bar-restaurant was back open and operating by late morning, though a state-appointed manager will manage it for the time being, while the owner is forced to prove, under a special Italian statute, that he is clean of Mob ties. Police allege that top bosses from the Alvaro-Palamara faction of the Calabrian Mafia used a barber from a small rural town in Calabria as a frontman to buy the historic café in 2005 for some $350,000 dollars, though its commercial value is estimated at $60 million. Italian authorities suspect that the difference between the official price tag and real value was passed under the table.

The bloody criminal organization 'Ndrangheta, based in Calabria, at the toe of the Italian boot, is today considered the most powerful organized-crime syndicate in Italy, surpassing the legendary Sicilian Mafia after having taken over much of the trafficking of South American cocaine into Europe. With billions in narcodollars, 'Ndrangheta is constantly on the lookout for ways to invest its ill-gotten cash in legitimate enterprises, explains Alberto Cisterna, a Rome-based magistrate who has long followed the Calabrian Mob. He says that high-profile urban centers are actually considered the best places for crooks to simultaneously hide their illicit wealth and evade taxes. "These criminal organizations see Rome and Milan as bona fide tax havens," says Cisterna. "Its hard for them to hide their wealth in Calabria, where they're tightly monitored."

The Calabrian Mob, which began to accumulate wealth in the 1970s and 1980s through kidnapping and extortion, has grown exponentially in the past five years as it has teamed up with Colombian cocaine producers. The "Massacre of Ferragosto," the gangland killing of six young Calabrian men one August night in 2007, in Duisburg, Germany, was the bloodiest sign that the crime syndicate was spreading its influence across the continent.

Just in the past two days, in separate operations, police have made dozens of arrests on drug-trafficking charges in Calabria and Milan. Though no arrests were made in connection with the Café de Paris operation, Colonel Daniele Galimberti of the Carabinieri investigative unit says that following the money trail is a key to breaking the organization, which is largely protected by a widespread vow of silence. "They are more and more diversified," says Galimberti. "Confiscating property is one way to get them to talk."

Despite the morning's drama, life was back to normal at the famed café by early afternoon. Marcello Scofano, the assistant manager, who has worked there for 26 years, said the current owner appeared to be an upstanding businessman. "This has already been a bad year," Scofano said, citing the economic crisis' impact on tourism. "But I've seen good times and bad times here. We serve it all: espresso and cappuccino, dinner or snack, $1,000 bottles of wine and $40 bottles." But investigators are alleging that Scofano wasn't the only one keeping tab.