Mafia boss with SA links arrested

By Douglas Carew

A Sicilian Mafia boss suspected of cocaine trafficking in South Africa has been arrested in South America and extradited to Italy.

Italian police have been hunting Vito Bigione, 52, for nine years in Africa and South America, on suspicion of him being a major Mafia drugs smuggler. He is on Italy's "30 most dangerous criminals" list.

"Bigione was a logistics point man for the various criminal needs of the Cosa Nostra," the Italian police said.

The alleged Mafia boss was arrested in Venezuela last week. He had close links to southern Africa and previously successfully fought extradition from Namibia.

Sicilian-born Bigione was arrested in Caracas and extradited to Italy.

Reuters reported that Bigione, who owned a fleet of 12 ocean-going fishing boats in Namibia, was suspected of trafficking cocaine from South America and South Africa via Spain to Italy. Italian police said he had links with Colombian drug cartels and Italian organised crime.

But South African police said they had no knowledge of Bigione or his alleged drug trafficking into and out of this country.

National police spokesperson Ronnie Naidoo, after contacting the local branch of Interpol, said police had never investigated Bigione, nor had they assisted the Italian police with their investigations into his alleged activities in South Africa.

Naidoo said various methods were used to smuggle cocaine from South America into South Africa, but as far as the police were concerned, cocaine was not smuggled to Italy from South Africa.

"The main drug that leaves South Africa to European countries is cannabis (dagga)."

Bigione is the second alleged Mafia boss with links to South Africa to be arrested in the past year.

In November, Giovanni Bonomo, who had been on the run for seven years, was arrested in Senegal and taken back to Italy to face murder charges.

A BBC report at the time quoted Italian police as saying Bonomo had allegedly laundered money during time spent in South Africa and Namibia.

Italian police told Associated Press this week that Bigione had helped other alleged Mafia fugitives, including Bonomo, to find refuge in Africa.

Before moving to Venezuela, Bigione had lived in Namibia from 1998, where his business interests included an upmarket seaside restaurant, La Marina, which consisted of four luxury passenger train coaches.

In 2000, The Namibian newspaper reported that Bigione had been arrested in Walvis Bay after Italian police requested his extradition to Italy, where he was to stand trial in Sicily on charges of smuggling more than 2 000kg of cocaine by sea from Brazil to Italy and smuggling 5 000kg of hashish from Morocco to Italy.

Two of his alleged accomplices, Guiseppe Salemi and Antonio Sanguedolce, had reportedly been arrested in Italy and testified that Bigione was involved in alleged drug-trafficking.

Cape Town advocate Reenen Potgieter led a team of five lawyers who successfully argued that Bigione should not be extradited because the Italian police had not provided enough evidence to justify the extradition.

The Namibian newspaper reported that Bigione had arrived in Namibia in 1998 from Cameroon, where he had lived for four years. Italian police had tried to extradite Bigione from Cameroon, but their attempts failed.

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