How UK Customs busted the Sicilian Mafia’s Woking Connection

The London Daily News, March 11 1987

It all started one wintery Sunday morning in December 1984 in Felixstowe Docks. A Customs dog called Ben, trained to sniff out drugs, started yelping at a couple of containers full of carved wooden furniture which had just made the eight-week journey from Kashmir in the foothills of the Himalayas.

By late afternoon, Customs officers had unloaded all 52 crates of furniture from the containers and found a total of 250 kilos of prime Afghan Black cannabis sealed into secret compartments in the tops of chests of drawers. It was a big bust by any standards, worth nearly £3 million. But it was only the beginning.

In the next two weeks, Customs investigators delved into the background of their find. They traced the Surrey company which had ordered the furniture. They found that nine months earlier it had received another consignment from Kashmir which had been immediately sent on to an address in Montreal, Canada. They contacted the Canadian police and asked if the address meant anything to them. The Canadian reply was that the address meant one, sensational thing – the Sicilian Mafia.

Sicilian gangsters had never been found in the UK, but following the Felixstowe lead, the Customs team – known as Operation Devotion – discovered that the Sicilian Mafia had not only started using London as a staging post for smuggling drugs, but they had moved a permanent team of powerful Mafiosi into the Home Counties. What was more, they had been there for ten years.

They found that the English Mafiosi had been indulging in all the traditional activities of Sicilian Godfathers: living the good life in mansions; driving sleek luxury cars; channelling heroin, cocaine and cannabis around the world; laundering millions of pounds through a global network of secret bank accounts; bribing, corrupting and even ordering murders – not in Chicago or Palermo, but in the staid English surroundings of Woking in Surrey.

The discovery shook British Customs and police. What shook them even more was when the deputy head of the Palermo flying squad, Nino Cassara, flew into London to exchange intelligence on the operation. On his return to Sicily, Cassara was cut down by 200 rounds from a Kalashnikov AK47.The Italian police said this was the Mafia’s way of trying to put a stop to Operation Devotion. It did not work. The operation tore the heart out of the biggest drug-smuggling ring ever found in the UK and exposed the Mafia’s secret London life.

Devotion’s prime target was Francesco Di Carlo, the son of farmers from the village of Altofonte near Palermo. Although the family has no history of Mafia activity, Francesco has been wanted by Sicilian police for a succession of offences over the years, graduating from firearms, robbery and perjury in the 1960s to Mafia membership in the 1970s and finally to murder and drug trafficking.

In the course of this, in 1973, he formed a new Mafia family in Altofonte and became its first boss, supported by his brothers, Andrew and Giulio, who are both now serving long prison sentences in Sicily. The new family has been pecuIiarly powerful from the start because it is, effectively, a limb of the most powerful family of all, the Corleones, the model for Mario Puzo’s novel, The Godfather.

Di Carlo is among the 100 most senior members of the Mafia. He was first sent to London on September 26, 1977 and rapidly became involved in drugs. He stayed in Viney Bank, Croydon with another Sicilian Mafioso, Girolamo Vaud, a specialist in cannabis smuggling, who was married to an English woman.

The two men used a front company, Fauci Continental, based in Lambeth Road, to smuggle cannabis under the guise of importing fruit and vegetables from Italy. They were aided by Filippo Monteleone and Antonio Luciani, who settled in London in the late 1970s and were eventually to be caught up in the massive drugs ring uncovered by Customs.

Di Carlo divided his time between England and Italy. In Sicily, he invested in property, restaurants and a fleet of 24 lorries and he linked with a powerful nobleman, Prince Vanni Cavello, who has twice played host to the English Royal family in Sicily and who has since been charged with Mafia crimes.

The two men ran a night-club for the Palermo smart set, Il Castello, which police believe was used for heroin dealing. Di Carlo and his brothers helped the Corleones to forge a new alliance with the Naples mafia, the Camorra, attending summit meetings with them in 1975 and 1979.

Di Carlo was then appointed to expand the London operation in 1982 against a dramatic background: he had been caught embezzling Mafia funds in Sicily and he and his family faced execution. But he was saved by his alliance with the all-powerful Corleone families, who ruled that he should be deposed as head of his Altofonte family and sent to London. Two other, equally senior, Mafiosi were sent with him – Alfonso and Pasquale Caruana.

The Caruanas come from the small town of Siculiana – known to Italian police as “the Wall Street of the heroin world” because its families have specialised in laundering the Mafia’s huge drug profits. The Caruanas and their cousins, the Cuntreras, dominate the Mafia’s banking.

Thirty years ago, the two families were scratching a living by quarrying salt and sulphur near their home in southern Sicily. Now, the empire which they have built on heroin stretches across the world to the United States, Canada and Venezuela, where the head of the family, Pasquale Cuntrera, holds court, and where their men were recently caught trying to smuggle three tons of cocaine to Miami.

The new London team moved with great speed. Di Carlo moved permanently to the UK in June 1982. In July, the Caruana brothers joined him, and Pasquale’s English wife, Sheilagh, rented homes for them in the Woking area, where there is a large Italian community. A third Caruana brother, Gerlando, was already in place in Montreal. They now embarked on an orgy of drug-smuggling.

In July, Filippo Monteleone and Antonio Luciani arranged to take over a Brixton firm, Ital Provisions, which had been importing food from Italy. In September, Gerlando Caruana sent Francesco Siracusa from Montreal to Kashmir to set up a front company, Shalimar, to produce furniture with hidden compartments. In November, the Canadians set up another front company, Santa Rita, in Montreal.

From Montreal, consignments were to be fed through myriad secret channels to the New York Mafia families. The machine was ready.

In February 1983, Filippo Monteleone paid a lump sum in cash into Barclay’s Bank in Stockwell and then transferred the entire amount to the Kashmir company. A month later, Kashmir sent the first consignment of furniture through Bombay to Ital Provisions in Brixton. When it arrived in May, Di Carlo’s group changed the labels on the crates, so that they appeared to have originated in London, and sent them on to Santa Rita in Montreal.

The system worked, and the London Mafiosi decided to expand, setting up a further company in the heroin fields of Chiang Mai, north Thailand and a second front company in England called Elongate, based in Mitcham, Surrey. Siracusa paid £430 to install burglar alarms at Elongate’s warehouse and then insisted that they should not be linked to the local police station. The shipments of heroin and cannabis slipped through London without a hitch.

A second cannabis route was opened from Kashmir via Hong Kong to the USA. The London gangsters took five shipments from Sicily in 1982, which are now believed to have contained drugs. Luciani and Monteleone flew to Brazil and set up a supply of cocaine via Hamburg and London.

According to drugs intelligence reports, the London group were regularly handling consignments of 300 kilos of cannabis and 10 kilos of cocaine. They linked up with professional London criminals and distributed drugs within the UK as well as abroad. Money poured in.

Di Carlo drove a £25,000 Ferrari. The Caruanas had Mercedes. Their mansions featured swimming pools, a heart-shaped lilly pond, a sauna, landscaped gardens and paddocks. Gardeners, handymen and cooks saw to their needs.

More cash went into a huge money-laundering network, set up by the Caruanas. Pasquale established 31 different accounts in Panama, Milan, Chiasso, New York, Zurich and Lugano. Alfonso opened 15 more in London, Lugano, Amsterdam and Chiasso. As well as recycling their own profits, they used the accounts to process Mafia money from Canada, the United State, Venezuela and Sicily, where Michele Aiello, the Mafia’s treasurer used their network.

Then the dog barked in Felixstowe docks. Customs officers raided Elongate’s Mitcham, warehouse on December 18, 1984 and arrested Francesco Siracusa and another Canadian Sicilian, Alberto Gualtieri.

But the Mafia was not to be stopped. Within two months, the Canadian end set up a new company, Canada Inc, to replace Santa Rita, which was tainted by association with Elongate. In London, Di Carlo decided to continue to use their other company, Ital Provisions. It proved to be a catastrophic error.

After one dummy run, when ‘clean’ furniture was sent from Thailand via Ital Provisions to Canada Inc, they set up an enormous deal – 60 kilos of heroin, worth $150 million on the streets of North America. When it arrived in Southampton on May 26, 1985, Operation Devotion was waiting for it. The drugs had been so well concealed inside the tops of wooden tables that, even knowing it was there, Customs needed a day and a half to find it. It was easily the biggest consignment of heroin ever captured in the UK.

Customs removed 32 kilos and then hid electronic bugs in the crates before allowing the rest to travel on to Canada. When it arrived in Montreal on June 20, Canadian police followed it and caught Gerlando Caruana red-handed with his two lieutenants, Luciano Zambito and Filippo Vaccarello.

In London, Customs had been trailing their targets. They were impressed by the Mafia’s professionalism. They never used their home phones. They noticed that Monteleone always stopped to post a letter on the way to Ital Provisions’ warehouse in Brixton, but when they checked in the letter box, they found he had posted nothing. He had simply being using it as cover to stop and check that he was not being followed.

As soon as news of the Canadian arrests came through, Di Carlo and Monteleone were held. Among Monteleone’s possessions, they found the Cocaine User’s Handbook, two books about the Mafia and a huge set of grocer’s scales with traces of cocaine in them.

Di Carlo protested his innocence. “I came to England because I didn’t like the Sicilian mentality,” he said. “I like the civilisation in England. It is eight years that I have been here. I don’t even have a traffic offence.” Weeks later, he was organising a cannabis deal from his cell in Brixton Prison.

Six months later, there was enough evidence to arrest Antonio Luciani as well. But the Caruana brothers slipped through the net: Pasquale was in Canada, supervising the importation, but there was not enough evidence to charge him there; Alfonso fled Britain within hours of Di Carlo’s arrest and is believed to be in Venezuela. Now their homes and cars have been sold and the proceeds spirited away into their many bank accounts.