A small group of priests bustling through the streets and buildings surrounding the Madre Cabrini convent in the heart of Milan, Italy, weren’t on their way to give alms to the poor. They weren’t on their way to church. They were watching for drug smugglers, and—underneath the collars and vestments—were actually carabinieri, members of Italy’s national police force. Last week they swapped the cassocks for bulletproof vests, and, with guns drawn, kicked down the convent’s wooden doors. “The nuns were absolutely puzzled,” says Rocco Papaleo, captain of the carabinieri’s investigation unit and head of the team that made the bust. “They can’t get around it. They’re still wondering what happened.”
The 10 undercover officers were in fact cracking a sophisticated cocaine smuggling operation. For three years, they had been monitoring the convent’s brown stucco dormitory in the middle of downtown Milan in their investigation of a ring that involved the Italian Mafia, gangs from Peru and Colombia, and one friendly, unassuming convent janitor named Jose Alois Cervantas who allegedly masterminded the entire operation. “It’s like a movie,” says a source close to the investigation who wishes to remain anonymous. “It sounds untrue, but it’s real.”
Carabinieri tracking drug smugglers first noticed that cocaine was funnelling through the convent in 2007. They monitored the traffic and slowly began arresting couriers, but were unable to reach the heart of the operation because it was too well organized. Hardly any of the smugglers knew each other, and none of them had any information about the workings of the drug operation outside of their particular jobs. “The couriers were busted first, but it was tough to catch the janitor,” says Papaleo. “The small fishes were far removed from the bosses.”
Over three years, and with the help of another 200 officers, Papaleo’s team pieced together the entire story. A major bust in February 2008 landed much of the gang in jail, and helped bring the picture into better focus. Colombian drug runners were asking priests in their home country to send them on a religious pilgrimage. “They said, ‘I want to find myself and have this spiritual awakening in Italy,’ ” says Papaleo.
The priests would arrange a trip to the convent, and the smugglers lined their handbags, Bibles and even boxes of pasta with kilograms of cocaine. They’d allegedly hand the drugs to Cervantas, who, working with a Peruvian gang leader named Lucio Javier Garcia Pacheco, sent the coke to a nearby cottage to be refined and distributed to dealers. Neither the Colombian priests nor the convent’s nuns had any idea of what was going on under their noses. “The janitor looked like a very easygoing, down-to-earth guy who was mostly interested with his daughter’s studies,” says Papaleo. “They were astonished.”
Even though surveillance was constant and the phones were tapped, it was difficult to know who was carrying drugs and when they’d be at the convent—since the nuns weren’t involved and Cervantas and his smugglers were very careful; no one ever talked about the cocaine. But after a painstaking process of systematically cataloguing every person involved, from the dozens of mules to the various dealers, the innocent nuns, the janitor and eventually, Pacheco, the pieces fell into place and the officers were ready to make the arrests. They just needed the coke, and they knew it would be there last week when they heard “the bride is coming” through one of their taps. Once it arrived, they busted down the doors, arresting 33 suspects, seizing 30 kg of coke, and placing another 80 people under investigation.
“It’s a huge blow because the Peruvians and Colombians were allied and armed to the teeth,” says Papaleo. Now, he says, the membership of both gangs is almost entirely behind bars. Still, he stresses that, despite the victory, police can’t rest easy. Gangs are a huge problem in his country, and when one is knocked down, another often quickly takes it place. Papaleo says a crime family from Calabria, in southern Italy, is already gearing up to move in on the territory. But, he says, regardless of how ambitious gangs may be, they’ve all been sent a powerful message. “These gangs are scared now,” he says. “For a period of time, things will be quiet.”