ICIJ’s story “The Montenegro Connection” on the ties of Montenegro’s Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic to one of Europe’s largest ever cigarette smuggling and money laundering rackets made news across the Balkans for a week in early June. It prompted Djukanovic to write a lengthy response to the investigation, which also had revealed that his family has amassed a fortune of about $200 million.
The latest news in the Montenegro Connection came out of Switzerland last week. In the largest organized crime case ever tried in the country, a court in Bellinzona acquitted seven of nine defendants accused of laundering the profits of cigarette smuggling from the Camorra and Sacra Corona Unita, two of Italy’s most powerful mafia syndicates. In all, more than $1 billion was allegedly washed through Swiss banks between 1994 and 2001, according to prosecutors.
The court did convict two Italian men of supporting or participating in a criminal organization but found there was not enough evidence under Swiss law to convict the other seven defendants. One of the acquitted men, Swiss financier Franco Della Torre, is well known to Italian and U.S. officials. Della Torre was implicated in laundering mafia money in the notorious “Pizza Connection” case of the 1980s. The Pizza Connection had reunited the Sicilian mob with its American cousins, pouring a flood of heroin into America’s East Coast through pizzerias.
A parallel trial is unfolding in Bari, Italy, in which prosecutors have indicted Della Torre for “Mafia association” and allege that he masterminded the tobacco smuggling racket with Montenegro authorities, including Milo Djukanovic. The prime minister, protected by diplomatic immunity, was dropped from the Bari indictment in March.
In the meantime, the Swiss prosecutor on the Bellinzona case, Lienhard Ochsner, called the verdict “bewildering” and is considering an appeal.