Cocaine king and escape artist

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Roberto Pannunzi was arrested in Colombia on Friday. Photo: Policia Nacional/AFP
15:54 CEST+02:00
With a briefcase full of cash and a diamond necklace, Roberto Pannunzi has long outsmarted police around the world. But his crimes have caught up with him and the drug lord is now back behind bars in Italy.

Who is Roberto Pannunzi?

“The biggest cocaine importer in the world,” according to Nicola Gratteri, the deputy chief prosecutor of Italian city Reggio Calabria. Sixty-five-year-old Pannunzi has spent much of his criminal career arranging cocaine shipments - of more than 3,000 kilograms at a time - around the world.

He is unaffectionately called the “Pablo Escobar of Italy” by Colombian authorities and goes by “Bebè” (Baby) among his associates.

Why is he in the news?

On Friday he was arrested in a shopping mall in Bogota and flown to Rome, where he remains under lock and key.

Pannunzi had been on the run since 2010, when he escaped from custody while on a hospital visit from prison. At the time, he was serving a 16-and-a-half year sentence for his crimes, and was put on Interpol’s most wanted list after the jailbreak.

Was that Pannunzi’s first run-in with the law?

Not at all. In 1999 he also escaped from a hospital while visiting from prison and was not recaptured until 2004 in Madrid. When arrested in Colombia this month, Pannunzi reportedly told officers he had health problems again. Police are unlikely to fall for that trick again.

Pannunzi was also detained at a mafia funeral in Colombia in 1994, where legend has it he offered police a million dollars in cash in exchange for his freedom. The drug lord is no stranger to bribery and Gratteri said he wore a diamond necklace and carried a briefcase of cash to offer to any would-be captors.

Has he always lived the life of crime?

According to Huffington Post Italia, Pannunzi once worked for airline Alitalia.

He also ran a fashion boutique called Papavero in Rome during the 1980s. The name - which translates as poppy - does however give away the fact that this was merely a cover for heroin trading.

Pannunzi has also dabbled in the shipping world. He once bought a Greek container ship, although the purchase was made in order to transport drugs from Colombia. It appears it’s a life of crime for Pannunzi.

How did he become part of the underworld?

Pannunzi was born in Rome but moved to Toronto as a child. It was in Canada that he met mafia bosses Antonio Macri and Salvatore Miceli, and his criminal career took off from there, the UK's Independent reported.

Who were his partners in crime?

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Born to a Calabrian mother, Pannunzi remembered his roots and was a member of the region’s 'Ndrangheta mafia. The gang is described by Europol as one of the world’s most powerful, which “has a dominant position in the European cocaine market”.

Pannunzi is unusual in that he also worked with other groups, including the Cosa Nostra mafia, “the oldest, most traditional and widespread manifestation of the Sicilian mafia” according to Europol.

What next for Pannunzi?

Languishing in an Italian jail, although given his past success in escaping, it might be worth keeping an eye out for the diamond-clad Italian.

Gratteri hopes Pannunzi will stay put this time: "It's exhausting having to go around the world to find him every time he escapes." 

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