By Hada Messia and Laura Smith-Spark
ROME (CNN) -- Members of the powerful Gambino crime family were among 24 people detained Tuesday in New York and several cities in Italy in a major anti-mafia raid, authorities said.
The FBI and Italian police carried out the raid as part of operation "New Bridge," which targeted more than 40 people for international drug trafficking and organized crime in connection with the 'Ndrangheta mafia, officials added.
Italian police detained 17 suspects, anti-mafia prosecutor Franco Roberti told reporters at a news conference in Rome.
The FBI arrested seven people in New York in a coordinated raid, he added, including high-ranking members of the Gambino family.
Some of the seven people arrested in New York are charged with laundering money in the United States, as well as illegal drug trafficking and organized crime. Investigators said that the money found in the raids amounted to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The operations in Italy were carried out in the southern region of Calabria and in the cities of Naples, Caserta, Torino, Benevento and Catanzaro.
The Italian mafia family involved in the alliance, or "bridge," with the Gambino family, is called Ursino Ionica.
Tuesday's operation was the first ever jointly run by U.S. and Italian police targeting the ties between the two countries' 'Ndrangheta mafia families, investigators said.
The Italian national anti-mafia body coordinated the investigation and operation.
It alleges that the Calabria mafia, known as the 'Ndrangheta, is behind a ring of drug trafficking between South and Central America, Canada, the United States and Italy.
Cocaine found in canned fruit shipment
Anti-mafia prosecutors in Calabria have been carrying out an investigation over the past two years, and Italian police compiled a 2,000-page report detailing what was learned, including information from phone wiretaps.
The discovery of cocaine in containers at the port of Gioia Tauro, in Calabria, aided the probe, officials said. The drug was found inside cans with labels saying they contained coconut milk and pineapple from Mexico.
Investigators said at the news conference that the Mexico-Calabria connection was established in New York but that the cocaine shipment came from Georgetown, Guyana.
Law enforcement officials are still trying to establish how the drug traveled from Mexico to Guyana but said that some of the suspects took trips to Latin America following their New York meetings.
The illegal traffic of drugs between the United States and Italy stopped by police could have earned the mafia millions of euros, authorities said, though they declined to give an exact figure.
Raffaele Grassi, head of the Criminal Unit of the Italian State Police, told reporters that the operation demonstrated that the "'Ndrangheta is one of the strongest organizations in the world in illegal drug trade."
He cited its sophisticated network of contacts and its ability to adapt and find new markets, including "expanding beyond Italian borders."
Grassi said that historically, the Gambino family had had ties with the Sicilian Mafia, Cosa Nostra. But their involvement in the illegal traffic of heroin, known as the "Pizza Connection," was dismantled or severely curtailed in the 1980s, he said, and they are now trading mainly cocaine.
The latest operation, according to Grassi and FBI officials, shows that the mafia families of the "new continent" are still seeking and relying on "old country" connections -- which is why investigators dubbed the operation "New Bridge."
According to Grassi, the Italian-American mafia families "need this new bridge to connect and support the traffic of cocaine."
While the existence of a connection between the Calabrian mafia and U.S. mafia families has been well known, Tuesday's operation shows its great strength and reach, investigators said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Marshall L. Miller of the Eastern district of New York told reporters that the United States would fight any transfer of deadly narcotics into U.S. territory, as well as any "bridge" between the United States and Italy aimed at aiding organized crime.
The operation proves that the United States has a strong partnership with Italian authorities in fighting this international trade, Miller said.
'Ndrangheta members thought they would be able to benefit by crossing boundaries, he said. "Today we proved the opposite."
One of the more alarming discoveries to emerge from the operation was evidence that 'Ndrangheta has also reached out to the Far East in the heroin trade, another investigator said.
CNN's Hada Messia reported from Rome and Laura Smith-Spark wrote in London.
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