Police conducted a major crackdown on the 'ndrangheta crime syndicate Tuesday, arresting scores of suspects in Italy and Germany, and seeking others overseas, including one person in Toronto and seven in Thunder Bay.

The cross-border operation shows how the 'ndrangheta, today considered more powerful than the Sicilian Mafia, has extended its reach well beyond its original base in Italy's southern Calabria region.

Freelance journalist Sabina Castelfranco told CBC News from Rome that the connection between the 'ndrangheta and Canada dates back to the 1950s. The Canadian branch is known as the Siderno Group, because most of its members came from the coastal town of Siderno in Calabria.

Castelfranco said the group is believed to have many members in Canada — because the country's banking system is seen as secretive and an ideal place to launder money, and also because Canada is thought of as a useful drug smuggling entry point into North America.  

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The village of San Luca in Italy's Calabria region, which is the seat of the 'ndrangheta crime syndicate. ((Tullio Puglia/Reuters))

Thirty-one suspects were picked up in Italy, Italian police said, mostly in Calabria but also elsewhere in the country, including near Rome. Six suspects, all Italian citizens, were apprehended in Germany on an Italian-issued European arrest warrant, German and Italian officials said.

Authorities said the operation also sheds light on the group's structure and how it operates outside its home region.

"There is a perfect reproduction of the Calabrian model," said Giuseppe Pignatone, the prosecutor of Reggio Calabria.

"The foreign groups always maintain contact with the mother house, which is the Reggio Calabria area, where they periodically come to take their orders, directives, long-term strategies, as well as give an account of what's going on," he said in comments to Italy's Radio 24.

In the past decade, the 'ndrangheta has emerged as a powerful and aggressive organization, becoming one of the world's biggest cocaine traffickers.

In a shocking act that brought the 'ndrangheta under the international spotlight, six Italian men were gunned down in 2007 as they left a birthday party at an Italian restaurant in Duisburg, Germany. The massacre was part of a long-running feud between two clans of the 'ndrangheta.

Calabria a 'failed state': WikiLeaks

In a confidential cable released by WikiLeaks some weeks ago, a U.S. diplomat said the grip of the 'ndrangheta on the economy and every aspect of life is so pervasive that Calabria would be a "failed state" if it were not part of Italy. The cable dated from Dec. 2008.

The government has since launched a crackdown on the 'ndrangheta that has resulted in hundreds of arrests, millions of dollars in seized assets and the appearance of a handful of rare turncoats. The justice minister, Angelino Alfano, hailed Tuesday's arrests as another success in the fight against the mob.

Tuesday's raids followed up on a massive police operation in July that put over 300 people behind bars, dealing a serious blow to the group. Cortese, the police official, said the recent arrests stem from wiretapped conversations of a top boss who was arrested in July.

The boss, Giuseppe Commisso, nicknamed "the master," was allegedly heard discussing the 'ndrangheta's involvement abroad during meetings at his dry-cleaning shop.

"He was the one people went to report to, including from Canada and Australia," Cortese said.

Suspect tried to hide in bunker

Among those picked up in Italy on Tuesday was Francesco Maisano, a boss who tried to hide in an underground bunker when police raided his home, according to the ANSA news agency.

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An Italian Carabinieri paramilitary police officer shows the entrance of a bunker where Francesco Maisano, an alleged boss, tried to hide when police raided his home. ((Italian Carabinieri/Associated Press))

Five of the suspects in Germany were arrested in the area of the city of Konstanz along the Swiss border, while the sixth was apprehended in the state of Hesse to the north, said Juergen Gremmelmeier, a spokesman for local prosecutors.

The suspects were identified as being Italian citizens aged between 32 and 58, but Gremmelmeier said he had no further details.

They were to go before a judge later in the day. If they agree to extradition they could be sent to Italy relatively quickly, Gremmelmeier said, but if they decide to fight it a decision could take longer.

The suspects picked up in Germany were not connected to the Duisburg shooting, Cortese said.

With files from CBC News