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Europe's Biggest Migrant Center Was Run By Crime Syndicate, Italian Police Say

Italian authorities say the the CARA Sant'Anna migrant reception center "was like a cash withdrawal machine for the mafia." (illustrative photo)

Europe's largest center for migrants was controlled by the 'Ndrangheta crime syndicate for more than a decade, Italian investigators said May 15.

Police have arrested 68 suspects, including the manager of the facility.

Those arrested -- allegedly members of the Arena crime family belonging to the 'Ndragheta -- are accused of being part of an organized crime group, racketeering, false registration of assets, embezzlement, fraud and other tax crimes, the antimafia prosecutor's office of the southern city of Catanzaro said in a statement.

Mobsters had "infiltrated for more than a decade all the business activities" connected to the CARA Sant'Anna migrant reception center of Isola Capo Rizzuto, skimming public contracts for catering and other services.

The center, which was nominally run by the Catholic organization Misericordia, "was like a cash withdrawal machine for the mafia," General Giuseppe Governale, head of Ros, a special Carabinieri police unit, told a news conference.

Misericordia runs several facilities partly funded by the European Union, including another migrant center on the island of Lampedusa.

Police arrested the organization's manager, Leonardo Sacco, as well as the parish priest, Father Edoardo Scordio, in Isola Capo Rizzuto.

Mafia infiltration in the Sant'Anna site, which can accommodate more than 1,200 migrants, had been suspected since at least 2013.

Italy is eligible for EU grants worth more than 500 million euros ($550 million) for migration, asylum, and border management projects between 2014 and 2020.

Based in Calabria, the 'Ndrangheta is considered one of the most powerful organized crime groups in the world and the leading smuggler of cocaine into Europe.

The UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, says about 85 percent of the 53,165 people who crossed the Mediterranean Sea since the start of the year landed in Italy.

Based on reporting by dpa and AFP