ROME—Naizhong Zhang liked to wear brightly colored made-in-China Hawaiian shirts, but he commanded a very dark underworld that ran the gamut from murder to procuring high-dollar clients for Asian prostitutes. He was also allegedly the head of a multimillion-dollar enterprise that ruled the import and distribution of cheap Chinese goods and fake fashion across Europe.
The 57-year-old known simply as “il uomo nero,” literally the black man, to his minions, lived in Rome. But he often visited Prato, a city in the suburbs of Florence renowned as the fashion industry’s garment district, where he was arrested with 33 others in a pre-dawn sting operation on Friday called “China Truck.”
Police had been trailing Zhang since 2011 when a spate of murders among rival Chinese gangs from Zhejiang province in eastern China and Fujian province in southeastern China suddenly stopped.
The cops assumed that someone had won a battle for control of the lucrative Chinese import market that feeds the high-fashion factories that produce collars and other fine lace work for big-name fashion houses, and that controls the cheap trinket market that is especially popular in Italy with a rise in Chinese five-and-dime shops across the country. By 2012, the police said they knew the new capo dei capi or boss of bosses was Zhang.
He was almost arrested in 2013 before a grand wedding he orchestrated for his son and first heir Di Zhang at Rome’s posh Hilton hotel overlooking the city. But the cops decided to use the event to further their investigation. In the end, they were right to wait: Spying on some of the more than 500 Italian, French, and Chinese guests, many of them chauffeured through the streets of Rome in Ferrari and Lamborghini sports cars, proved useful in dismantling the network.
Indeed, Ettore Squillace Greco, the chief anti-mafia prosecutor of Livorno who led the China Truck operation, told The Daily Beast that by listening in to details about arrangements like flowers and music for the Chinese magnate’s son’s wedding, they quickly learned that everyone in the Chinese community deferred to Zhang. “Then we knew he was our man,” Greco said. “Once we knew that, we could determine the extent of his domain.”
Among the many phone taps Greco and his team sifted through were several in which Zhang personally threatened the lives of anyone who might betray him. “‘If you go with me, you will live,’ I told them, ‘If you go against me, you will die,’” he was overheard telling a friend, describing the way he defeated a rival Chinese gang. ““The next day, at midday, they all three came to me and said they wanted to join forces.”
Zhang also was overheard bragging that his reach extended across Europe. “I am the most powerful in Europe,” he was recorded saying in a wiretap released by police Friday morning. “I am not bragging about myself, you can ask anyone.”
The Chinese mafia in Prato is also suspected of engaging in human trafficking, both for work in factories and sex work. The problem was revealed dramatically in 2013 when three nude Chinese women jumped from a balcony in Milan to escape what they described as months of sexual slavery at the hands of Chinese businessmen who came to Milan. That investigation led to the discovery of appalling conditions inside many of the factories in Prato where undocumented workers lived and worked in squalor.
In 2016, Italian police started cooperating with Chinese law enforcement officials, bringing several to Italy to help help sniff out Chinese organized crime.
For the raids on Friday morning, Italy’s Central Operations Service or SCO, which is similar to the Secret Service, called in special ops officers backed with attack dogs from Prato, Rome, Florence, Milan, Padua, and Pisa to carry out the arrests for criminal mafia association, according to Italy’s national anti-mafia prosecutor Federico Cafiero de Raho and Alessandro Giuliano, the head of SCO at a press conference a few hours later.
“The criminal network had a hierarchically organized group with many levels, each dedicated to the control of diversified economic activities, beginning with the transportation of manufactured goods from Chinese companies based in Prato and throughout the national territory,” De Raho said. “The continental ramifications spread to France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Poland, Czech Republic, Romania, and Greece.”
The Chinese gang Zhang led had a monopoly in the transport of Chinese-made goods, many of which were illegally imported through ports like the one in Naples (made famous in the opening scene of Roberto Saviano’s best-selling book Gomorrah where a dead body falls from a shipping container). “They used classic mafia methods, including infiltrating legal businesses, all fueled by revenue from criminal activities like extortion and prostitution,” prosecutor Alessandro Moneti told reporters at the Friday morning press conference detailing the China Truck operation.
“Being able to shed light on the mafia character of this group is almost incredible,” De Raho, the prosecutor, said Friday. “It’s quite unusual to be able to identify a complex Chinese mafia organization.”