Wed, 06 Mar 2013 00:00 UTC
A British man, said to be involved with the republican terrorist organisation, is being sought by detectives investigating the £390m fraud which was based around a development on the beautiful coast of Calabria in Southern Italy.
Italian authorities arrested 16 people in dawn raids and issued a warrant for the arrest of Henry James Fitzsimons, 63, from Belfast, saying he was "a subject considered by the British authorities to be close to the IRA, the Irish terrorist organisation."
Nicola Gratteri, a veteran anti-mafia prosecutor based in the southern port city of Reggio Calabria, described Mr Fitzsimons as someone "delegated by the IRA to recycle the proceeds of terrorist activities and to reinvest the financial resources of the movement."
The wanted man is understood to be the same person as Henry James Fitzsimmons, now 63, who once served 15 years in jail for an attack on a Belfast hotel.
He was jailed in 1973 for blowing up the Woodburn House Hotel in Suffolk, Belfast in November 1971 when he was described as "one of the most active officers in the Provisional IRA during their 1971 bombing campaign."
He sent two men into the hotel armed with a Thompson sub-machinegun and a revolver who threatened the staff before planting a bomb in the building, which later blew up causing £183,000 damage.
He was also jailed for blowing up the Collin Glenn bacon factory where he had worked and stealing the £7,000 pay roll in November 1971.
One security source told the Daily Telegraph that Fitzsimons was known to them but said they were not aware that he had re-engaged with dissident republicans.
A source at the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) confirmed that they had provided assistance to the Italian police investigation but declined to comment further.
The Real IRA and other groups are heavily involved in cigarette and diesel smuggling and need ways of laundering the illegal proceeds from such activity.
The Provisional IRA was said to be behind the £26.5m raid on the Northern Bank in 2004 and most of the proceeds have never been recovered.
Fitzsimons, known as "Harry", now runs a company called VFI Overseas Property with his Italian business partner Antonio Velardo.
VFI was founded in 2006 and has offices in London, Dublin, St Petersburg, Moscow, Stockholm and Tunis.
The company won the European architecture award in the 2009 Europe Residential Property Awards for its five-star Calypso Lagoon development at Le Castella in Calabria.
The accused in the Italian case is said to have forged ties with the Italian mafia to funnel dirty money from the IRA's criminal activities into holiday developments in the far south of Italy.
He allegedly poured tens of millions of pounds into a string of tourist complexes on the stunning Ionian coast of the southern region of Calabria, the heartland of the feared 'Ndrangheta mafia.
The police said Mr Fitzsimons had "through his ties with organised crime in Calabria, the means to reinvest enormous sums of money in his possession, thanks to the mediation of a noted businessman from Campania."
One of the firms named by Italian investigators yesterday was Giambrone & Law, based in London and Palermo, Sicily, which last month lost a £1m battle with 13 property buyers from Northern Ireland over Italian holiday homes that were never built.
The investors paid out 50 per cent deposits for apartments in Calabria in southern Italy nearly six years ago but the proposed El Caribe development never took place.
Giambrone Law said it carried out conveyancing work on a residential property in Calabria developed by the money laundering suspects.
A spokesman said Giambrone had had no idea any money may have been laundered and said they were approached by Mr Fitzsimons at an Italian property trade show.
"He is involved in the marketing company that does advertising for the development," the spokesman said. "Irish developers work across Europe. It's not strange."
Campania, just to the north of Calabria, is notorious as the home of the Camorra mafia.
Italy's Guardia di Finanza or finance police said yesterday they were unable to locate Mr Fitzsimons and believe he is in hiding in an unnamed African country.
The police sequestered 12 property development companies and 17 to-let holiday resorts, some of them only half-built, strung along Calabria's Ionian coast, on the toe of the Italian boot.
Together they were estimated to be worth 450 million euros. Eleven vehicles were also impounded, including four luxury cars.
The money-laundering scam also involved Spanish businessman, in a three-way collaboration between Spain, Italy and the UK.
As part of Operation Metropolis, searches were carried out in Alicante in southern Spain. Two of the Italians were accused of being leaders of two 'Ndrangheta clans, linked to the Morabito and Aquino families.
Police and judicial investigators say the 'Ndrangheta makes billions of euros a year from drug trafficking, the arms trade and other criminal activities.
The arrests and seizures were the fruit of an investigation which began in 2008, focussing on the 'Ndrangheta's investments in tourism and property in the far south of Italy.
Police said members of the Calabrian mafia and Spanish businessmen had created a "joint venture" to build residential and tourism properties, starting in 2005. Through "the force of mafia intimidation", they had managed to obtain and develop the land "through a complex network of Italian and foreign companies."
A police statement said: "This is a new 'Ndrangheta entrepreneurship, a new way of carrying out Mafia activities, where there is no shooting or killing, but where affiliation derives only from one matrix: money.
"What emerges from the investigation is an international and modern 'Ndrangheta, with a complex structure and a colonising and expansionist philosophy."
Police said that among the resorts that the IRA was investing in was one called Gioiello del Mare, or the Jewel of the Sea, in the seaside resort of Brancaleone.
Other resorts included The Sands of Brancaleone and holiday village developments in the town of Bianco.
Vast swathes of the Italian coastline have been ruined by ugly and inappropriate concrete development, often with mafia investment.
Mafia godfathers are able to get round planning regulations by buying off corrupt local politicians.