The Epic Mob Battle to Find a Ton of Hashish Lost in Bridge Collapse

ROME—In August 2018, the nightmare of all nightmares happened when a four-lane bridge running over the northern Italian town of Genoa collapsed in broad daylight. Forty-three people died, including the Romanian driver of a yellow truck police now say was ferrying one ton of some of the finest hashish peddled by the Neapolitan Camorra down to the drug pushers in Scampia near Naples.

In the initial aftermath of what was one of the worst bridge collapse disasters in modern history, first responders weren’t so interested in the cargo of any of the dozens of vehicles that fell some 150 feet into an industrial park below. Instead they worked to extract the bodies from the tangle of steel and rubble, including that of the badly injured Romanian driver who survived a day before succumbing to his injuries, or so his family was told.

Enter Francesco Benito Palaia, a mobster with the Calabria ‘Ndrangheta with considerable expertise in sketchy salvage operations, who was contacted immediately after the tragedy to intercept the truck from reaching the Camorra thugs waiting for their hashish, which had a street value investigators only describe as “millions of euro.” Some reports suggest that he visited the Romanian driver in the hospital before he died.

Palaia, who was arrested Tuesday in a “maxi-blitz” operation that netted 43 other mobsters, was caught on wire taps explaining how he and Rosario Caminiti, another kingpin in the ‘Ndrangheta, worked together in recovering the yellow truck and its cargo, and how they devised a plan to split the profits 50-50 between the two and to keep it from reaching the Neapolitan Camorra hands for which it was intended.

Palaia, as it would happen, was a scrapyard king and had carried out a number of “recoveries” of drugs, arms and other contraband from vehicles caught up in mob warfare. In his arrest order signed by investigating judge Vincenza Bellini, police determined that he was skilled and “easily identified and transported the carcass of the vehicle containing the considerable quantity of hashish” which Palaia described as “almost a ton of smoke.”

Palaia started to surveil the recovery efforts by first combing media clips of the accident. The document also contains transcripts of the two men discussing the truck. “So when the Morandi bridge fell, if you go to the first video,” Palaia says, according to the transcripts of the tapped calls seen by The Daily Beast.

“A van fell down,” Caminiti is heard interrupting him.

“Yes, the cargo,” Palaia replies, before explaining that he had been “engaged” by his bosses to “carry out an attempt to recover” the lost drugs.

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