The two-year Operation Pollino is a cross-border investigation into the 'Ndrangheta criminal group, which is accused of cocaine trafficking, money laundering, bribery and violence, according to Eurojust, the EU prosecution agency tasked with cross-border crime.
The suspected mobsters were arrested in Italy, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands on Wednesday. Police seized 4,000 kilograms (8,820 pounds) of cocaine and 140 kilograms of ecstasy pills together with about €2 million ($2.3 million) in notes.
"Today we send a clear message to organized crime groups across Europe," said Eurojust's Filippo Spiezia. "They are not the only ones able to operate across borders; so are Europe's judiciary and
law enforcement communities."
The arrests followed years of investigative work, which also involved officers from Switzerland and operations in the South American country of Suriname.
"It's almost a cliche, but the operation carried out today confirms again the great danger of the 'Ndrangheta, not just in drug trafficking, where it's the undisputed leader, but (also) in the financial sphere," said Francesco Ratta, a police official in Calabria. "It's an evolved 'ndrangheta, that we can say knows no borders ... It's an 'Ndrangheta that day by day changes its skin ... but still keeps ties" to its home base in Calabria.
'Biggest' anti-mafia operation in Germany
In Germany, the raids were focused on the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, where the mafia has traditionally had a large presence. There were also raids in Bavaria.
Police arrested 14 suspects and seized large amounts of cash and several cars that were allegedly used to transport drugs, according to the Federal Criminal Police Agency (BKA) in Wiesbaden.
Some 490 kilograms of cocaine were found in Germany during the raids, the BKA said in a statement.
One of the main suspects in Germany was a 45-year-old Italian man who was arrested at his home in the town of Pulheim, near the western city of Cologne. The man owned a restaurant in the town and is accused of being a member of the criminal organization and being deeply involved in trafficking cocaine.
"I'm completely shocked, as are others around here. It's the first place I go to if I want something good to eat around here, and I would never have expected anything like this," Bernhard Inden, a 77-year-old pensioner who lives near the restaurant, told DW.
Federal investigators believe that the group purchased real estate in Germany — particularly restaurants — in order to launder the money from the drug trade.
It's the biggest operation against a Mafia clan by German police on German soil yet, Der Spiegel newsmagazine reported. More than 65 locations were searched; the operation involved more than 440 officers in Germany alone.
Most powerful clan
The 'ndrangheta is seen as the most powerful Italian Mafia organization, trumping Sicily's Cosa Nostra and Naples' Camorra.
It is a leading force in money laundering and the cocaine trade. The reports suggest that the raids are aimed at the Mammoliti and Giorgi families, who are part of the crime syndicate.
Italian prosecutor Federico Cafiero de Raho told reporters on Monday that he expected an ongoing investigation into 'ndrangheta and the arrests made so far were "nothing to them."
"We should be arresting thousands. ... Their wealth is enormous," de Raho said. He pointed out that the clan's methods were sophisticated and it often contracted respected members of society, such as lawyers and accountants.
The organization also frequently buys and sells cafes, restaurants and other establishments, with the quick turnaround on the properties making it hard to pin the owners down.
"They are invisible," Cafiero de Raho added.
The 'ndrangheta was also involved in the 2007 Duisburg murders, where six people were killed. The killings are linked to a long-running feud between two 'ndrangheta families, Nirta-Strangio and Pelle-Vottari.
On Tuesday, Italian police arrested an alleged Sicilian mafia boss, Settimino Mineo, believed to be the new head of the Cosa Nostra clan.