Spanish Judge Releases One of Italy’s Most Wanted Mafia Suspects

MADRID — A Spanish judge has released a fugitive Italian organized-crime suspect just days after his arrest, and a court spokesman said on Tuesday that the judge was unaware the man had been identified as a leading figure in a powerful criminal operation.

The apparent blunder was a painful blow to a two-year manhunt and investigation, conducted by the Spanish police in collaboration with the Italian police, that led to the Oct. 10 arrest of the fugitive, Vittorio Raso, 41.

On Oct. 12, the Spanish police made his arrest public, identifying Mr. Raso as a “vangelo,” or high-ranking member of the Calabrian ’Ndrangheta criminal organization, and local media widely reported it. One day later, just a few days after his arrest, Judge Alejandro Abascal of Spain’s national court freed him.

The court spokesman said the judge thought Mr. Raso had been charged only with extortion.

“The information that he had at the time didn’t include any mention of his role in the ’Ndrangheta,” the court spokesman said. A spokeswoman for Spain’s national police on Tuesday did not say whether the Spanish police had provided the judge with sufficient information about the charges against the suspect.

“Once we put somebody at the disposal of the judiciary, it is no longer for us to handle,” she said. Both the police spokeswoman and the court spokesman insisted their names be withheld, as is common practice for official spokespeople in Spain.

’Ndrangheta has become one of the most powerful criminal organizations in Italy because of connections with Latin American drug cartels that, over time, made the organization the top importer of cocaine into Europe. It gained international infamy through killings in Italy and abroad as well as multimillion-dollar investments in restaurants and real estate in Rome and across the world.

At a trial held in his absence in Italy in 2018, Mr. Raso was found guilty of usury and drug trafficking and sentenced to 20 years in prison, a sentence and convictions that would become final only if an appeals process is exhausted.

He was also wanted on a European arrest warrant on charges of belonging to a criminal organization, drug trafficking and extortion.

Mr. Raso was arrested in Barcelona and afterward, Italian police raided different homes in the city of Turin, where he had previously been based, seizing weapons, about 360,000 euros — around $423,000 — and 13 kilograms of drugs.

On Oct. 13, he appeared by videoconference before Judge Abascal, who is based in Madrid. The court spokesman confirmed that the judge had interviewed Mr. Raso and decided that he should be released, pending trial on the extortion charge.

To reduce the flight risk, the judge ordered that Mr. Raso hand over his passport and report weekly to the police.

The Spanish court has reissued an arrest warrant for Mr. Raso, but it was not immediately known whether he was still in Spain or had fled the country.

Gaia Piangiani contributed reporting from Italy.

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