‘Ndrangheta man arrested in Malta already known in 2011

Mario Gennaro was associated as early as 2011 with a clan underboss but still managed to get Betuniq a Maltese gaming licence, Gennaro’s 'Ndrangheta ties were revealed during a mafia trial in Palermo in 2014 but went on unhindered for another 12 months before his arrest

Mario Gennaro, handcuffed, escorted by the police on his arrival in Italy on Friday
Mario Gennaro, handcuffed, escorted by the police on his arrival in Italy on Friday

The Italian who ran a money laundering operation in Malta through a network of remote gaming companies, had already been flagged as an associate of the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta back in 2011.

Mario Gennaro, 39, was arrested last week together with several other associates on the strength of a European Arrest Warrant, following a bust led by anti-mafia police from Reggio Calabria, home of the feared, international criminal organisation.

But despite Gennaro having already been outed as an associate of the Tegano clan, or ‘ndrina, neither the Malta Gaming Authority nor GVM Holdings – the company that gave the Betuniq group fiduciary services to hide their owners’ identities – flagged the criminal elements funnelling millions through Malta’s remote gaming industry.

The Betuniq group’s ties to the ‘Ndrangheta were revealed during a Palermo tribunal on 26 May, 2014, that had condemned several members of the Noce clan of the Sicilian Mafia to a total of 300 years’ imprisonment.

Gennaro was then exposed to have been running Betuniq’s network of gaming shops in Reggio Calabria and in those neighbourhoods controlled by the ‘Ndrangheta penetration. But even earlier, in 2011, in a seizure order issued by the Reggio Calabria anti-mafia unit, Gennaro was described as being “tied to Franco Benestaro, deputy head of the Tegano ‘ndrina”.

“In his lifetime Gennaro has attracted the attention of inquiring magistrates for his relations with the Tegano ‘ndrina,” the Italian newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore reported in July 2014.

“With him working in the background, Betuniq is doing great, with 330 shops in Reggio Calabria and the rest of the south, raking in €225 million in 2013. Its singular achievement is that it has no concession from the state – Betuniq is blacklisted by the Customs and Monopolies Agency.”

But the Betuniq brand prospered in Malta, with a licence issued to Uniq Group Ltd in December 2013, backdated to May 2012.

However, Malta Gaming Authority executive chairman Joseph Cuschieri has told MaltaToday that the Uniq Group was already “operating in and out of Malta since February 2011, following their application in November 2010.”

“The authorisation granted to Uniq Group Ltd predates my time… the initial due diligence checks were conducted between November 2010 and February 2011 and no adverse remarks were found on the licensee and applicants. The same process was followed on my watch, that is from November 2013 onwards,” Cuschieri told MaltaToday.

Cuschieri said that the MGA relies on official sources and documentation for the fit-and-proper checks carried out to assess individuals.

But as he said, the Uniq Group was already “operating legitimately in Malta since February 2011.”

David Gonzi, whose name was investigated by Reggio Calabria police in Operation Gambling, has distanced himself from suggestions that Gennaro’s criminal ties were overlooked by his fiduciary firm.

Gonzi is a 33% shareholder in GVM Holdings, a name-lender company that serviced the Uniq Group and its owner Start Games Limited, and several of its associated companies and subsidiaries. In Malta, the Betuniq companies were controlled by Ulisse Bellino, Mario Gennaro, Mario Zucco, Domenico Lagrotteria, Giovanni Longo, and Cosimo Suppa – all names mentioned by the Reggio Calabria prosecutor as being part of the ‘Ndrangheta’s web of influence in their gaming interest.

In his dossier, the Reggio Calabria prosecutor said Gonzi, son of former prime minister Lawrence Gonzi, “had to be strongly condemned” and claimed that Gonzi acted “as a cover for the criminal activities… Pending further necessary investigation, it would be plausible to situate [Gonzi] right at the centre of an international criminal business triangulation network.”

But Gonzi has defended his role, saying he became a director of GVM Holdings in December 2014, and that it was not Mario Gennaro who was a client of GVM Holdings, and that his firm never received instructions from Gennaro.

“I personally never met, spoke to or otherwise communicated directly or indirectly with Mario Gennaro,” he told MaltaToday.

In a previous statement, Gonzi said that he had first contact with the gaming companies in October 2013, and that he had no reason to suspect they were involved in any unlawful activity. “It was only on this basis that the companies involved were accepted as clients of GVM.”

Gonzi defended GVM Holdings’ actions in having carried out “enhanced due diligence” on all of its clients, requesting authenticated copies of passports, original bank references, and original utility bills and police conduct certificates issued in the clients’ country of residence.

“In addition, checks on international data intelligence databases are carried out in relation to all clients. In this respect, GVM complied with all requirements imposed by law and by the authorities relating to keeping proper checks on its clients,” Gonzi told MaltaToday.

Gennaro was ‘Ndrangheta’s point-man

According to Reggio Calabria’s anti-mafia unit, which authored a 750-page dossier for Operation Gambling and naming 128 persons of interest in its bust, Pendergardens resident Mario Gennaro was the point-man for the ‘Ndrangheta, running a gaming network as part of an alliance that also featured the Camorra of Naples, and the Sicilian Mafia.

“He guaranteed the controlled diffusion of various illicit [gambling] sites, the result of a criminal pact with entrepreneurs [Renato] Grasso and [Antonio] Padovani, respectively representing the Camorra and the Sicilian Mafia.”

The investigators claim that it is clear that Mario Gennaro was the ‘Ndrangheta’s representative “with whom Grasso and Padovani came to terms to guarantee the illicit and criminal sponsorship of their [gambling] shops in Calabria.”

‘Slot machine king’ Antonio Padovani was arrested for Mafia association in 2011, and had his €40 million asset wealth seized.

Gennaro was arrested together with Margherita Giudetti, 34, Francesco Ripepi, 38, Alessandro Ciaffi, 40, Rocco Ripepi, 36 and Fortunato Stracuzzi, 37, all connected to the Betuniq brand and living in Malta.

The Malta Gaming Authority suspended with immediate effect the licences of Uniq Group Limited (Betuniq) and Betsolution4U Limited.

Gennaro was described as ‘Ndrangheta’s “new man” (homo novus) by Italian police, which had been following Gennaro’s frequent trips to Malta, where he participated in poker tournaments with notorious people from Calabria.

Anti-mafia magistrates concluded that Gennaro’s frequent trips to Malta and his participation in poker tournaments confirmed that the mafia’s money was being transferred to Malta.