The Model, the Mafia, and the Murderers

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When the bodies of journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancé Marina Kusnirova, both 27, were found on Sunday, February 4th 2018 – each killed by a single shot in their newly purchased home – Slovak journalists were shocked. Slovakia’s top politicians have recently been criticized for openly expressing hostility to independent journalists, but no reporter in the country has ever before been killed for their work.

Police said that the couple had been killed by one or more professional hitmen and that their deaths were likely in retaliation for one of Kuciak’s stories. Slovak media speculated wildly that the youthful Kuciak had been done in by a local businessman who had threatened him, or perhaps by corrupt government officials.

In fact, Kuciak had been working with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), the Czech Center for Investigative Journalism (CCIJ), and the Investigative Reporting Project Italy (IRPI) on what may have turned out to be a far more dangerous story: An investigation that delved into the infiltration into Slovakia of the ‘Ndrangheta mafia, one of the world’s most powerful and fearsome criminal groups.

“The ‘Ndrangheta holds a dominant position in the cocaine market in Europe, and is involved in many other criminal fields, including weapons trafficking, fraud, rigging of public tenders, corruption, intimidation, extortion and environmental crime,” according to a Europol Threat Assessment of Italian Organized Crime published in June 2013.

Because Kuciak and his colleagues had not finished the story, OCCRP and his publication, Aktuality.sk, had not yet published it. At the time of his killing, he was continuing to collect records on men considered by Italian police to be extremely dangerous.

But after the murder, information about the subject of his reporting leaked out. OCCRP and Aktuality.sk published Kuciak’s uncompleted story to set the record straight and minimize the danger for the reporters who have worked on it. With their permission, VSquare is also joining a number of media outlets worldwide publishing this story.

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Kuciak and his colleagues started their investigation by looking into the hiring of Maria Troskova, then 27, by Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico as an assistant. Fico hired the former Miss Universe contestant and topless model (dubbed “the sexy assistant” by Slovak media) despite her relative lack of political experience. His press department had refused to release her job description, to clarify her position in government, or to say whether she got a security clearance.

But while looking into this story, the reporting team uncovered an even bigger one. As it turns out, Troskova used to be a business partner of Antonino Vadala, 42, an Italian man who now lives in Slovakia and owns a network of agricultural companies in the east of the country.

In her mid-20s, Troskova joined with Vadala to co-found and co-own a Slovak company called GIA Management, which is registered as taking part in a wide spectrum of businesses, including real estate, construction, packaging, and photography. She left the company after just under a year.

Troskova got her start in the business world as an assistant to Pavol Rusko, a former politician and once the co-owner of the television station TV Markiza. Rusko got into trouble recently when he was detained for allegedly hiring an assassin to kill his business partner in the late 1990s.

Troskova was at GIA Management when she met Viliam Jasan, a former member of the Slovak parliament with the ruling Smer-SD party who currently chairs the Crisis Management and State Security Department. Jasan hired Troskova as his deputy assistant.

That’s when she was introduced to – and was hired by – party leader and prime minister Robert Fico.

But Vadala turned out to be more than just an enterprising immigrant.

In March 2017, the Antimafia prosecutors’ office in Italy’s Calabria region, along with the anti-drug unit of the Fiscal Guard of Catanzaro, filed several arrest warrants after a lengthy investigation.

Codenamed “Gerry” (after a nickname one of the drug brokers used in text messages), the police were looking at cocaine trafficked by a cartel of five ‘Ndrangheta families from Latin America to Italy.

In the investigation, which is still ongoing, Antonino Vadala was named as a potential new cocaine broker for the cartel, to replace others who had been caught in a drug bust.

But his ties to the group, reporters discovered, go back further than that.

It started in a picturesque place on the very toe of Italy’s boot: Antonino Vadala’s hometown, Bova Marina. This is where he spent the early part of his life, before later emigrating to Slovakia along with other members of his family.

But the town is not known only for its beauty. It is the home of the Vadala clan, a notorious ‘Ndrangheta family who, according to court records, have been responsible for at least 25 murders while controlling the cocaine trade and enjoying direct ties to a Colombian drug cartel.

The clan is run by a boss named Domenico Vadala, with whom Antonino Vadala is not known to have any close family relationship.

But it was here, sixteen years ago, where Italian police would first link him with the ‘Ndrangheta for helping to hide a fugitive from another clan, the Libri-Zindato, who was on the run from the law. (Though often viewed as a single organized crime group, the ‘Ndrangheta are in fact a network of clans spread throughout the south of the country.)

In 2001, police wiretaps between Antonino Vadala and a Libri-Zindato boss named Francesco Zindato caught the two men discussing the logistical arrangements for hiding the fugitive drug trafficker – later found out to be a killer – in Vadala’s home in Bova Marina.

A warrant was issued for Vadala’s arrest, along with 12 other men who were charged with crimes ranging from drug trafficking, robbery, and extortion to illegal possession of weapons.

Some of the men were arrested, convicted of their crimes, and sentenced to prison terms. But, having already moved to Slovakia, Vadala escaped arrest, and the charges against him were later dropped.

The fugitive Vadala helped hide was a drug trafficker named Domenico “Mico” Ventura. He was due to be detained as part of a police investigation into the ‘Ndrangheta when he escaped and went into hiding in Bova Marina.

Ventura was made famous years later by a video that was leaked to the Carabinieri military police in 2012. It showed him shooting another member of the clan in cold blood in a countryside home. His weapon of choice – a type of sawed-off shotgun called a lupara – is typically associated with mafia murders. He was sentenced to life in prison.

In other police wiretaps taken as part of the same investigation, Vadala was recorded being asked by Zindato to go to Rome along with two of the boss’s most trusted men to “punish” (physically) an unknown man who had “damaged the clan.”

“It’s clear that those who took part in the punishment trip ordered by the boss had to be strongly affiliated with the interests and activities of the clan,” wrote the judge. The records don’t show whether he actually made the trip.

Reporters were still collecting additional information about Vadala – as well as about Troskova’s role, if any, as the link between him and the Prime Minister’s office – when Jan Kuciak was murdered.

Vadala’s lawyer had no comment for this story when contacted by reporters in November.

Italian Farms, Slovak Soil

It started with just a name on a company registration form: Antonino Vadala.Because that name belonged to a man in business with Maria Troskova – a topless model turned businesswoman who became an assistant to Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico – reporters wanted to know more.

That curiosity may have killed Slovak journalist Jan Kuciak along with his fiancée. Both were found shot to death last weekend, plainly at the hands of a professional hitman.

But Kuciak and his partners – the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and the Czech Center for Investigative Journalism (CCIJ) – had realized they found trouble much earlier – as soon as they asked the Investigative Reporting Project Italy (IRPI) to check out Vadala and his partners.

The Vadala family, who hail from a small town on the toe of Italy’s boot, first showed up in Slovakian business records in 2002. According to media reports, another Calabrian family, the Roda, had moved to the country in the 1990s. In their new home, the two families went into business together, took advantage of European Union (EU) farm subsidies, and built a major agriculture business.

Reporters found that the Vadala and the Roda have ties to the ‘Ndrangheta, one of Italy’s most powerful and dangerous criminal groups. It is known for its skill at cheating the EU out of pots of public money, such as farm subsidies.

So, was that happening in Slovakia? It was a logical question for investigative reporters, and that’s what Kuciak was working on when he was murdered. He was shot once in the chest. His fiancée, also 27, once in the head.

OCCRP was not yet ready to publish the story. At the time of his murder, Kuciak was still hunting down missing information and putting together the full picture. But some details about his work in progress has leaked out. Fearing that more reporters could be killed if they pursued his story without knowing the background, OCCRP and partners are now publishing what is already known.

And this much is clear: Significant alleged and actual criminal activity seems to have been undertaken by the Roda, the Vadala, and their business partners.

OCCRP has no evidence that any person in this story had anything to do with Kuciak’s murder. But over the past months, Italian police have warned reporters that some of the people they’ve been asking about are dangerous and potentially in contact with members of the ‘Ndrangheta.

Immigrants to A Strange World

The 1990s were a time of opportunity in Eastern Europe, where years of Communist autocracy had come to an end. But despite rich land and eager workers, business was hardly easy. Rule of law was still mostly a theory, and capital from any source, either foreign or domestic, was scarce in newly democratic Slovakia.

Organized crime groups saw the possibilities and were unafraid of the downsides.

“The fall of Berlin Wall and the collapse of Soviet Union in the 1990s meant the opening of the Eastern European border. This meant new opportunities for the organized crime groups,” says Czech criminologist Petr Kupka.

The Vadala family hails from Bova Marina, a sleepy seaside town of only 4,000. The Rodas came from neighboring Condofuri. These Calabrian villages are in the heartland of the three powerful ‘Ndrangheta clans: the Vadala, the Iamonte, and the Galliciano.

Reporters were struck by the fact that the Vadala family in Slovakia has the same name as the clan that rules Bova Marina, but could not confirm the two are connected.

The ‘Ndrangheta is Italy’s strongest mafia organization – a fearsome group that has grown into a global player. According to the Europol Threat Assessment of Italian Organized Crime published in June 2013, “The ´Ndrangheta is among the richest, most threatening and most powerful organized crime groups at a global level. …The clever use of legitimate business structures created by its Clans permits them to hide the criminal nature of their profits and, combined with corruption, to infiltrate the economic and political environments in which they operate.”

They are also secretive and keep outsiders away. To grow their areas of influence, they export trusted families into new territories who bring with them the same secrecy, aggression, and violence.

The Rodas’ Slovakian Investments

The Rodas and Vadalas make up two of five Italian families that now control large parts of the agricultural business in eastern Slovakia. After immigrating in the 1990s, they invested millions into cooperatives. Today, the assets of the two families’ companies are worth almost €100 million (US$ 122 million).

Kuciak was killed before he or his colleagues had proven any involvement by the Vadalas or the Rodas in organized crime. Though reporters had found ties between the two families and the ‘Ndrangheta, they had not obtained definitive proof that any money the families’ had invested in Slovakia was linked to the criminal group.

Brothers Antonio and Diego Roda came to Slovakia in the 1990s and now run a slew of agricultural businesses in Michalovce, a town of 40,000 near the country’s borders with Hungary and Ukraine.

The family owns 19 farming and cattle breeding companies worth over €40 million. According to statements Diego has made to Slovakian media and photos posted on his Facebook profile, he owns at least three red Ferraris. At the same time, his employees have publicly complained about months worth of late wages.

The Rodas have amassed other unpaid debts as well. According to official data, almost all their companies owe taxes to the government and legally mandated social and health insurance benefits to their employees.

Afoul of the Law Back Home

The Roda family has a number of connections to the ‘Ndrangheta. In 2007, Pietro Roda, one of four Roda brothers, was investigated by the Antimafia Directorate of the Calabria region for “having a mafia-type association.” In Italy, it is illegal to be a member of a mafia group, and many mafia figures are charged with this crime. Prosecutors alleged that he belonged to the Iamonte clan of the ‘Ndrangheta.

According to the investigation, he was involved in livestock trafficking – an operation that illegally imported animals for the clan. Live cows were transported from Slovakia and processed in slaughterhouses run by the family. In this way they got out of paying taxes and evaded health and safety regulations. Police said the Iamonte clan also pressured local butchers to buy their meat.

Pietro Roda allegedly provided fake certificates for the smuggled livestock to make it appear as if they were legally owned by his farm.

However, in a 2010 trial, the mafia charges against Roda were dropped and turned into lesser charges of criminal association, as well as the crime of tampering with the ear tags that identify cows. He was sentenced to five years in prison, though it is unknown how much of it he served, if any.

Less than three years later, Pietro Roda got into trouble again. In May 2013, he was arrested and again charged with mafia-type association and money laundering through the agriculture sector in Italy for the ‘Ndrangheta’s Galliciano clan.

However, after a legal battle, the Supreme Court ruled in March 2014 that there was no clear evidence that he was an ‘Ndrangheta associate. Roda was cleared from both charges and walked away free.

Two Families. Many Businesses

After arriving in Slovakia, the Vadala family began to build up their businesses in the same region where the Roda were already established. They moved to Michalovce, the eastern Slovak town where the Roda lived, and in 2002 founded their first company, Bovinex Europa, which bred and slaughtered cows.

Both separately and together, Vadala and Roda companies started to invest in agricultural cooperatives and their businesses became intertwined. The families’ names appear in 50 Slovak companies – some now dissolved, some still active.

The two families have farmed on more than 120 square kilometers (12,000 hectares) – a huge estate equal to one tenth of the entire Michalovce district.

On this land, they have bred cattle and raised crops that have, so far, brought them more than €13 million in EU subsidies through the Slovak Ministry of Agriculture.

In at least one case, the authorities grew wise to the schemes. Antonino Vadala – the member of the family who first drew reporters’ attention – was getting subsidies through his company, BIO-FINIS. But he ran afoul of authorities when he was caught forging documents that showed him farming eight times more land than he really was. The fraud – for which he was later charged – allowed him to increase his agricultural subsidies by €120,000.

In addition to Italian investigations into their ‘Ndrangheta ties and the EU subsidy case, the Vadala family is also alleged to have committed tax fraud and extortion in Slovakia.

In 2008, Antonino Vadala entered into an agreement with another man to defraud the government of VAT revenue by fraudulently buying and selling his apartment and claiming a tax return. The scheme would have earned Vadala over €80,000, which he was meant to split with the other man. But instead, Vadala kept the apartment – and the money – in an attempt to cheat his co-conspirator, who then took him to court. The case is ongoing.

In another case, Antonino’s brother Sebastiano Vadala was charged with extortion and verbal assault when he threatened a farmer with a gun, shouting he would kill him and set fire to his tractor if he didn’t leave the field the farmer had rented from him. A court recently cleared him of the charges, citing lack of evidence.

Going Green

Soon enough, Antonino Vadala saw another money-making opportunity – this time in green energy.

Solar power plants in Slovakia are already controversial because the government awards licenses in secretive ways. These projects are also heavily subsidised by the EU.

In 2009, Vadala and his company, Bovinex Europa, managed to get listed as the third bidder out of 97 for a license to build a new plant. These licenses are awarded on a “first come first served” basis, meaning that knowing the timing – something only an insider could know – is crucial to getting the bid.

Vadala’s company applied on the first possible day.

He received not only a precious EU-subsidized license from the Slovak government – he then immediately sold it for a large profit and quit the business.

A Common Connection

More recently, a new family name drew reporters’ attention – one which has Calabrian connections of its own.

In 2012, a man named Pietro Catroppa appears in the business records of several of the Vadalas’ companies in Slovakia.

Just a few years earlier, Pietro’s father, Dante Catroppa, had been investigated in a Calabrian antimafia operation for associating with the Vadala crime family in their hometown of Bova Marina.

The elder Catroppa allegedly held the title of “Mastro di Giornata” (Master of the Day), which means he was responsible for coordinating criminal activities between local clans. He was also allegedly in charge of creating new mafia affiliations for the clan.

According to the 2011 verdict, he was also in charge of notifying the ‘Ndrangheta about possible calls for tenders, as he was an employee at the local municipality.

But the Catroppas also have another important connection. In 2016, Pietro Catroppa bought a private security company called Prodest from a man named Slavomir Jasan, who had bought out his father Viliam Jasan.

The elder Jasan is a former member of the Slovak parliament and director of the Crisis Management and State Security Department.

And, to complete the complex circle, Jasan is the man who employed Antonino Vadala’s business partner, the former model Maria Troskova, and introduced her to the Slovak prime minister.

Jasan and Troskova both resigned in the wake of Jan Kuciak’s death and the subsequent reporting on this tangled web of connections.

This reporting was carried out in collaboration with Czech Center for Investigative Journalism (CCIJ),  Investigative Reporting Project Italy (IRPI) and Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP)