The Epic Mob Battle to Find a Ton of Hashish Lost in Genoa 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.

He then spent day and night following the precious yellow truck to where it ended up in a scrapyard in Latina, a town of questionable character south of Rome that has been infiltrated by the Neapolitan Camorra and which could have provided an opportunity for the goods to reach their original destination. (Latina, built by Mussolini as a bastion of fascism, is also where the terrorist Anis Amri, who drove a truck into a Christmas market in Germany in 2012, lived for a spell.)

Soon after he was commissioned to recover the goods, Palaia said it was clear that the Camorra mob was also trying to chase the wrecked truck. After all, the hashish was meant for them. “I wanted to say, ‘Fuck this 900 kilos of hashish,’” he told Caminiti at a certain point, according to the wire tap transcripts, before deciding that his life could be in danger if he didn’t get to it first.

Then suddenly, investigators say the yellow truck, with its secret refrigerated compartment that was built into the cargo area and, as such, proved a perfect place to hide the hashish where the insulation would be, was again sold for scrap to a yard in Frosinone not far from Latina, which was tied in some way to the ‘Ndrangheta.

Investigators had no idea about the hashish before tapping Palaia’s phone to try to nail him in an unrelated drug trafficking investigation in late 2020. And by the time they tapped his phone, the hashish had been recovered and sold, and the proceeds divvied up between Caminiti and Palaia. “In discussing future drug trafficking, Palaia referred to a refrigerated cargo filled with hashish and was involved in the sad event of the collapse of the Morandi bridge,” the arrest document states. “The agreement provided for a division of the narcotic substance at 50 percent.”

Police then spent the next two years chasing the trail of the yellow truck, which ended up scrapped in Calabria. It is yet unclear what the Cammora did to try to recover the truck and how close they may have come to recovering the drugs intended for them.

According to the wiretap of Palaia, the yellow truck had been taken on a semi trailer from the junk yard in Frosinone south to Calabria. The drivers had to stop every 100 miles or so to “ratchet up” the refrigerated area so the hashish wouldn’t spill out. Police say they have no idea what happened to to the drugs, but that both Palaia and Caminiti were paid handsomely for their roles. In one wire tap, the men spoke of the value as being around $4,000 a kilo, which would put the value at around $3,600,000.

Palaia is not being charged in relation to drug smuggling and the yellow truck, in part, because it has long been destroyed and, as such, would be hard to use as evidence. Plus, there are plenty of other charges that should see to his conviction, police say. “It is a strange and grotesque story,” the lawyer for the dead Romanian driver of the yellow truck told investigators, according to the document. “A truck of hashish that falls with the bridge, and the carcass travels through Italy, from Genoa to Latina to Frosinone to Calabria. For everyone it is a wreck, but for the drug lords who are waiting at the gate, it is a very big deal.” And, one might say, a very Italian job.

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