As far as powerful Mafia bosses go, Giuseppe Ursino (photo above) is as low-key as they come. So much so that when he was convicted of trafficking cocaine for the ‘Ndrangheta and sentenced to over a decade in prison Thursday, it was the first criminal conviction of his life.
“Pino” Ursino was born in Italy and migrated to Canada in 1971 on the cusp of manhood at the age of 18. He settled in Ontario, planting roots in Bradford and starting a family with his wife. In 2019, they had been married for 40 years. Ursino’s relatives described him as a “good-hearted, caring and gentle husband, father and grandfather.”
Killing his way to the top of the Calabrian Mafia
That may well be, but, according to prosecutors, Ursino was also a powerful member of the Calabrian Mafia, known as the ‘Ndrangheta, operating in the Greater Toronto Area. They claim he rose to the top spot of a ‘Ndrangheta cell in 1996 after the murder of Francesco Loiero, an Ontario baker. The mastermind behind his killing has never been apprehended and it remains unsolved.
As a ‘Ndrangheta leader, Ursino was able to impose his will on a large army of deadly and wealthy men with connections around the world. With its roots in the Calabria region of Italy, the group currently ranks as the most powerful Mafia group in Italy, above Sicilian Cosa Nostra and the Neapolitan Camorra, thanks to its connections to South American drug cartels.
Based on bonds by blood and marriage and formed around clans, the ‘Ndrangheta quickly spread out into other parts of Italy, Europe, and the rest of the world, including Canada. In Ontario, the group is viewed by law enforcement as a significant crime threat, similar to that posed by the Sicilian Mafia, outlaw motorcycle clubs and street gangs.
From Mafia enforcer to paid snitch
In the years following his promotion in 1996, Ursino kept an extremely low profile. But authorities remained vigilant and eager to make a move. Their opportunity came in 2012 when mob enforcer Carmine Guido felt his role in the underworld was coming to an end after making several grave errors.
An imposing figure, Guido was a career criminal involved in fraud and drug trafficking, who frequently let his anger get the best of him. His rage was helpful when he made the rounds collecting debts for the Mafia and threatening deadbeats, but it was an obstacle when he hit his girlfriend or got into trouble with other gangsters.
Like the times he spat on a man with strong links to the ‘Ndrangheta or defrauded another man who was under heavy protection from the ‘Ndrangheta. If angering the Calabrian Mafia wasn’t enough, he also pulled a gun on a full-patch outlaw biker.
To add to his woes, he owed several hundred thousand dollars in gambling debts to the ‘Ndrangheta.
That is why he decided to contact the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and offered to wear a wire on his colleagues in the underworld. Over a period of two years, he met with gangland figures and recorded their conversations. In return, he was paid $2.4 million dollars and was allowed to disappear into the Witness Protection Program.
On June 2, 2015, the fruits of his labor came to bore as the Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit (CFSEU), comprised of Toronto-area forces and RCMP officers, arrested 19 leaders, members and associates of two ‘Ndrangheta cells who were involved in extortion, drug and weapons trafficking. They also seized three guns, approximately 8.5 kilos of cocaine, 7 kilos of marijuana, and cash.
Authorities named the operation Project OPhoenix. RCMP Superintendent Keith Finn said it had targeted two ‘Ndrangheta cells, one run by Giuseppe Ursino (right), the other by Carmine Verduci. Ursino was among those arrested, while Verduci was shot to death several months earlier at a café in Woodbridge, Ontario. He was 56 years old.
“There is an established hierarchy,” Finn explained. “There's layers of insulation to protect specific individuals in there.” In the end, the power lies in Italy with the ‘Ndrangheta leaders in Calabria.
Standing up in court
During the subsequent trial, prosecutors painted a picture of Ursino as a calculated high-ranking mobster who played other gangsters and various criminal schemes like a piano. At the same time, he tried to stay away far enough so as to avoid being implicated in any crimes.
Of course, the law doesn’t work that way. And Guido and his new friends in law enforcement knew that all too well. After Ursino introduced Guido to Cosmin “Chris” Dracea, a Romanian-born associate of the ‘Ndrangheta, to set up drug shipments, the turncoat gave his boss $1,000 dollars as a thank you for making the introduction.
Dracea and Guido spent two years plotting several cocaine shipments. They planned to ship it “from Jamaica, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic into Canada hidden between layers of paper pressed into cardboard, stuffed inside frozen fish and in barrels of spicy jerk sauce to throw off drug-sniffing dogs,” the National Post reported.
Guido recorded talks with both Ursino and Dracea in which they discussed the sale of one kilo of high-grade cocaine for $60,000 in December of 2014.
“I’m not a boss”
While standing trial both men vehemently denied all charges against them. Backed by the fact that none of the plots resulted in an actual drug shipment making its way to Canada, they gave various reasons for their incriminating words caught on tape.
The $1,000 dollars Ursino received from Guido? That was just a friendly gift, Ursino testified in his defense.
Smuggling coke inside frozen fish or barrels of spicy jerk sauce? Dracea made those up, he said in court. He got those ideas from movies and books. Besides, if he was guilty of any crime it was of trying to scam Guido out of money and making him believe they were planning a drug deal.
Both men claimed they just said those things to make them look like big time gangsters.
“I’m not a boss, not even in my own family,” Ursino said in court. Referring to his words caught on tape, he added: “The stupid words come out of my mouth. What I’m talking is one thing. What I mean is another.”
Despite their testimony, the jury wasn’t having it. They found Ursino guilty of trafficking cocaine on behalf of a criminal organization and various other drug charges. Dracea was also found guilty of the majority of charges against him.
On Thursday, the pair was sentenced by Judge Brian O’Marra. 42-year-old Dracea received a 10-year prison sentence. 65-year-old Ursino was sentenced to over 12 years behind bars.
“The Mafia defines who he is”
“Based on the evidence at trial, Giuseppe Ursino is a high-ranking member of the ‘Ndrangheta who orchestrated criminal conduct and then stepped back to lessen his potential implication,” O’Marra stated at the sentencing hearing.
He added that the ‘Ndrangheta cell structure has a distinct purpose: “This secrecy is aimed at preventing possible leaks that could damage the organization and allow police infiltration. It is not possible to know exactly how many members there are, but there are thousands of members worldwide.”
“It is a monumental achievement,” federal prosecutor Tom Andreopoulos said after sentencing. “This conclusion crystallizes for the first time in Canadian judicial history the compelling characteristics of the notorious international organized crime group at work in Canada, the ’Ndrangheta.”
He added that no one should be deceived by Ursino’s appearance and reputation as a loving family man. “The Mafia is Mr. Ursino’s milieu,” the prosecutor said. “It defines who he is.”
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