MADRID – A Spanish judge released a fugitive suspect of organized crime in Italy a few days after his arrest. A court spokesman said Tuesday the judge was unaware that the man had been identified as one of the leading figures in a powerful criminal operation.

The obvious mistake was a painful blow to a two-year manhunt and investigation carried out by the Spanish police in collaboration with the Italian police, which resulted in the arrest of refugee Vittorio Raso, 41, on October 10th.

On October 12th, the Spanish police published his arrest and identified Mr. Raso as “Vangelo” or a high-ranking member of the Calabrian criminal organization “Ndrangheta”. Local media reported on it widely. A day later, just a few days after his arrest, Judge Alejandro Abascal released him from the Spanish national court.

The court spokesman said the judge believed Mr Raso was only charged with extortion.

“The information he had at the time made no mention of his role in the ‘Ndrangheta,” said the court spokesman. A spokeswoman for the Spanish National Police did not say on Tuesday whether the Spanish police had provided the judge with sufficient information about the charges against the suspect.

“Once we have someone available to the judiciary, we don’t have to deal with it,” she said. Both the police spokeswoman and the court spokesperson insisted that their names be withheld, as is the custom for official spokespersons in Spain.

‘Ndrangheta has become one of the most powerful criminal organizations in Italy because of its ties to Latin American drug cartels, which over time have made the organization the leading importer of cocaine to Europe. It gained international shame through murders in Italy and abroad, as well as multimillion-dollar investments in restaurants and real estate in Rome and around the world.

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

He was also wanted on a European arrest warrant for membership of a criminal organization, drug trafficking and extortion.

Mr Raso was arrested in Barcelona and afterwards Italian police raided various houses in the city of Turin where he was previously stationed and confiscated weapons, around 360,000 euros – around 423,000 US dollars – and 13 kilograms of drugs.

On October 13, he appeared by video conference before Madrid-based judge Abascal. The court spokesman confirmed that the judge had interviewed Mr. Raso and ruled that he should be released pending extortion charges.

In order to reduce the risk of flying, the judge ordered Mr Raso to hand over his passport and to report to the police on a weekly basis.

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

Gaia Pianigiani contributed to the coverage from Italy.

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