The broken holiday home dreams tied to a sinister web of crime
The murky world of the Italian Mafia, an IRA man and a Dublin-based business – it sounds like a plot from The Sopranos. But this extraordinary and complex tale has become all too real for dozens of Northern Ireland families, who had dreamt of a better life under the Italian sun.
Drawn by the beauty of Calabria in the extreme south of Italy, which is lapped by the crystal blue Ionian and Tyrrhenian seas, many of these local families remortgaged their homes and raided their savings accounts to invest in the promise of their very own Italian property.
But operating along this idyllic part of the Mediterranean is one of the most powerful criminal organisations in the Western world – the Calabrian Mafia, known as the 'Ndrangheta.
Although less well-known than the Cosa Nostra, or the Naples-based Camorra, the 'Ndrangheta has become the most feared of Italy's three main gangster mobs in the last decade.
According to a 2008 report by Italy's parliamentary anti-mafia commission, the 'Ndrangheta wields considerable influence in the vast Calabrian container port of Gioia Tauro, helping it to become one of the major importers of drugs into Europe, with direct links to Colombian and Mexican cartels. As the province's investors handed over deposits of tens of thousands of pounds to an Italian lawyer for their dream homes at developments El Caribe and the Jewel of the Sea, little did they know that lurking in the background were the 'Ndrangheta.
It was not long before their dreams turned sour, when their hefty deposits disappeared and their properties failed to materialise.
Northern Ireland lawyer Simon Chambers, from Russell & Company solicitors, has been representing the investors for five years and has launched legal action in Belfast High Court against Italian lawyer Gabriele Giambrone, who secured the deposits from the property investors.
While Mr Chambers and the investors had suspicions of criminal underworld involvement, it was not until earlier this week that the truth exploded.
Anti-Mafia blitz operations, codenamed 'Metropolis', were carried out by police across Italy, Spain and Britain as part of an investigation into a £390m money laundering property scam involving a number of developments, including El Caribe and Jewel of the Sea.
In a further twist, it emerged that in the middle of this major Mafia scam is former IRA bomber Harry Fitzsimons.
The west Belfast man was an active republican in the 1970s and 1980s. He has lived in Italy since 2006 where he started a property company specialising in luxury developments.
Fitzsimons – who strongly denied any involvement in an interview with the Belfast Telegraph – has been linked to the Jewel of the Sea development, which involves 61 of the Northern Ireland investors.
Fitzsimons is listed as a director, or former director, of four property companies in Belfast and Dublin. One of the Dublin registered firms has been involved in promoting Calabrian holiday homes to British and Irish buyers and Fitzsimons is alleged to have been central to securing investors for the proposed developments. According to Simon Chambers, Fitzsimons entered into an agreement with Italian lawyer Giambrone, who took payment of 50% deposits for the holiday homes from investors.
Mr Chambers said that 62% of that deposit was then paid over to Fitzsimons.
"My clients alone would have had over £3.5m paid to Fitzsimons' company. He also had clients elsewhere. He could have got about £10m. It is mind-boggling," Mr Chambers said.
It is thought that around 75 people from Northern Ireland are victims of this dramatic Mafia-linked scam.
"I am absolutely shocked at what has been coming out this week.
"I had suspicions something sinister might have been going on, but I am stunned by the extent of it all," said Lorraine McGuigan, who lost more than £40,000 when she invested in a two-bedroom apartment in the El Caribe development.
Mr Chambers added: "I had strong suspicions for some time that something fishy was going on.
"But the true extent of this is breathtaking.
"This is like something out of a movie. It is something I have never come across in my life before. Pandora's box has been opened."