A Sicilian Mafia clique, working with Zimbabwean businesspersons and Minister Obert Mpofu, allegedly smuggled one million carats of diamonds worth up to US$450 million from Chiadzwa in 2011, it has emerged.
An extensive investigation by the African Network of Centres for Investigative Reporting (ANCIR) and Investigative Reporting Project Italy says Mafia kingpin Antonio Messicati Vitale – who has been arrested in Italy for murder, illegal arms trading, human trafficking, money laundering and drug dealing, among other charges – operated through a company called Zimbabwe Diamond Opportunity.
Messicati Vitale (43) of the Corleonesi Mafia clan, together with his relatives Mr Salvatore Ferrante, Ms Pina Ferrante and her now ex-lover Mr Louis Liebenberg, as well as Zimbabwean businessman Mr Billy Tanhira, formed the company.
Messicati Vitale, a mobster of the Villabate crime family in Palermo, brought a group of Swiss and Bulgarian bankers to Zimbabwe in January 2011.
Mr Tanhira – the director of Europium Star Investments – was asked to help form Zimbabwe Diamond Opportunity.
Mr Liebenberg has said Mr Tanhira introduced them to a “director-general” in Government to help them strike diamond deals.
Yesterday, Mr Tanhira denied playing a key role in the smuggling of the diamonds but said he had met the men in question.
Zimbabwe Diamond Opportunity was established on January 19, 2011 to cut and polish diamonds, with Mr Tanhira saying he had by then lost contact with the Italians.
He told The Sunday Mail that he met Mr Liebenberg and his colleagues in Harare and Johannesburg, South Africa, but was subsequently sidelined.
There are pictures of Mr Tanhira with Messicati Vitale, Mr Liebenberg and Mr Salvatore.
“We met with Liebenberg in 2010 and we even visited the Minister of Mines and Mining Development (Obert Mpofu during that time) to seek information on how to establish a diamond cutting and polishing company. I then travelled to South Africa where we met and sealed the deal to form a company.
“However, these guys (Liebenberg, Salvatore and Messicati Vitale) were supposed to give us US$53 000 to pay for licence fees and office space, but they never came back to me. Efforts to get them to come on board were fruitless because they went silent on me,” said Mr Tanhira.
Contacted for comment, Minister Mpofu – now in charge of the Transport portfolio – fumed: “That’s nonsense, I have never heard anything like that. This is the kind of mischief that I don’t like. In any case, the Ministry of Mines does not give licences for polishing and cutting of diamonds, it’s done by the Minerals Marketing Corporation of Zimbabwe.”
Incumbent Mines Minister Walter Chidhakwa’s mobile phone was not reachable.
Police spokesperson Senior Assistant Commissioner Charity Charamba said she was not in the country in 2011 when Messicati Vitale came. She asked for names of the people involved in the alleged diamond smuggling, but had not responded by the time of going to print.
Mr Tanhira said when Mr Salvatore Ferrante Jr and Messicati Vitale later made another visit to Zimbabwe, they avoided him.
This is the time Mr Liebenberg claimed that the mafioso Messicati Vitale went to Marange and bought one million carats of illegal diamonds in cash.
Mr Liebenberg told ANCIR that the gems Messicati Vitale bought were valued at between US$70 and US$450 per carat, meaning they were in total worth anything between US$70 million and US$440 million.
It is alleged the diamonds were sold in Europe and the money was supposed to be deposited in a bank account belonging to a firm called African Dune; but the cash was channelled to Mpreaso Mining – which was set up without Mr Liebenberg’s knowledge.
Indications are that Mr Liebenberg blew the whistle when he was effectively cheated out of the scam.
Messicati Vitale was arrested on October 8, 2014 in Italy when police raided his home as he allegedly prepared to flee to South Africa while disguised using a high-tech silicon face mask.
Italian investigators believe Messicati Vitale was headed for South Africa because he had links with another mafioso — Vito Roberto Palazzolo — who is also in an Italian jail.
They both belong to the Corleonesi Mafia clan, headed by Matteo Messina Denaro.
Investigations indicate Messicati Vitale and Palazzolo were among the top Mafia investors in Africa, with the latter having arrived in South Africa in 1986.
They had interests in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Namibia, Angola and the DRC, and control properties valued at close to US$50 million in Southern Africa.
Former South African President Nelson Mandela mandated a special unit to investigate the extent of the Mafia’s presence in that country.
However, the Mafia allegedly hijacked that Presidential Investigative Task Unit and bribed senior officers.