Francesco Nannucci, the chief of the Prato police department’s investigative unit, called the investigation “one of the most relevant against the Chinese mafia in Italy and in Europe.”
“Controlling transportation for the thousands of Chinese fast-fashion companies in Prato is an enormous power,” Mr. Nannucci said in a telephone interview. “It means easy access to Europe. Being a strongman in Prato means being strong in Europe.”
The authorities seized assets worth a few million euros, including 61 bank accounts and eight vehicles used to transport the items.
The group’s gangster hierarchy came from the eastern Chinese provinces of Zhejiang and Fujian, the police said. The areas are well-known for enterprising criminals.
A man identified as the group’s leader, Zhang Naizhong, 57, was arrested early Thursday in a Prato hotel. Nicknamed the “black man” by affiliates and “boss of all bosses,” reminiscent of the powerful Western mafia leaders, by prosecutors, he usually came to town once a week with his son to attend to his business, the police said.
The evening before his arrest, the police said, he had visited businesses in Prato and used eight cars to avoid being followed or identified.
In 2010, Mr. Zhang won a power battle among gangs that had shed blood in the streets Prato for years, and culminated with the killing of two young Chinese men with a machete in a restaurant.
Mr. Zhang was then said to rule over a vast criminal ring that used threats and violence against Chinese business owners and profits from illegal activities such as prostitution, drug trafficking, extortion and gambling to build a transport company that won a near-monopoly in the movement of items for thousands of Chinese companies.
Prato is home to around 4,500 Chinese companies that import textiles or accessories components from China and assemble them for sale at low- and mid-price retailers all over Europe.
Since the early arrivals of Chinese migrants in Prato in the 1980s, the community has become one of the biggest in Europe.
Such waves have also opened the way for foreign crime groups to compete with Italy’s indigenous mafias that over the years have reached deeper and invested in ostensibly legal activities like restaurants and the management of migrant centers.
“Business is business,” said Stefano Bocucci, a professor of sociology at Florence University and the author of several studies on Chinese mafia groups in Italy. “Criminals go where the money is.”
Mr. Bocucci noted that, until the 1990s, the most lucrative business for these rings was illegal immigration, but their interests soon moved to extortion from Chinese entrepreneurs and commercial activities, or requests of protection money on goods imported from China into Rome’s large retail market.
The first arrests for mafia in the Chinese community in Italy date back to the early 1990s, Mr. Bocucci said.
“It is hard to penetrate these networks, because the Chinese communities are often closed and separate from the context they live in,” he said. “The more closed they are, the easier it is for these phenomena to spread and victimize them.”