ROME—Naizhong Zhang liked to wear brightly colored made-in-China Hawaiian shirts, but he commanded a very dark underworld that ran the gamut from murder to procuring high-dollar clients for Asian prostitutes. He was also allegedly the head of a multimillion-dollar enterprise that ruled the import and distribution of cheap Chinese goods and fake fashion across Europe.
The 57-year-old known simply as “il uomo nero,” literally the black man, to his minions, lived in Rome. But he often visited Prato, a city in the suburbs of Florence renowned as the fashion industry’s garment district, where he was arrested with 33 others in a pre-dawn sting operation on Friday called “China Truck.”
Police had been trailing Zhang since 2011 when a spate of murders among rival Chinese gangs from Zhejiang province in eastern China and Fujian province in southeastern China suddenly stopped.
The cops assumed that someone had won a battle for control of the lucrative Chinese import market that feeds the high-fashion factories that produce collars and other fine lace work for big-name fashion houses, and that controls the cheap trinket market that is especially popular in Italy with a rise in Chinese five-and-dime shops across the country. By 2012, the police said they knew the new capo dei capi or boss of bosses was Zhang.
He was almost arrested in 2013 before a grand wedding he orchestrated for his son and first heir Di Zhang at Rome’s posh Hilton hotel overlooking the city. But the cops decided to use the event to further their investigation. In the end, they were right to wait: Spying on some of the more than 500 Italian, French, and Chinese guests, many of them chauffeured through the streets of Rome in Ferrari and Lamborghini sports cars, proved useful in dismantling the network.
Indeed, Ettore Squillace Greco, the chief anti-mafia prosecutor of Livorno who led the China Truck operation, told The Daily Beast that by listening in to details about arrangements like flowers and music for the Chinese magnate’s son’s wedding, they quickly learned that everyone in the Chinese community deferred to Zhang. “Then we knew he was our man,” Greco said. “Once we knew that, we could determine the extent of his domain.”
Among the many phone taps Greco and his team sifted through were several in which Zhang personally threatened the lives of anyone who might betray him. “‘If you go with me, you will live,’ I told them, ‘If you go against me, you will die,’” he was overheard telling a friend, describing the way he defeated a rival Chinese gang. ““The next day, at midday, they all three came to me and said they wanted to join forces.”