- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 21, 2002

A Sicilian family that undercut fruit giants Chiquita and Del Monte will go on trial this fall on charges of illegally importing more than 142,000 tons of bananas into the Sicilian port of Catania.
Italian magistrates say Antonio Grasso owes about $25 million in unpaid customs duties on 10.5 million boxes of produce. After a two-year inquiry, European Union anti-fraud investigators recently concluded that the Grasso family "netted hundreds of millions of euros" through illegal banana trafficking, using false import licenses.
"What we pulled off was a triumph for the little man. On the coast of Sicily, a small family business built one of the biggest banana brands in Europe and frightened the life out of the multinationals like Del Monte and Chiquita," Mr. Grasso said while sitting on a crate in his warehouse.
Before Mr. Grasso began his venture in the mid-1990s, Catania had no history of importing the fruit. This stretch of Sicilian coastline is known as the Riviera dei Limone (the Lemon Riviera).
Then, Mr. Grasso and his brothers, Salvatore and Michele, who owned a small fruit business in nearby Acireale, paid a visit to Latin America.
In Ecuador, they struck a deal with Favorita, a leading banana export company. Favorita wanted to export more produce to Europe, where strict quotas governed imports from outside the European Union. The Grassos promised the Ecuadoreans a way into Europe.
The family obtained hundreds of import licenses from international brokers supplying paperwork to accredited importers. This allowed them to bring bananas into Europe at favorable tariffs.
Soon, banana ships were sailing to Sicily at the rate of two a month each carrying about 3,000 tons of fruit.
The brothers chose a name, Diamante, for their brand. Between 1998 and 2000, customs officials waved through almost 200 million Diamante bananas, most of which went to central Italy and beyond. The rest were stored in a vast refrigerated warehouse in Acireale.
By 2000, the bananas were undercutting and outselling the multinational giants. In Italy, the family had cornered 35 percent of the trade, and its imports were selling well in Germany, the European Union's biggest market.
Catania had become the banana capital of Italy. But the Sicilian banana boom was about to collapse. In June 2000, state prosecutors in Catania received an anonymous tip that a Diamante ship the Hamburg Trader was carrying 2 tons of cocaine.
No cocaine was found. Instead, investigators began to ask questions about the origins of the 150,000 boxes of bananas.
"With an import license, 1 ton of bananas from outside the EU carries a tariff of only [$50]," said Catania's deputy public prosecutor, Fabio Scavone. "Without an import license, that figure rises to $850. The licenses are usually only given to accredited banana importers.
"As we investigated, we discovered that the family were conducting their trade illegally, using false licenses. Their success was down to the fact that they were avoiding the millions in tax and duties which their competitors had to pay."
Investigators said some of the import licenses were forged, while others had been intended to import fruit from former EU colonies in Africa that enjoyed favorable tariff terms.
Officials now suspect that some of these were supplied to the Grassos by a government contact in Paris. However, the creators of the Diamante brand deny fraud charges.
"We obtained our licenses from brokers," Mr. Grasso said. "Having bought them in good faith, we can hardly be expected to go to France, for example, and check them out for ourselves."
For Mr. Scavone, the banana affair has provided an intriguing diversion from the anti-Mafia investigations that form the bulk of his workload.
"It's been an education," he said. "We started out looking for cocaine. Then we discovered that bananas can provide a more lucrative trade than cocaine."
The Grassos' vast warehouse, which cost about $2 million to build two years ago, now contains only a few hundred boxes of nectarines. Mr Grasso says his family has fallen deep into debt.
"If anyone owes money in this case, it's the Italian state," he said. "We've suffered terrible damage to our reputation. And 3,000 tons of bananas were ruined by sniffer dogs looking for cocaine. There was no cocaine only bananas."

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