CHIANGRAI TIMES – Vito Roberto Palazzolo, 65, was no ordinary banker. The Sicilian was charged in 2006 for laundering money for some of Italy’s top mobsters. Though he denied the accusations, he was sentenced to nine years in jail by Italy’s highest court.
A manhunt by Interpol and Italian police for a fugitive banker accused of mafia ties ended quietly in Thailand after 26 years.
The “Pizza Connection” in which he was implicated, was a $1.6 billion heroin and cocaine smuggling operation that used New York pizzerias as fronts from 1975 to 1984.
Before Palazzolo’s run ended at Suvarnabhumi airport, he lived in South Africa.
On March 30, he was arrested by Thai immigration police under an Interpol “red notice” _ for a person to be detained for the purpose of extradition _ while preparing to board a flight back to Johannesburg. He is now being held at an Immigration Bureau detention centre on Soi Suan Phlu in Bangkok.
His lawyers have submitted a notice stating their client intends to fight any charges in a Thai court rather than be extradited to Italy to face a series of criminal suits.
Here in Thailand, Palazzolo only faces charges of violating immigration law.
His Thai visa was nullified upon arrival on March 15 following an arrest request by the Italian police that was made through the Italian embassy in Bangkok just one day after Palazzolo booked a flight to Thailand.
Palazzolo left home in 1962 at the age of 15 and emigrated to Switzerland.
He completed his studies in Switzerland and Germany and started working as a private banker servicing high net worth individuals, and made substantial amounts of money in the diamond trade.
The Swiss Criminal Court in Lugano sentenced Palazzolo in September 1985 to a three-year prison term for money laundering, after establishing he was in control of some of the accounts where money raised from the heroin sales were deposited. While on 36-hour parole from a prison in Switzerland he absconded to South Africa with a false passport, obtained from a fellow inmate at a Lugano prison, in December 1986.
In South Africa, Palazzolo was known by a new name of Robert Von Palace Kolbatchenko.
By January 1988, Swiss police had traced him and informed their South African counterparts.
The South African Narcotics Bureau raided Palazzolo’s Franschhoek farm and arrested him _ seizing 10 guns and diamonds worth 500,000 rand together with documents indicating that Palazzolo had invested more than 25 million rand in businesses in South Africa and Namibia. He was declared an undesirable person in South Africa and returned to Switzerland to complete his jail sentence.
But one year after that, Palazzolo was freed again and he returned to South Africa where he is thought to have led a crime-free life.
But information from Interpol and the Italian police tells a different story. Authorities say the Sicilian was still involved in illegal activities and South Africa appeared unwilling to hand him over to them. Even when he was in Thailand, purportedly on a trip to visit his son who lives in Phuket, police had to wait until the day he was to return to South Africa to arrest him as he was always surrounded by bodyguards.
The only time he was by himself was when he had to go through immigration. It was the only opportunity which Thai immigration police had to arrest him without confronting his bodyguards.
Under Thai law, Palazzolo can fight his extradition. This legal loophole was exploited by Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout to delay his extradition to the US for more than two years. Bout is a former Soviet Air Force officer who ran what American officials have described as an international arms trafficking network. – Writer: Wassayos Ngamkham