Franco Lupoi mafia
Gambino family associate Franco Lupoi is escorted by FBI agents after he was arrested as part of a joint operation by anti-Mafia Police in Italy and New YorkReuters

US and Italian Mafia families planned to traffic drugs from South America to Europe hidden in shipments of pineapples and frozen fish in a criminal joint venture unveiled by police.

The FBI and Italian police arrested 26 people in New York and several Italian cities in a major anti-mafia operation nicknamed "New Bridge" that saw security forces of the two countries cooperating to take down a drug smuggling partnership between the American branch of the Sicilian Mafia and the Calabrian 'Ndrangheta crime syndicate.

Seven suspects, some with links to the infamous Gambino family, were arrested in New York.

The other 19 were held in the Italian towns of Reggio Calabria, Naples, Caserta, Turin, Benevento and Catanzaro.

Undercover agents with both the FBI and Italian police played a pivotal role in the two-year investigation, prosecutors said.

The two crime groups had been involved in negotiations to open a new trafficking route from South America to the southern Italian port of Gioia Tauro, Calabria.

As part of a criminal deal that was allegedly brokered in New York, drugs, including cocaine, heroin and marijuana, were to be bought from Mexican drug cartels and then shipped to Calabria via Guyana.

Once in Gioia Tauro, one of Italy's largest ports, the drugs were to be taken up by phoney companies that pretended to import coconut milk, pineapples and other edibles.

Part of the drug load was then to be redirected towards the US.

" 'Ndrangheta planned to export heroin to the US and import cocaine into Italy through its relationship with the Gambinos and the [Mexican] Narcos," the head of Italian police organised crime unit, Raffaele Grassi, told Ansa news agency.

Those arrested face a number of charges, including money laundering, drug trafficking and organized crime.

Grassi said that the investigation shows how the 'Ndrangheta has replaced Sicilian Cosa Nostra as favourite business partner for the US Mafia families.

"'Ndrangheta has come out of its original territories and after infiltrating northern Italy and Europe, it is working to conquer larger areas and expand its criminal reach," Grassi said.`