06/28/2013 05:53 EDT | Updated 08/28/2013 05:12 EDT

Ontario man accused of Mafia links faces prison in Italy

A Thunder Bay, Ont., man could be facing up to 19 years in prison in Italy if he is found guilty on charges of being associated with the 'Ndrangheta, a branch of the Italian Mafia.

Prosecutors allege that Giuseppe Bruzzese, 66, was caught on tape in a high-level meeting in an Italian laundromat with a top crime boss.

In all, four men from Thunder Bay were named in Italian arrest warrants, but Bruzzese was in Italy in 2011 at the time the warrants were issued.

In court records obtained in a joint investigation by Radio-Canada/CBC and the Toronto Star, Bruzzese is accused of being a key figure in the Thunder Bay cell of the organized crime group and is now on trial in the southern Italian region of Calabria.

Armando Gerace, Bruzzese's lawyer, contends his client was only having coffee with a friend.

"He never committed a single crime, or act of intimidation," Gerace said. "He is putting his integrity on the line, and also he is not rich."

The other three Thunder Bay men are not facing extradition to Italy because Canada doesn't recognize alleged Mafia association as a crime.

One of the other Canadian men named in the Italian arrest warrant, Antonio Minnella, told CBC News that he has no connection to organized crime and believes the allegations are the result of mistaken identity.

Thunder Bay lawyer Christopher Watkins, who is acting as Minnella's legal adviser, said the Canadian government should intervene in the case to make sure the rights of the Thunder Bay men are protected.

"This type of evidence would not pass purview in Canada, it would certainly not be reaching a level of even a charge under a Canadian constitution," Watkins said.

Europol, the European Union's law enforcement agency, calls the 'Ndrangheta a major threat not only in Italy but also in many other countries, including Canada.

In a recent report on organized crime, Europol said the ‘Ndrangheta has been "long underestimated as a rural, backward organization with limited scope,” but that it is now recognized as “a major threat not only in Italy but also in many other countries where it operates, including Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, France, Belgium, Switzerland, Canada, U.S., Colombia and Australia.”

Nicola Gratteri, the chief anti-Mafia prosecutor in Calabria, said the ‘Ndrangheta is the only Mafia that is present on all continents.

"I think the foreign country where the ‘Ndrangheta is the most present is in Canada," he said.

"Mostly in Ontario, especially Toronto, and also in Montreal,” Gratteri added. “We have found in our research there are at least nine ‘Ndrangheta localis just in Toronto. Which means there are hundreds of members, as each locali has at least 51 members."