Italian mafias – boosted by Covid, now eyeing EU billions
In early March 2020, as Italy was brought to its knees by Covid-19, protests erupted in many prisons across the country.
Some have degenerated into real riots. According to ongoing investigations, the various Italian mafias seem to have played a major role in fomenting chaos.
Months later, in October, violent protests also erupted in the streets of Naples.
Members of the Camorra clan, the powerful Neapolitan mafia described in its books by journalist Roberto Saviano, were among those who set fire to garbage cans and threw stones at the police.
According to a recent report from the Italian Anti-Mafia Investigations Department (DIA), “criminal organizations have every interest in fueling episodes of urban disorder by exploiting the situation of economic precariousness to transform it into social protest, especially in the south” .
Like other EU countries, Italy has suffered a severe economic crisis since the outbreak of the Covid-19 epidemic.
The country’s GDP fell by 8.9% in 2020. And the mafias are tightening their grip on Italian society and the economy even further.
“The mafias have always taken advantage of disasters. They did it after the great earthquake of Irpinia, in the south of Italy, in 1962, and they continued with the following earthquakes and disasters ”, explains Antonio Nicaso, internationally renowned expert and author of over 30 books on mafias and organized crime.
“The mafias have exploited the epidemic to develop their dirty business,” he adds. For their part, they have an immense capacity for investment. Drug trafficking and smuggling did not stop during the lockdown. “Unfortunately, the drug economy is not an economy parallel to the legitimate economy, but an integrated economy. Money laundering is now becoming the oxygen of the legal economy,” said Nicaso.
The Bank of Italy reported more than 110,000 suspicious transactions in its anti-money laundering report 2020.
“Well-being of the Mafia”
The economic crisis has put more than 100,000 companies at risk of bankruptcy in Italy; the mafias grant loans to companies in difficulty, often receive shares in exchange, and buy those which are on the verge of bankruptcy.
The mobsters distribute pasta, milk and meat in the popular districts of Naples, Palermo, Catania and Reggio Calabria; they lend money to the unemployed, sometimes at low interest rates. Experts call this “Mafia welfare”.
“Legitimacy based on social consensus is valuable for criminal groups,” says Federico Varese, professor of criminology at the University of Oxford.
“Emergencies like today’s push the mafias to rule and try to pass themselves off as legitimate authorities. They follow the old model of Al Capone, who in 1929 opened free canteens for the poor: he didn’t ask for anything in return, he knew that the people he helped owed him a favor. ”
Through fraud, the mafias seized part of the Italian government aid to companies and citizens in difficulty. They also entered the business of fighting Covid-19.
In May 2020, a man suspected of being affiliated with the Camorra, intercepted by the justice, had declared by phone that “you are making money with the virus”. He wanted to turn his cousin’s car washing business in Pesaro (central Italy) into a sanitation business.
In general, mafias would exploit the chaos caused by the Covid-19 emergency to infiltrate even deeper into sectors where they already have a presence, such as healthcare, mortuary services and waste disposal ( medical and non-medical).
“All large companies have to manage waste disposal. Doing it through the mafias means a saving of 90% compared to official and legal waste disposal systems, ”explains Stefania Pellegrini, professor at the Faculty of Law at the University of Bologna.
EU billions are coming
Now the eyes of the mafias are on the billions that will come to Italy through the EU Recovery Fund.
Vincenzo Musacchio is Associate Professor of Criminal Law at the Rutgers Institute on Anti-Corruption Studies (RIACS) in Newark. He notes that “between 2015 and 2020, the EU allocated around 70 billion euros to Italy in structural and investment funds.
Half of these funds ended up in the hands of organized crime “.
For this reason, experts consulted by EUobserver insist that the government led by Mario Draghi should not simplify procurement procedures.
“Rules are also necessary to prevent public money from falling into the hands of the mafias,” said a judge from northern Italy. “Reducing the rules does not make life easier for honest companies in difficulty, but helps Mafia companies, or controlled by them.”
Of course, the mafias do not use violence to grab European funds, but corruption, for example in local public administration. “And that’s what will happen with the Stimulus Fund,” predicted Pellegrini.
However, the problem is on a European scale: Italian mafias tend to launder their money in European countries other than Italy, such as Spain, Germany (where the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta is very strong), the Netherlands and the post-Brexit UK.
Musacchio is pessimistic: “We are at least 10 years behind in the development of a coordinated European strategy against the mafias. However, it would be enough to follow the path traced by Giovanni Falcone, [the judge killed by Cosa Nostra in 1992]: Follow the money. This does not happen in Europe “.