[Feature] Italy’s mafias – boosted by Covid, now eyeing EU’s billions

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In early March 2020, as Italy was being brought to its knees by Covid-19, protests broke out in many prisons across the country.

Some degenerated into actual riots. According to ongoing investigations, Italy’s various mafias appear to have played a major role in fomenting the chaos.

  • Mobsters hand out pasta, milk, and meat in the low-income neighbourhoods of Naples. Experts call it ‘mafia welfare’ (Photo: Freebird/Flickr)

Months later, in October, fierce protests broke out on the streets of Naples too.

Clansmen of the Camorra, the powerful Naples mafia described in his books by the journalist Roberto Saviano, were among those who set fire to rubbish bins and threw stones at the police.

According to a recent report by the Italian anti-mafia investigation directorate (DIA), “criminal organisations have all the interest in fuelling episodes of urban disorder by exploiting the situation of economic hardship to turn it into social protests, 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 percent in 2020. And mafias are tightening their grip on the Italian society and economy even more.

“Mafias have always been profiting from disasters. They did it after the great earthquake in southern Italy’s Irpinia in 1962, and they have continued with the following earthquakes and disasters,” explains Antonio Nicaso, an internationally-renowned expert and author of more than 30 books on mafias and organised crime.

“Mafias have exploited the epidemic to expand their dirty business,” he adds. On their side, they have an immense capacity to invest. Drug trafficking and dealing did not stop during the lockdown. “Unfortunately, the drug economy is not a parallel economy to the legitimate one, but an integrated one. Money-laundering is now becoming the oxygen of the legal economy” points out Nicaso.

The Bank of Italy reported over 110,000 suspicious transactions in its anti-money laundering 2020 report.

‘Mafia welfare’

The economic crisis has put more than 100,000 companies at risk of failure in Italy; mafias provide loans to struggling businesses, often receiving shares in exchange, and buy those on the verge of bankruptcy.

Mobsters hand out pasta, milk, and meat in the low-income neighbourhoods of Naples, Palermo, Catania, and Reggio Calabria; they lend money to jobless people, sometimes at low-interest rates. Experts call it ‘mafia welfare’.

“Social consensus-based legitimacy is valuable to criminal groups,” says Federico Varese, professor of criminology at Oxford University.

“Emergencies like the current one push 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, but he knew that the people he helped owed him a favour.”

Through fraud, mafias have seized part of the Italian government’s aid to struggling companies and citizens. They have also entered the business of the fight to Covid-19.

In May 2020, a man suspected of being affiliated to the Camorra, intercepted by the judiciary, said on the phone that “you make money with the virus”. He wanted to turn his cousin’s car wash business in Pesaro (central Italy) into a sanitation company.

In general, mafias are allegedly exploiting the chaos caused by the Covid-19 emergency to infiltrate even deeper into sectors where they are already present, such as healthcare, mortuary services, and waste disposal (both medical and non-medical).

“All large companies need to deal with waste disposal. Doing so through mafias means a saving of 90 percent compared to official and legal waste-disposal systems,” explains Stefania Pellegrini, professor at the Faculty of Law, University of Bologna.

EU’s billions coming

Now the eyes of mafias are on the billions that will come to Italy through the EU’s Recovery Fund.

Vincenzo Musacchio is professor of criminal law, associated with the Rutgers Institute on Anti-Corruption Studies (RIACS) in Newark. He notes that “between 2015 and 2020, the EU has allocated around €70bn to Italy in structural and investment funds.

Half of these funds ended up in the hands of organised crime”. Now that the pie is even bigger, the mafias’ lust for a slice is only growing.

For this reason, the experts consulted by EUobserver insist that the government led by Mario Draghi should not simplify procurement procedures.

“Rules are also needed to prevent public money from falling into the hands of the mafias” says a judge from northern Italy. “Reducing the rules does not make life easier for honest companies in difficulty, but helps the businesses of the mafias, or controlled by them”.

Of course, mafias do not use violence to seize the European funds, but corruption, for example in local public administration. “And this is what will happen with the Recovery Fund,” predicts Pellegrini.

However, the issue is Europe-wide: Italian mafias tend to launder their money in other European countries 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 to fight mafias. Yet it would only take following the path outlined by Giovanni Falcone, [the judge killed by Cosa Nostra in 1992]: follow the money. This is not happening in Europe”.

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