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Coronavirus: Italian mafia gangs seek to profit from covid-19

Italy’s mafia has worked out how to profit from the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic crash. From offering opportunistic social aid and loans with unreasonably high interest rates to new business investments, the mafia is all set to exploit the vulnerable.

This is not the first time that mafia families have identified an easy business opportunity.  In 1980, an earthquake struck Naples and the Campania region, killing almost 2,700 people and the mafia was there to help.

In an article published in La Repubblica in March, journalist Roberto Saviano warns that this new coronavirus crisis offers the mafia a “lucrative opportunity”.

At the start of April, Italian police seized half a million euros in cash hidden in a van driven by people linked to the Calabrese arm of the mafia called ‘Ndrangheta. The van was coming from Eastern Europe when it was stopped at Italy’s northern border, according to the newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano.

Food baskets and SME loans

Faced with a dramatic increase in people on the poverty line, the Italian government announced the distribution of €400 million in shopping vouchers. The Italian agricultural union Coldiretti reported that requests for food aid from charity organisations such as Caritas increased by 30% in March, according to AFP.

At the same time, the authorities and several media outlets noted that mafia groups started distributing their own food baskets to families facing financial difficulties.  Some considered this both a strategy of recruitment and of social consensus. It coincided, too, with a number of key mafia bosses being allowed to exchange their prison cells for house arrest, thereby returning to the territories they controlled.

In the underprivileged ZEN district of Palermo, the brother of Cosa Nostra’s boss, Giuseppe Cusimano, was spotted distributing food through a charity close to the cartel.

“It is hard to know exactly how much of this goes on,” said Rizzoli, who explains that such largesse buys loyalty. “In return, the mafia asks for ‘services’: to hide weapons or a fugitive, to employ a cousin, to display the family’s mozzarella in place of a competitor…”

The lockdown and the resulting economic catastrophe has put many small businesses at risk of bankruptcy. “Banks tend to lend little to SMEs (small and medium enterprises). They must then turn to more shadowy operations and the mafia offers them fresh, albeit dirty, money,” Clotilde Champeyrache, a lecturer at the University of Paris 8, a mafia specialist and author of “La Face cachée de l’économie” (The Hidden Face of the Economy) explained to FRANCE 24.

“In normal times, the rates for this kind of money-lending are extremely difficult to pay back,” said Champeyrache. “Today, the crisis is enormous, so there’s a real demand for money. And, during Covid-19, rates will be more reasonable in order to get as many people as possible under the mafia’s thumb.”

According to Amedeo Scaramella, of the San Giuseppe Foundation Moscato organisation, which fights against such loans, the mafia traps borrowers by then raising interest by up to 300%.

Old business and new deals

Though Europe has tightened controls at its borders and nations imposed lockdowns, the drugs business has hardly been impacted — at least not in the wholesale market. 

“Retail trade may be more limited now, but cocaine and heroin production has not stopped,” said Champeyrache. “There seems to have been a boom in the drug market before lockdown. Consumers and mafias had made provisions.”

At the end of March, the son of an infamous leader of the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta was arrested when he was discovered digging up half a ton of cocaine in a garden. The police noticed him because he was not respecting the lockdown regulations.

“Criminal families infiltrate the health service by providing services legally through cleaning, laundry, security and equipment businesses,” Rizzoli said. “In these times of Covid-19, it is important for hospitals to get supplies wherever they can, it is an emergency. It may later be discovered that some suppliers are linked to the mafia.”

In an article in Elle, Italian author Roberto Saviano expanded further.  “The Camorra already seems to have invested in the most profitable business of the moment – trade in masks, gloves and hydroalcoholic gel.”

Post-crisis: tenders and corona bonds…

Experts all agree on one point: Italy’s criminal organisations will benefit the most from the recovery.

“By distributing food baskets, by finding a way to enter the homes of poor families, the mafia is not just looking to recruit. It is also giving people directions on how they should vote, and these will be at least in part respected,” says Rizzoli. In this way, it reinforces its main activity: securing tenders.

“As soon as there are calls for tenders in the building and public works sector, at least in southern Italy, the mafia tries to win them through their legal companies,” said Champeyrache.

Battle against the mafia

Italy is rife with organised crime. Its anti-mafia defence system is the most sophisticated in the world. Unlike France or Germany, Italy has three major institutional bodies dedicated to the fight against criminal organisations. These are within the justice system, the ministry of the interior and the parliament.

“In Italy it’s an offence to be associated with the mafia, but not in other European countries,” said Champeyrache. Adopted in 1982, this measure makes it possible to arrest those who are hiding behind the crime and also high-ranking officials who don’t get their hands dirty.

“The interior ministry takes the fight against the mafia’s embezzlement of public money very seriously,” said Champeyrache. She says the coronavirus crisis and lockdown have not slowed down the Italian justice system.

She does warn that Europe’s lack of engagement only serves to bolster the mafia in their aim to become part of the establishment. “If Brussels doesn’t help Italy in times of crisis, it will enable the mafia to continue to build their societal legitimacy.”

This article is translated from the original in French.

Source: France 24

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