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Italy’s Mafia Issue – Is Mafia Power Growing or Falling?


Is the mafia still a problem for Italy? The Berlusconi government claimed it seized a record number of mafia assets and arrests of mafia bosses do seem commonplace. However, reports of the mafia infiltrating Italy’s local councils and of councils being dissolved because of mafia control pop up in Italy’s press regularly too.

Preparations for the forthcoming 2015 Milan Expo have also been blighted, and delayed, owing to fears that the mafia has been attempting to take over Expo construction works. The worries over mafia infiltration have grown so much that some wonder whether the massive development works needed to support the event will be completed in time.

I’ve been receiving very mixed messages about the state of play in the fight against Italy’s mafia or rather, mafias. There are three powerful organized crime groups in Italy: Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian mob; Camorra, the Naples’ mob, and last but by no means least, the phenomenally powerful ‘Ndrangheta. This group in particular, with a reputed annual income of more than €50 billion, appears to have spread its destructive tentacles not only deep into northern Italy, but also internationally. As I wrote recently, the growing power of the ‘Ndrangheta mafia is causing major headaches for the German authorities. It is estimated that the ‘Ndrangheta mafia may have as many as 60,000 ‘employees‘. Indeed, ‘Ndrangheta Inc. may well be the most powerful illicit multinational in the world. 

Global Mafia

What is the true situation? Are Italy’s mafias growing in power? Is the fight against organized crime in Italy getting anywhere? I gave Italian anti-mafia association Libera a call and spoke to Roman Catholic priest Father Tonino Dell’Olio who is in charge of Libera’s international section.

Father Dell’Olio told me that contrary to the impression given by Italy’s press, Italy’s mafias are still accumulating power. He went a little further too, stating that the mafia is now well and truly global.

Do Asset Seizures Work?

When I asked about the seizure of mafia assets, something Italy’s politicians love to trumpet, Father Dell’Olio said that while the psychological effect of the asset seizures is positive, in real terms, the confiscation of cash and property belonging to the mafia is not diminishing the power or activities of the criminal organizations at all.

Like many legal international businesses, Italy’s mafias have become highly adept at hiding their ill-gotten gains in offshore accounts in nations where banking secrecy is the norm. Even so, the fact that some assets are being removed from the mafias does lead Italians to believe that these organizations are not completely invulnerable to the long arm of the law. What is being seized, though, is having a minimal effect on the mafias power.

Are the Arrests Working?

On the subject of Italy’s much publicized and seemingly frequent arrests of mafia bosses, Father Dell’Olio observed that while the arrests look good, in practice, and like the asset seizures, they too make little or no difference to the mafias’ ability to function. Father Dell’Olio told me that the mafia has an incredible capacity for regeneration. Like the mythical Hydra, Italy’s mafias grow replacement heads easily.

Now, while it might sound as if the battle to fight the mafia plague is not really getting anywhere, that is not actually the case. As Father Dell’Olio may tell you, Italians are now far more aware of the existence of the mafia and this in itself represents a form of progress. Associations like Libera, which also coordinates are similar anti-mafia initiatives, are helping generate awareness and Italians are listening.

Before Libera came on the scene, the award of construction contracts went unnoticed. Nowadays, though, people are much more likely to ask who exactly is behind the companies winning these often lucrative contracts. Italy’s authorities are then forced to investigate, so mafia activity comes to light more often today than it did in the past.

Is It Possible to Defeat the Mafia?

In Father Dell’Olio’s opinion there’s hope. The battle, though, must proceed. While Italy is doing something, it is still not doing enough to reduce the mafia phenomenom. A recent example of this is a law passed in Italy which is designed to prevent the mafia from purchasing votes for either its own, or friendly, politicians. While the law goes some way towards preventing vote buying, its effects were watered down by Italy’s parliament. As a consequence, what may have proved to be a deterrent, may not now deter many, if any of Italy’s more corrupt politicians from fostering and maintaining, nor continuing, relationships with organized crime.

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As well as being reluctant to pass laws to counter mafia power, Father Dell’Olio told me that parliamentary support for combatting the mafia at a social level is not high in Italy. The nation’s politicians and government tend to remain rather quiet on the mafia issue. Very few politicians speak out regularly against the mafia and its damaging effects on Italian society and its economy.

To combat the mafia effectively,  Father Dell’Olio says what is needed is a general consensus that the mafia is bad for Italy. Furthermore, he believes that cooperation and coordination amongst those tasked with reducing the problem is essential. Until this occurs, Italy’s mafias will continue.

Trafficking is the Mafia’s 21st Century Core Business

Arguably, perhaps, Italy’s inaction on the mafia front is probably the reason why the mafia has so successfully taken its operations global. The biggest business of the mafias in the 21st century is trafficking.

Not everything the mafia traffics is illegal either. It came to light recently in Italy that the mafia is trafficking in legal anti-cancer drugs. With anti-camcer therapies costing around $100,000, there is a great deal of money to be made in this new mafia business area. Canter treatment drugs have apparently been disappearing from the shelves of hospital pharmacies in Italy and ending up in the United Kingdom, and elsewhere.

Aside from the financial damage to Italy’s publicly funded health system, and the probability that, sooner or later, fake drugs may turn up in hospitals and clinics around the world, a question which needs to be asked is who exactly within Italy’s health system has been passing anti-cancer drugs on to the mafia? This brings us neatly to another issue which has to be tackled before the power of the mafia can be curtailed: corruption.

Corruption is, aside from guns and intimidation, one of the mafia’s main weapons. Cash and gifts buy cooperation. However, Italy, which even its judges admit has a massive problem with corruption, is not doing anywhere near enough to deal with the issue. Father Dell’Olio of Libera firmly believes that Italy needs much, much, stronger anti-corruption laws.

As well as Italy, other nations, such as Germany, where Italy’s mafia is spreading its wings, may also need to rethink or introduce new anti-corruption legislation.

The battle against the mafia needs to become international. Indeed, Italian anti-mafia association Libera is pushing for Europe to adopt laws which will allow mafia assets to be seized in countries throughout the European community.

Times are not easy in Europe, and Italy’s mafias knows this only too well. They have also discovered that it is not just Italians who are content to make some extra cash by cooperating with organized crime. The ground throughout Europe is fertile for the expansion plans of Italy’s mafias, especially those of the ‘Ndrangheta.

The Mafia Next Door

If you live outside of Italy and suddenly find a housing estate or unsightly office building springing up in the midst of the countryside, ask yourself just how permission for the new buildings was obtained. There’s work for investigative journalists here, though their investigations could cost them their lives.

In summary, Italy’s mafias are not only still around, but they are growing more powerful and more international by the day.

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