Amid Pandemic, Italian Prosecutors Warn That Mafia Groups Are Cementing Their Power

Apr 20, 2020
Originally published on April 20, 2020 7:41 pm

Soon after the coronavirus hit Italy, a parody video of the Naples mafia, the Camorra, went viral, showing a bunch of guys with shaved heads meeting in an empty lot to make a deal.

"I got a new business in my hands," one says.

"100% pure," another thug marvels, unwrapping a packet and taking a sniff. "But what about cocaine?"

"Who gives a s*** about cocaine?" the first thug says. The new commodity — hand sanitizer — is "transparent gold."

Six weeks later, Italians are not laughing. As they mourn a spiraling number of dead, nearly the entire economy is shut down. Hardest hit are the estimated 3.5 million people who work off the books, mostly in the south, in agriculture and construction.

A report by Europol, the European Union police agency, warns that "the pandemic has opened up a business opportunity for predatory criminals" in counterfeit masks, pharmaceuticals and fake coronavirus tests.

In Italy, prosecutors warn that mafia groups are aiming higher — using the pandemic to cement their power.

As Italian families run out of cash, there have been incidents of social unrest. A phone video shared on social media shows a man and his mother beating on a bank's doors in the southern city of Bari, screaming, "We have no more money!"

Organized crime will exploit this growing desperation, warns Francesco Lo Voi, an anti-mafia prosecutor in Palermo, Sicily.

"The mafias always gravitate toward money," he says, "and they're constantly trying to improve their image in the eyes of ordinary citizens."

For example, says Calabria-based anti-mafia investigator Nicola Gratteri, bosses have been delivering free food to needy families since the outbreak began.

"The mafia boss presents himself as a benefactor," he says. "By providing a guy with 300 euros' worth of groceries, he makes sure that at the next election, the guy and his whole family will vote the way the mafioso wants them to."

And with immense quantities of capital, organized crime can pump cash into businesses on the brink of bankruptcy, swallow them up and use them to launder profits from drugs and trafficking.

The government has earmarked up to $380 billion in emergency aid for businesses — but with Italy's notorious red tape, funds could come too late.

Italy is not the only country at risk. Mafia groups — particularly the powerful and brutal 'Ndrangheta, based in Calabria — have spread throughout Europe.

Magistrates stress that organized crime is adept in taking advantage of crises and sudden historical changes. They tell the tale of a wiretapped call the day after the Berlin Wall fell, in which a mafioso in Sicily told his Berlin contact to rush to the East and buy everything possible — restaurants, apartments, hotels, whatever.

Enzo Ciconte, a professor at Pavia University and expert on the 'Ndrangheta, says other European economies are more vulnerable to criminal infiltration than Italy's.

"Because they have no perception of the danger," he explains, "and therefore don't have suitable legislation like our law that makes mafia association a crime in itself."

Italian author Roberto Saviano — put under police escort after receiving threats for his books on organized crime — says mafia business transactions are not handled by thugs packing heat.

"It'll be the mob's white-collar financial consultant who sees a good deal to get access to the legitimate business owner's bank account," he says. "This way, they control the economy."

Magistrates also talk about a more recent wiretapped call: "In our business, we no longer need to know how to shoot," one boss tells another, "just how to move our index finger on a computer keyboard."

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Europol, the European Union police agency, is warning that, quote, "the pandemic has opened up a business opportunity for predatory criminals." They are trading counterfeit masks, pharmaceuticals, fake coronavirus tests. In Italy, as NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports, prosecutors warn that Mafia groups are aiming higher.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Soon after the virus hit Italy, a parody of the Naples Mafia, the Camorra, went viral.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: A bunch of guys with shaved heads meet in an empty lot to make a deal. Forget coke, one thug tells another. The new gold is sanitizing gel. Six weeks later, Italians are not laughing. As they mourn a spiraling number of dead, nearly the entire economy is shut down. Hardest hit are the estimated 3 1/2 million who work off the books, mostly in the south in agriculture and construction. As families run out of cash, there have been incidents of social unrest.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Shouting in Italian).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Shouting in Italian).

POGGIOLI: In this phone video, a man and his mother beat on a bank's doors in Bari, screaming, we have no more money. Organized crime will exploit this growing desperation, says Francesco Lo Voi, anti-Mafia prosecutor in Palermo, Sicily.

FRANCESCO LO VOI: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: The Mafias always gravitate toward money, he says. And they're constantly trying to improve their image in the eyes of ordinary citizens. For example, says Calabria anti-Mafia investigator Nicola Gratteri, bosses are delivering free food to needy families.

NICOLA GRATTERI: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: "The Mafia boss presents himself as a benefactor. By providing a guy with 300 euros' worth of groceries," says Gratteri, "he makes sure that at the next election, the guy and his whole family will vote the way the mafioso wants them to." In other words, the Mafia is using the pandemic to cement its power. And with immense quantities of capital, these gangs can pump cash into businesses on the brink of bankruptcy, swallow them up and use them to launder profits from drugs and trafficking. The government has earmarked $380 billion in emergency aid for businesses. But with Italy's notorious red tape, funds could come too late.

Italy is not the only country at risk. Mafia groups, particularly the powerful and brutal 'Ndrangheta, have spread throughout Europe. Magistrates stress that organized crime is very adept in taking advantage of crises and sudden historical changes. They tell the tale of a wiretap called the day after the Berlin Wall fell. A mafioso in Sicily tells his Berlin contact to rush to the east and buy everything possible - restaurants, apartments, hotels, whatever. Enzo Ciconte, a professor at Pavia University and expert on the 'Ndrangheta, says other European economies are more vulnerable than Italy's to criminal infiltration.

ENZO CICONTE: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: "Because they have no perception of the danger and, therefore, don't have suitable legislation like our law," says Ciconte, "that makes Mafia association a crime in itself." Author Roberto Saviano says Mafia business transactions are not handled by thugs packing heat.

ROBERTO SAVIANO: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: "It'll be the mob's white-collar financial consultant who sees a good deal to get access to the legitimate businessowner's bank account. This way," adds Saviano, "they control the economy." Magistrates also talk about a more recent wiretap call where one boss tells another, in our business, we no longer need to know how to shoot, just how to move our index finger on a computer keyboard.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.