Are the Mafia unstoppable? (Photo by Piero CRUCIATTI / AFP) (Photo by PIERO CRUCIATTI/AFP via Getty Images)

January 13, 2021   6 mins

Most of us have an idea of what the Italian mafia looks like. We imagine gangs of violent criminals who make their fortunes from drug-dealing, prostitution, racketeering and, increasingly, public contracts. Thanks to hundreds of cinematic portrayals, we can’t avoid certain tropes: food-obsessed fatties, trilbies and trench coats, nightclubs and blood.

The reality, however, is far more subtle. Today, the biggest mafia trial in Italy for 35 years begins in Lamezia Terme, on the Calabrian toe of the Italian boot. More than 900 witnesses will give evidence in a cavernous call centre which has been converted into a court to seat nearly 1,000 lawyers, judges, prosecutors and spectators. But what is noticeable is that the majority of the 355 indicted criminals — who will be locked in cages ­— are not thick-set, unshaven toughs, but suited professionals. Indeed, the mugshots of lawyers, accountants, managing directors, politicians and even a police chief speak of an organisation that is far more white-collar than we might imagine.

At the end of last year, I spent two hours with Nicola Gratteri, the magistrate who has led the “Rinascita Scott” investigation, which involved raking through 24,000 wiretaps and months of surveillance footage. Inside his office fortress in Catanzaro, he repeatedly told me how far removed Italian mafias are from stereotypes. The proceeds of criminality, he said, are far more likely to be invested in international stock-markets than in seedy clubs. It’s a similar message offered by the National Anti-Mafia Prosecutor, Federico Cafiero de Raho, who last October warned that “the mafia’s strategy at present is focused more than ever on loans to, and acquisitions and infiltrations of, companies”.

The reason for this is simple: Italy’s mafias — Cosa Nostra in Sicily, the Camorra in Naples and Campania, the Sacra Corona Unita in Puglia and the biggest, the ‘Ndrangheta in Calabria — are now so rich that they make money out of money itself. Figures purporting to show their worth are always controversial — it’s not like they file a statement of accounts — but estimates suggest that the ‘Ndrangheta alone enjoys a turnover of between €36-€55 billion per annum, the equivalent of roughly 3% of the country’s entire GDP. In the space of a century, mob bosses have gone from being agricultural gangmasters to sophisticated investors and fund managers. Rather than stalk the streets, today their sons typically graduate in business studies and, often, in chemistry.

But what has changed organised crime more than anything in the last year is, of course, Covid-19. Today, mafias are in effect multinational empires, and, like every international organisation, have been hit by travel restrictions and lockdowns. Drug-routes have been disrupted, people trafficking channels have narrowed, closed stadia have put paid to ticket-touting and their restaurants – those constant, small earners and useful cash laundromats – have no diners.

Yet even so, national crises have always offered opportunities for organised crime. Whenever the Italian state appears flat-footed or absent — earthquake reconstruction is a common example — their “operational flexibility”, to borrow a phrase from a recent UN Office on Drugs and Crime report, allows mafias to fill the void. In particular, the pandemic has provided organised crime with something even more important than money: a chance to cement territorial control. For example, with many Italian families now struggling to make ends meet, a number of mafiosi have taken to showily distributing food packages. Last spring, the brother of a Cosa Nostra boss in Palermo was seen distributing packets of pasta. The Camorra, meanwhile, went one step further and suspended collections of the pizzo (protection money) and started distributing sugar, coffee and pasta instead. It’s an ancient strategy, not dissimilar to Al Capone opening a foodbank in Chicago in 1930, though the Italian Internal Ministry only recently came up with a term for it: “mafia welfare”.

And this “welfare” serves an important purpose. As Oxford criminologist Professor Federico Varese wrote in Il Regno last autumn: “These episodes remind us that some criminal groups are looking for a precious and intangible commodity: the legitimacy that is based on social consensus.” So the gangs’ largesse isn’t altruistic. It’s a rhetorical pose which says that “we are more generous and better organised than the mighty state”.

In the recently-published COVID-19, Gangs, and Conflict, Steven Dudley wrote that the current situation perfectly suits this aspiration to territorial control: “life during and immediately following the pandemic promises to be hyper-local, as does this criminal governance”, giving gangs “both a physical and metaphysical presence”. It’s a presence which is also online, with some mobsters now using social media accounts to reinforce their reputations. Organised crime obviously uses some very lethal sticks, but this pandemic has been a rare chance to dangle a few carrots too.

Still, anyone who has taken a nibble will have been noted. Their gratitude will be weighed and tested. If you accept a favour, you’ll be asked for one in return. That might be an order to vote for the correct candidate in an upcoming election, conceal a package or even a person, host a meeting or just lend a phone – a small act to show the generous donor whose side you’re on.

Crucially, day-to-day mafia business during the pandemic has extended well beyond food hand-outs. For right now, what both Italian businesses and impoverished families need more than anything else is the one thing of which organised crime is king: liquidity. Poverty figures in Italy are repetitively alarming. Recent official figures show that 7.7% of Italians are living in “absolute poverty” with another 14.7% in “relative poverty”. Moreover, the black economy is such a large part of Italian GDP – roughly 12% – that huge numbers of almost-honest workers have no hope of a social security safety net. Against this grim economic crisis, many are turning to loan-sharks as a last resort.

In every town and suburb here in Italy, everyone knows which bars you should visit to be introduced to a broker who can provide a large and immediate loan. Usury, or loan-sharking, is a crime which is always reported well after it happens, if at all, but 2020 saw a recorded increase of between 6.5% and 10%, according to which sources you read. Unofficial figures are far higher: the founder of an anti-usury hotline, SOS Italia Libera, tells me that he believes (from the volume of calls to his hotline) that usury has probably increased by 50-60%. It’s a crime, it must be said, which is greatly increasing in areas not traditionally associated with the mafia: in places like Emilia-Romagna in the north, where I live. In this formerly affluent, industrialised region, businessman Stefano Maioli recently took out a €7,200 bridging loan from cash-in-hand criminals. He repaid €10,000 a few months later, but as much as a loan, it was a bet: “I was risking everything”, he said afterwards.

Because in the end, the aim of loan sharks — called “strozzini” in Italy, from “to strangle” — isn’t just huge returns. (The annual rate is 200-250%.) It is the opportunity to slither inside a company if the debtor can’t repay. When that happens, businesses become puppets: employing who they’re told to, storing unregistered merchandise, running cash investments through the books and so on. The effectiveness of that strategy can be seen in research showing that 43,688 Italian companies changed hands between April and September 2020: not all, of course, fell into criminal ownership, but the number of new owners choosing anonymity through offshore solutions and opaque trusts was ten times the national average, suggesting strongly that many did.

Another indicator of rising mafia infiltration into Italian businesses is the recent increase in prefectures introducing “interdittive” which preclude companies from, among other things, bidding for public contracts. In the first nine months of 2020, Emilia-Romagna saw an 89% increase in these preventative measures, while in Tuscany there was a 150% rise. But the Italian government is still faced with a strategic conundrum. If its own coronavirus subsidies and loans don’t rival those of the mafias, people and businesses will seek support from the underworld; yet when it does offer financial support to struggling businesses and traders, those funds are frequently intercepted.

Yet Government expenditure has obviously rocketed during the pandemic, with investment particularly assiduous in a sector where the mafias are deeply embedded: health. Sometimes the criminals’ slide into health provision is very low-level, like the Camorrista with a car-wash who suddenly, last spring, muscled in on the huge sanitisation market, earning €1.50 for every square metre of floor space he disinfected. Specialist waste disposal is another speciality of organised crime, and demand for such services is on the increase as masks, gloves and medical PPE require removal or sterilisation. Meanwhile, at the other end of the scale, where new pharmaceutical contracts are huge and rushed, recent audits are not reassuring: there have been over 61,000 local, regional and national tenders related to the current emergency, of which ANAC (Italy’s national, anti-corruption agency) analysed a sample of 311 worth €301 million and found issues and anomalies in a fifth.

And perhaps the biggest injection of cash in living memory is just around the corner. As one of the most-indebted EU nations, Italy is due to soon receive €209 billion from the EU’s Recovery Fund. In the past, the ‘Ndrangheta has proved itself exemplary at cultivating friendships at the highest level of national and international government to siphon off such funds. And so it’s seen by many in Italy as almost inevitable that a large percentage of the Recovery Fund will be captured by organised crime.

What this week’s trial is likely to reveal, however, isn’t only that the Italian mafias continue to thrive, but that international efforts outside Italy to stop them are in woeful shape. Italy has a serious mafia problem, but it does at least have some rigorous laws and dedicated agencies. Gratteri’s constant lament is that the UK and other European countries are now the favoured investment destinations for Italian organised crime, and that this threat simply isn’t being acknowledged, despite many of those accused in today’s trial having been arrested in Germany, Bulgaria and Switzerland.

The problem arises, in part, because of all those tropes we have in our heads: we expect the mafias’ presence to imply bullets and blood, rather than money-laundering and investment irregularities. But that’s where organised crime is now most active, especially since — thanks to the pandemic — the taps of state intervention are about to be turned on full. It’s what one magistrate has called the “transparent mafia”: it’s so clean that, unless you look closely, you won’t even notice it’s there.

Tobias Jones lives in Parma. His Ultra: The Underworld of Italian Football won the 2020 Telegraph Football book of the Year.