The COVID-19 pandemic provides rich opportunities for organized crime, with officials in Italy already creating a “situation room” to try to combat a resurgence in one of the most powerful organized crime groups, the Calabria-based ‘Ndrangheta.
“As the pandemic continues, the risk of citizens becoming involved with mafia groups continues,” said Nicola Gratteri, a public prosecutor of Catanzaro in Calabria.
Gratteri was one of four Italian mafia experts participating in a recent roundtable organized by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime. The other experts were Federico Cafiero de Raho, National Anti-Mafia and Counterterrorism Public Prosecutor; Franco Gabrielli, Chief of Police and Director General of Public Security; and Nicola Morra, Chairman of the Parliamentary Anti-Mafia Commission.
Italy was deeply affected by the pandemic—registering one of the world’s highest death tolls from the disease. The contagion represented a special threat to hundreds of mafia leaders, many of them elderly, held in prison across the country following the country’s successful campaign to break their power.
But calls for their release have also triggered worries that COVID-19 is a “get out of jail card” for some of the most notorious mafiosi and will lead to a revival of their influence.
The mafia’s exploitation of COVID-19 follows a historical pattern, the roundtable was told.
Following World War II, organized crime zeroed in on ravaged areas. More recently, the mafia invested heavily in East Germany right after the Berlin Wall fell, and subsequently targeted Romania and other parts of Eastern Europe, said de Raho.
Currently, with so many Italian businesses failing or shut down and day workers struggling to make money, the mafia appears with offers to help. “The mafia becomes almost like a benefactor– they behave like the Red Cross – for which a certain portion of society is grateful,” said Gratteri.
“The mafia like to portray themselves as having reassuring qualities at times where state authority is perceived to be weaker,” added Morra.
“The mafia does not save everyone indiscriminately, but rather only those that can be useful to them – they will provide welfare to the people, distributing basic necessities, demonstrating their ability to react more quickly than the state, and thus gaining social consensus and authority.”
The mafia is also eager to invest in businesses, sometimes using them to hide illegally gained money. The ‘Ndrangheta is believed to control 80 percent of the European cocaine market.
“In some regions in the north, for example in Lombardy, Piedmont and Emilia-Romagna, where the virus has been concentrated, but which we don’t think of as being as vulnerable to mafia influence, some individuals have been found with briefcases full of money,” said Gabrielli.
“Local businesses are already seeing an opportunity to breathe a lifeline into their business and perhaps ensure an economic recovery in the sectors that might not otherwise have been able to survive through legal credit channels alone,” said Gabrelli.
Officials say they must pay particular attention to small and medium enterprises that, if not supported adequately, will be easy prey for criminal organizations.
“Considering help from the mafia as an opportunity may appear to be a shortcut,
but in reality it is a path that will always end badly,” said Gabrielli.
The experts said the Italian mafia has for years targeted the health sector. It has been estimated that 2 percent to 4 percent of ‘Ndrangheta bosses earn their wealth via the infiltration of healthcare systems.
“Unfortunately, in Calabria we have had to dissolve no fewer than five local health authorities for mafia infiltration. After more than 10 years of our regional health service being run by a special commission as a result of mafia infiltration, we are still
yet to witness a return to good health of the system,” said Morra.
Another point of great concern is the mafia’s ability to siphon off a chunk of the billions of euros lined up in stimulus funds.
An article in the German newspaper Die Welt provoked debate in Italy, as it questioned whether the EU should help Italy recover, when there is the risk that the mafia would take primary advantage of the so-called “coronabonds.”
For these reasons and more, the officials decided to establish the COVID-19 situation room at the Direzione Centrale della Polizia Criminale (criminal police directorate), which is where the entire system of international cooperation resides, including where Interpol and Europol converge.
“When you think of the money, you realize that this is truly a global problem,” said Morra.
The full transcript of the roundtable can be downloaded here.
Nancy Bilyeau is deputy editor of The Crime Report