Can Europe Make It?

Italy’s Mafia finds blood money in unexpected places

The fact that Mafia groups have been handed construction contracts in places like Amatrice - recently destroyed by an earthquake - shows just how far successive governments' anti-Mafia rhetoric is from reality.

Marcu Niculescu
8 September 2016
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A destroyed building in Amatrice, Italy. Paimages/Antonio Calanni. All rights reserved.

Late last month, a 6.2 magnitude earthquake ripped through central Italy, leaving 292 people dead and many more seriously injured. While it would not have been unheard of for tremors to cause that much destruction in a developing nation, the anti-seismic reinforcement technology available in a wealthy European country like Italy should have prevented many of the buildings that ultimately fell from collapsing.

The vast majority of those killed in the earthquake lived in the town of Amatrice, in northern Lazio, where the construction firm paid to carry out anti-seismic work had in fact links to organized crime, and utterly failed to conduct any sort of improvements.

If the work had been completed as directed, far fewer people would have lost their lives. One now-infamous elementary school that crumbled in Amatrice, was renovated to resist earthquakes as recently as 2012 and at a cost of $785,000 USD – money that apparently went into the pockets of local Mafiosi.

While the earthquake was a tragic event, it does shine a searing light onto Italy’s enslavement at the hands of mafia families. If the forces of nature cannot be tamed or even anticipated, then at least organized crime can be stamped out if the political will exists. After the dust settles, Rome should use the trauma of the Amatrice earthquake to crack down on its notorious Mafiosi.

Speaking out in the aftermath of the disaster, the head of Italy’s national anti-Mafia directorate, Franco Roberti, warned organised crime groups must not be allowed to infiltrate reconstruction work in Amatrice and the other towns damaged in last month’s quake. As the magistrate pointed out, the Italian mafia is notorious for attempting to exploit the region’s vulnerability to seismic activity. Lining their pockets while completing shoddy construction work and fabricating anti-seismic certifications, Italy’s most notorious criminal groups have a great deal of innocent blood on their hands.

That Roberti needs to warn against handing Mafia groups reconstruction contracts demonstrates perfectly how Italy’s crime syndicates are still able to operate with near impunity, despite repeated promises from successive governments to crack down on their operations.

Indeed, for all the talk of eliminating organised crime, some of Italy’s most prominent construction projects are instead embarrassing reminders of the country’s poor governance and easy opportunities for plundering the public coffers.

Last year, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi declared that the 443 km A3 highway connecting Salerno to Reggio Calabria would be finished in 2016, a full 50 years after its first section opened. Why has the project progressed so painfully slowly?

Primarily because the mafia syndicates operating in the area, including both the Camorra and the ‘Ndrangheta (the Calabrian mafia), have stolen millions from its budget through construction contracts and forced developers to adjust plans in keeping with their interests, resulting in a poorly-built roadway full of blind corners and abandoned work sites. As a result of their corruption, the road is now decades behind schedule.

Brussels to the rescue?

Sadly, the European Union, despite the lip service paid to reforming Italy’s justice system, has been a boon for these groups. The mafia organisations involved in the A3 project have been able to siphon off millions in European funds allocated to development projects in impoverished areas of Italy. Between 2007 and 2012, at least €3 billion in EU funds were earmarked for Calabria, and Brussels had to take back €383 million of that funding after Italian magistrates uncovered misuse.

The European Union has also benefited Italy’s ruthless organized crime groups by giving them open access to other Schengen countries including Germany, France, and Spain. Thanks to open borders and the right to live and work anywhere with the EU, members of the ‘Ndrangheta and their associates have set up shop in other European countries and helped spread the familiar cycle of bribery, corruption, and intimidation further afield.

With the lack of internal barriers and border controls in Europe, these mafia organizations have also been able to expand their vast drug and tobacco smuggling empires with little intervention from the Italian government or the European Union. For example, Italian mafia organizations are major cogs in the network that moves tens of billions of smuggled and counterfeit cigarettes across the EU every year.

The cigarette trade offers an excellent source of revenue at low risk, especially as European anti-smuggling efforts are undermined by competing priorities of public health and law enforcement. In an attempt to insulate health policy from industry influence, the Framework Convention for the Control of Tobacco (FCTC) pressured the European Union to abandon a major anti-smuggling tool and is attempted to exclude key stakeholders from its COP7 on fighting the illicit tobacco trade, to be held in New Delhi. Even Interpol, one of the most important institutions in countering the rise of organised criminal smuggling, has been threatened with blacklisting by the FCTC.

Like many of their predecessors, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and President Sergio Mattarella both promised to tackle organized crime when they came to power. In precisely the same vein as those who held office before them, both have so far failed to do so. The Amatrice calamity offers just the latest damning indictment of how little progress has truly been made.

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