Can Europe Make It?

Mafia is northern Italy's problem too

A recent judicial sentence confirms that clan-based organised crime has extended its influence to northern Italy.

Michele Barbero
18 June 2014

Flickr/Broken Fingaz - MsSaraKelly. Some rights reserved.

"Mafia is southern Italy’s problem. It is one of the reasons why that area is so underdeveloped compared to the north, where organised crime on the contrary is stigmatised, denounced, isolated." Such beliefs are widespread among northern Italians, but they seem less and less to correspond to reality. These are days of bitter revelations, in particular regarding the ‘ndrangheta (the criminal organisation that for decades has been choking the southern region of Calabria) and its expansion in the north of the country. A few days ago the High Court upheld prison sentences for almost a hundred people, for crimes including mafia association, extortion and illegal practices in the allocation of public contracts.

The decision marked the end of Infinito, the biggest anti-mafia inquiry that ever took place in Lombardy. The massive trial started four years ago, when 154 people were arrested in Milan and other parts of the region.

This final sentence has been described by most Italian media as “historic”. Not because it proved once for all that the mafia exists in the north, too – that worrying matter of fact has been demonstrated several times in the past. What this long trial has shown is also that such presence can no longer be depicted as the result of occasional infiltrations by southern clans, willing to invest and launder their money in the productive north. The scenario in Lombardy has become much more similar to what happens in the southern territories traditionally under mafia control. In this region, too, the ‘ndrangheta now has a well rooted apparatus, connected but at the same time largely autonomous from the clans based in Calabria. As a 2012 court document put it, "in the Lombardy region the ‘ndrangheta has managed to create a parallel structure, characterised by a high degree of autonomy in its action." Far from being an outer world tempting the organised crime’s greed, "Italy’s locomotive” has become one of the ‘ndrangheta’s “provinces.” 

According to Roberto Saviano, a journalist who has long been warning about mafia consolidating its grip over Italy’s most productive areas, this investigation suggests the formation of “a mafia culture at the local level. Even more. The inquiry proves that Lombardy’s businesses and some of its institutions established links with criminal organisations to get stronger and consolidate their economic power.” 

Interestingly enough, though, a large part of the country's public opinion has always rejected the idea that the north may be as exposed as the south to organised crime. Particularly on the right of the political spectrum, many seem deeply convinced of a sort of anthropological divide between the two areas, which would make the north almost naturally immune to deep mafia penetration.

Some northerners have proved themselves very touchy on this sensitive issue. In 2010, Saviano talked on a prime time TV show about the 'ndrangheta’s activities in Lombardy and its interactions with local political powers, such as the Northern League. Il Giornale, a paper based in Milan and owned by the Berlusconi family, accused him of presenting his “feelings” as real news and launched a petition against the journalist, who had dared “call the north mafioso”. Roberto Maroni, a top Northern League figure who at the time was serving as Interior Minister, called Saviano’s words “ignominious” and demanded to appear in the same programme to respond – which he did, listing his government's accomplishments in the fight against mafia.

When it comes to organised crime in the north, the attitude adopted by part of the Italian right seems somewhat contradictory. On the one hand, all news is belittled as “non-news”: mafia has been trying to infiltrate the area for decades, and everybody knows it. On the other, the north tends to be presented as safe from a large-scale invasion, thanks to its supposed respect for the law and the State. 

Even the Infinito trial has hardly shaken such beliefs. A day after the definitive sentence by the High Court, Il Giornale published a column by its director Alessandro Sallusti. “The fact that mafia exists in the north doesn’t mean at all that the north is mafioso, or that it risks being contaminated” the article reads. Sallusti continues: “One thing is infiltrating a tender notice, managing by a trick to appoint one of your members to a public or political post. Another thing is polluting a community’s life, giving orders, deciding over people’s lives. Deal with it, dear Saviano, in the north we are not, and we can never be at the mercy of the mafia.”

The problem with this argument is the fundamental ambiguity of expressions such as being “at the mercy” of organised crime. The latter can “pollute a community's life” in many different ways. There are areas in southern Italy where mafia has become the cornerstone of most social interactions, de facto replacing the state in regulating work, welfare, crime and punishment. Sallusti is right when he says that in the north this is not the case – and the same goes, of course, for a large part of the Italian south. But as he praises northerners, who “don’t clap at the barracks entrances when the Mafiosi get arrested”, he pretends not to see that the more subtle, low-profile infiltration carried out by the 'ndrangheta in these areas does constitute a serious pollution of society as well. In the various phases of the Infinito trial, the judges have written extensively about the clans’ “influence in various sectors of the economy” and their “attempts, some of which successful, to infiltrate local administrations in order to obtain benefits”. The ‘ndrangheta in Lombardy has been defined as a “well rooted and widespread metastasis”. 

So widespread that it is involved even in the preparation of an event as important as Expo 2015 – which was supposed to relaunch Italy’s image in the world but has recently sunk in a judicial inquiry over alleged irregularities in the allocation of public contracts. The prefect of Milan has repeatedly warned that several firms working on the Expo site have come under the authorities’ scrutiny, in the past, for their connections with mafia clans.

Thus, while pundits debate over what is required for a territory to be defined as mafioso, organised crime is doing great business in northern Italy, backed by an increasingly solid and autonomous structure. Overconfidence, minimisation and rhetorical disputes aren't probably the best weapons to respond to this disaster.

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