The pandemic, and more importantly lockdown measures imposed to contain it, has had a devastating impact not only on public health, but also on the country’s social fabric and economy.
With millions of citizens suffering a loss of income and a government that has been slow to respond, the risk of mafia groups exploiting the situation is high, both during the outbreak and now, in its aftermath, as businesses look to start their economic recovery.
ADRIANO | ANTI-MAFIA ACTIVIST
Adriano is a young anti-mafia activist from a troubled and violent neighbourhood on the outskirts of Naples, known as Parco Verde in the town of Caivano. It is a well-known drug-dealing area – considered off-limits by law enforcement forces themselves.
This isn’t the first time that the town’s citizens have found themselves shut indoors. But this time, the enemy is invisible, and he certainly isn’t carrying a pistol or a Kalashnikov.
Quarantine isn’t a new concept for us. Do you know how many times people have locked themselves in their homes for days at a time when there are clashes between rival clans? Parco Verde is renowned for its high rates of poverty and unemployment, not to mention the amount of informal work that takes place here. All these factors mean the area is a reservoir of human resources for the Camorra, and so, the virus is actually the least of the worries for residents of Parco Verde di Caivano.
Health systems around the world have been thrust into the spotlight amid the coronavirus pandemic. There has been a lot of talk of a recent ‘mafia infiltration’ in the Italian healthcare system during the global emergency, but mafia involvement in the sector is nothing new.
Like many other lucrative businesses, healthcare can constitute a fertile ground for criminal networks to penetrate. Diverting funds, fixing tenders, and placing affiliates in management positions are just a few examples of organized-crime groups’ modus operandi in this sector.
At the most basic level, involvement in the health sector allows mafia groups to drain substantial amounts of public money. The mafia also, however, have set their sights on managing the systems, both public and private, themselves. They weaken the public purse, while at the same time strengthening their grip on the system. It is a system of economic capture that ultimately exerts a devastating impact on ailing citizens, and their need for treatment and care.
Below are three of the most crucial investigations carried out into mafia infiltration in the health system in Italy, the findings of which demonstrate the true extent to which criminal actors have embedded themselves in the system for personal gain.
These anti-mafia investigations revealed the mechanisms of infiltration, management and the ability of the mafias to undermine the national health service, on the one hand by draining public money, and on the other by fuelling a private healthcare system financed by public money, but with much higher rates.
These are three cases that took place in three different regions of Southern Italy, where the ability of the mafia to influence the management of the public administration is strongest.
Picture: The arrest of Alessandro Marcianò
Medi-Mafia: healthcare (f)or life
A vial is worth more than gold
A symbolic phrase encapsulating the exhaustive and complex investigation into pharmaceutical trafficking, known as Operation Volcano. In 2014, The Fiumicino Guardia di Finanza entered a warehouse of counterfeit Hogan shoes in Arzano, near Naples. The agents noticed an elegant young man casually loitering in the adjacent basement. On one side of the room were the shoes; on the other, 53 thousand packages of pharmaceutical drugs, valued at €1.8 million. Nearby, they spotted a computer that was turned on. The agents called out to the man, who simply replied, ‘I’m a pharmacist’.
The young man, Eduardo Lambiase, was put under surveillance and arrested along with seven others, who protested their innocence by claiming they were thieves, and not members of the Camorra. This appeared to be correct, as they were obliged to pay a bribe to the Licciardi Camorra clan for their operation. But the clans didn’t just take money from the operation, because they recognized that simply taking money wouldn’t be sufficient to ensure that the illicit trade continued. Instead, investigations revealed how the Licciardi clan were in fact in control of the entire pharma-trafficking operation, headquartered in Cyprus and with branches in Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia.
After arms and narcotics, the trafficking of pharmaceuticals is among the most profitable forms of trafficking. And if you think the first two markets are complex affairs, imagine the kind of expertise you would need to operate the third.
When medicines are produced, each box has its own unique code, like a vehicle’s number plate, and to transport a shipment requires an extremely complex system of corruption. In order to pass through customs, either by land, sea or air, an entire chain of corrupt officials is necessary that will allow the boxes through, despite their unique codes identifying them as stolen goods. Alternatively, the cargo can be tampered with, by opening all the boxes, repackaging the vials in counterfeit boxes, which cost no more than a few euros to manufacture, but with a different code. Here too, a chain of corrupt officials is fundamental, because the new codes are fake and therefore there is no official record of them anywhere. We’re talking about customs agents, law-enforcement officials and all those charged with inspection of goods.
If the final destination of the medicine is Africa, then state-embedded actors cannot but be involved. Remember, we’re talking about hundreds of millions of euros here. These pharmaceuticals are not just aspirins or painkillers for a bad back, we’re talking about drugs that give someone with a tumour five more years of life, drugs that allow a patient with a chronic disease to survive. We’re talking about life or death, and he who controls this market, controls life or death. Of course this is organized crime, that is patently obvious; these aren’t just petty thieves.’
Board member of a multinational pharmaceutical company
Pharmacies are fair game
In recent years, pharmacies have become the favourite new targets of mafia groups across Italy, for two main reasons. Firstly, the investment in such a profitable sector provides an opportunity for criminal actors to launder the proceeds of their illicit activity. Secondly, it allows mafia groups to consolidate and expand their networks and facilitate the trafficking of pharmaceutical products.
An investigation into a pharmacy in Milan has revealed how members of the ‘Ndrangheta purchased a number of extremely expensive drugs: cancer drugs, antivirals and other life-saving drugs. This pharmacy, acting as a wholesaler, registered itself as a distribution centre for hospitals. When a wholesaler purchases pharmaceutical for hospitals, they are granted discounts of between 50% and 90%. But the drugs never reached the hospitals: they were resold on the black market in Africa, China and South East Asia, among others.
The suspiciously high number of ‘Ndrangheta offspring that have settled in northern Italy and graduated in pharmacology has not gone unnoticed.
Dark side of dialysis treatment
Sicily, home to the Cosa Nostra, has the third highest number of dialysis patients in Italy. Despite this, it ranks 15th of the 20 regions in Italy with regard to the number of registered kidney transplants. Furthermore, 81% of dialysis treatments in the region are administered by private clinics. Over the years, medical professionals and entrepreneurs affiliated to the Cosa Nostra have secured access to public funds through subsidies and rebates.
More importantly, however, the mafia group has successfully entrenched dialysis as a long-lasting (and profitable) treatment programme, as opposed to a considerably easier and more definitive solution to kidney failure - kidney transplants. The Cosa Nostra have established a monopoly in the dialysis market, making huge sums of money without any consideration for the best interests of the patients.
Italy was one of the first European countries to be hit by the COVID-19 outbreak, quickly becoming one of the world’s major epicentres of the virus. The novel coronavirus caused untold suffering in the country, with 33 964 confirmed deaths and excess mortality data suggesting a far higher death toll.
But the health crisis was swiftly followed by a social and economic crisis in Italy, with the country facing its fourth recession in just over a decade and millions of citizens facing economic hardship as a result of the strict lockdown measures imposed to contain the virus.
The damage caused by the virus, both to public health and the economy, is unprecedented in more than a century. And, as with all national emergencies, the mafia have added to the disruption, and taken advantage of it.
Picture credits: Stefano Annovazzi Lodi
From 7 to 9 March, a crisis rocked Italy when the country witnessed a number of prison riots, in some cases leading to outbreaks.
The violence was triggered by two main catalysts: a COVID-related ban on family visits and increasing risk of contagion among the prison population. But these were not the only factors that led to Italy's prison crisis: around six weeks later, the announcement that there would be an imminent release of numerous mafia bosses on health grounds caused widespread outrage.
In Italy, the so-called 41-bis prison regime is a special high-security detention system for prisoners convicted of mafia-related or terrorist offences. The regime is reserved for the most dangerous mafia bosses and provides for the complete isolation of prisoners, who are permitted no contact with the outside world.
As of November 2019, just a few months before the outbreak of the pandemic, there were 753 prisoners in Italy detained under this high-security regime. The vast majority had been convicted for mafia-linked offences.
At that time, of this segment of the prison population, 268 were from the Camorra; 230 from the Cosa Nostra; and 202 from the ‘Ndrangheta. The remaining detainees were those with links to the other organized crime groups, such as the the Sacra Corona Unita, the Mafia Foggiana, the Stidda and others.
After the escape, the release
The timing could not have been more inauspicious. Just weeks after the prison uprising, a memo sent by the department of penitentiary administration alluding to the potential release of mafia bosses from prison on grounds of ill-health came as a second blow for the Italian public, still reeling from the recent riots. The memo requested prison directors to disclose the names of all detainees with underlying health conditions in order to assess appropriate measures to be taken should the prison service not be able to provide necessary healthcare. Adequate health facilities are severely lacking in Italy’s straining prison system.
Mafia bosses’ lawyers identified a gap in the regulations that has permitted them to submit release requests for their clients, especially those above the age of 70. These are by and large the so-called ‘old bosses’. Among them are the capi dei capi – the most senior bosses of the Cosa Nostra, the Camorra and the ‘Ndrangheta.
Picture: Camorra boss Pasquale Zagaria
While Italy has struggled to cope with the COVID-19 emergency, as have many other European countries, Italian mafia groups have managed the emergency to perfection. Their resolute determination and capacity to coordinate activities illustrates not only the danger they pose, but also their ability to seize opportunities as soon as they arise.
Just two weeks after the first confirmed coronavirus case in Italy, the mafia orchestrated some of the most extensive prison riots in Italy’s history, showing how they are attuned to the difficulties facing the country in a state of emergency. They have also shown their intricate knowledge of the country’s legislation governing the regulations of prisons. They were able to secure access to communication and information, resulting in a number of prison releases for senior members of their syndicates.
Picture: 'Ndrangheta boss Vincenzino Iannazzo
The COVID-19 pandemic first hit the health system, then the prison system, and shortly after, the economy. Images of mafia members handing out food packages – buste della spesa – to the country’s neediest families travelled the world: a chilling example of so-called ‘mafia welfare’.
Mafia organizations have shown their ability to offer 'welfare' services during the crisis, in a bid to elicit social consent, especially among the country's more vulnerable communities
Raffaele Cantone, anti-mafia magistrate and former President of the Italian Anti-Corruption National Authority
Mafia groups have stepped in to provide food packages to those in need. But this strategy is neither new nor limited to times of emergency. Criminal actors often hand out aid to poor citizens in order to curry favour. There have been numerous investigations into the extent to which votes for local, regional and national elections are bought with money and food packages.
In order to eat, you sell your right to democracy. Bought votes are among the most damaging wounds inflicted upon society by organized crime, made all the more dangerous by its low cost. We’re talking about 50 euros, sometimes less, as if exercising your right to vote is an added bonus, rather than a right.
Francesco Piccinini, Editor-in-Chief of Fanpage.it
CIRO | ‘RESISTENZA ANTICAMORRA’ FOUNDER
Ciro Corona, born and raised in Scampia and founder of the antimafia organisation Resistenza Anticamorra, manages seized assets and cultural spaces in some of Naples’ most troubled neighbourhoods.
Many like to talk about the mafia’s so-called buste della spesa, because focusing on these activities is more comfortable than talking about the vast financial transactions they carry out each and every day. But we haven’t seen that many mafia buste della spesa, in large part because we descended on their territory and countered them with food packages of our own. There is too much talk about mafia welfare and not enough about the welfare provided by the generous people of this region. And in fact it’s not just out of generosity that people have donated, but they did so specifically to counter the Camorra, because in areas where the mafia have provided aid, the greatest concern must be the risk of loansharking and extortion. That’s why the battle against the Camorra needs to be fought first and foremost by the state
Picture credits: Flavio Ronco
DON MAURIZIO | PARISH PRIEST
Don Maurizio Patriciello, is the parish priest in Parco Verde, near Naples, and a prominent antimafia figure, renowned for his public battles against the ecomafia in Naples:
The Camorra keeps a record of who refuses their help. If you turn down the their offer of assistance, they put a black mark down next to your name; they know you are not with them, so you must be against them.
This is something that isn’t talked about enough, but there is resistance to help from the mafia, even from the most poor and vulnerable. The Church, as always, has been by the side of the needy, and we have had great help from people all across Italy. So, you see, where there is Camorra and ‘mafia welfare’, there is also a real response from civil society. I know the Camorra don’t like me, but me and my people will keep on going with our heads held high. They are trying to gain social consensus, they want to drag people onto their side, but we won’t let them.
In the Apulian city of Bari, there is another development that has caused concern.
Reports suggest that mafia groups are using supermarket home delivery services to distribute drugs. Suspicions were initially raised when deliveries were seen being made early in the morning or late at night after supermarket closing times. The individuals making the deliveries were not supermarket workers, but clan members.
The dominant mafia group in the region of Apulia is the Sacra Corona Unita. As with all mafia groups in Italy, the Apulian mafia have invested heavily in the legal economy in order to launder illicit proceeds, and the supermarket sector has not escaped their clutches. The mafiosi, therefore, use their connections in the various supermarkets as a vehicle for drug delivery.
Picture credits: Covid-19 Emergency, checkpoint in the city of Bari. (Italian Ministry of the Interior)
While the health emergency has disproportionately affected northern Italy, the social and economic impacts have united the country, impacting all regions, albeit in different ways.
The south risks a greater adverse impact in the recovery phase after the virus has died down, as a result of the long-term economic struggle that the region has experienced. Indeed, research suggests that medium and large enterprises are at greater risk of default in southern Italy.
Picture credit: Ralf Steinberger, Restaurant gallery in Venice, Italy (23 February 2020)
The economic disparity between the north and south in Italy is crucial in understanding the role mafia groups will go on to play in the coming months and years.
Although the northern regions have been hit hardest in terms of economic losses, the increased risk of business default in the south is particularly concerning. The combination of the two factors outlined presents the Italian mafia groups with a country in crisis, which allows them to invest wherever they see fit.
More importantly, however, given the risks facing medium and large enterprises in the south, rather than hijacking small businesses, mafia groups have the opportunity to invest in these larger companies, saving jobs and thus consolidating their social consensus in the process. The mafia’s ability to move from supplementing citizens’ grocery bags to making corporate acquisitions of significant value demonstrates the depth and spread of their reach into the national landscape.
Picture: Wheelbarrow in the streets of Troia, province of Foggia (Apulia) - 6 March 2020
Investing in legitimate businesses is one of the primary objectives of criminal organisations across the world, because it allows them to launder their ill-gotten gains. Their resources are so vast that often they will even invest in companies operating at a loss, so long as it permits them to recycle their money.
Mafia groups are prepared to launder cash in legal activities despite sometimes suffering huge losses in the process. This shows these criminal organizations are ready to sacrifice cash in order to 'legalize' their money. Meanwhile, the pandemic has given rise to many more such opportunities for these criminal organizations
Roberto Tartaglia, antimafia magistrate and the Deputy Head of the Dipartimento Amministrazione Penitenziaria, Italy’s prison administration department.
Picture credits: Mando Gomez