Italy's Mafia troubles creep north

The Mafia has long been a part of life in southern Italy, while the north remained mostly untainted. Organized crime has now solidified its presence in prosperous northern Italy.

The Mafia used to be strictly a business of Italy’s south, but today organized crime has reached the north – Italy’s economic engine –  and is thriving, investing its illegally-made millions there.

But unlike in the south, where the Mafia has a thorough and sometimes violent control over society, its influence in northern regions is mainly economic and often hidden.

“When they show up here, they look clean,” says Enrico Bini, the president of the town of Reggio Emilia’s Chamber of Commerce and one of the first and most outspoken public critics of organized crime in Emilia-Romagna. “It’s tricky. Companies sometimes don’t know whom they are making deals with.”

Emilia-Romagna, the affluent, left-leaning region with Bologna as its capital, is traditionally celebrated as a model of economic development, social integration, and civic engagement. All this makes it hard for residents to imagine, let alone accept, that Emilia-Romagna is one of the latest frontiers in the Mafia’s infiltration of the north – making it easier for the Mafia to infiltrate unnoticed.

“There was a defensive ideology around here,” says journalist Sara Di Antonio, who wrote a book about the Mafia’s presence in the north. “People believed that our community, for cultural and historic reasons, had to be healthy.”

Public officials and politicians were no exception. “They said that everything was under control, although there were many signs that things weren’t quite right,” Ms. Di Antonio says.

An undeniable presence

In recent years, however, the Mafia’s presence has become harder and harder to ignore.

The national Anti-Mafia Directorate, a unit of high-level anti-mafia prosecutors, reported in 2007 that a 2006 bombing attack against a local branch of the Italian revenue agency in Sassuolo, a small town in Emilia-Romagna, may have been carried out by Mafia groups. At the time, the agency was investigating a case of tax evasion by several entrepreneurs with known ties to organized crime.

Then, in 2010, Reggio Emilia-based construction entrepreneur Vito Lombardo was shot twice while taking a walk. Prosecutors, who view the attack as a settling of Mafia accounts, filed charges against a suspect for attempted murder with the aggravating factor of Mafia connections.

But Giovanni Tizian’s story was perhaps the most unsettling for the public. The freelance journalist has been under police protection since December, after reporting on organized crime in Emilia-Romagna. While in the south it is not unheard of for journalists to be threatened by the Mafia – writer Roberto Saviano has been under police protection since publishing “Gomorrah,” a bestselling exposé on the Neapolitan Mafia – Tizian’s case is the first recognized by authorities in the north.

Violent episodes notwithstanding, a 2010 report by Italy’s National Council of Economics and Labor, a government consultative body, found that the Mafia has generally opted for a “social camouflage” strategy that has proven to be very effective in infiltrating new territories without raising public alarm.

According to a 2008 report by the Italian parliament, the “colonization”  of Emilia-Romagna started in the 1980s, when a large number of mobsters from the south were sentenced to forced residence in the region for up to five years. The measure, first introduced in the 1960s, was intended to disrupt crime by uprooting suspected members of organized crime groups from their local networks. 

Instead, the “forced residence” approach allowed mafia members to work themselves into the rich northern and central regions. There they were joined by affiliates who remained at large and gradually created a new sphere of influence. 

Take Antonio Dragone, a leader of an organized crime group known as the ‘Ndrangheta in the the southern region of Calabria. According to the parliamentary report, Mr. Dragone moved from a small Calabrian town to Reggio Emilio in the 1980s following a forced residence sentence. Once there, he became a key player in drug trafficking. His extortion activities, targeting the large community of immigrants who left unemployment-ridden Calabria for prosperous Reggio Emilia, also thrived.

Since the 1980s, the crime syndicates have strengthened their presence and diversified their activities. Today, the ‘Ndrangheta and the Camorra, the two main groups, operate all across the region.

'Legal and illegal are all mixed up'

Given Emilia Romagna’s affluence, it’s no surprise that money laundering has been the cornerstone of the Mafia’s expansion strategy.

“When it comes to the Mafia, legal and illegal are all mixed up,” said Tizian, the reporter, during a solidarity event held in his honor in Bologna by Emilia-Romagna’s journalists guild.

In sectors such as truck shipping and construction, Mafia-controlled companies are as common as in the south, said Bini of the Chamber of Commerce. 

They are corrupting the local economy by offering extremely cheap services, even underbidding competitors for public sector contracts, Bini says. According to him, their competitiveness derives from several factors: They pay their employees (who are often illegal immigrants) under the table, cheat on taxes, and can always count on huge capital reserves.

Sos Impresa, an anti-Mafia organization, said in a recent report that charging illegally high interest rates is another common strategy organized crime uses in the north. Mafiosos lend money at extremely high rates to companies in distress and otherwise unable to get loans, with the ultimate goal of taking control over them and further infiltrating the local business sector.

Public officials have lately been more outspoken and active against the infiltration of organized crime. A recently approved regional law provides grants to local governments and grassroots organizations for awareness-raising and monitoring projects in an attempt to involve citizens directly in the struggle against organized crime. 

Northern Italians have often claimed to be too honest to be targeted by organized crime, refusing to face reality, says Annalisa Duri, a local coordinator with the anti-Mafia organization LIBERA. But the Mafia thrives when people stick their heads in the sand, she says, agreeing to profitable business deals with individuals with questionable connections, for example.

“It’s everyone’s responsibility,” Duri said. “We need to realize not just that the Mafia exists but that it’s affected by our daily actions.”

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