Argument

Married to the Mob

Don't get too excited about last week's massive mafia crackdown in Italy. Here's why the country has been -- and remains -- the perfect soil for organized crime.

ROBERTO SALOMONE/AFP/Getty Images
ROBERTO SALOMONE/AFP/Getty Images

On July 13, Italian police arrested more than 300 members of the ‘Ndrangheta mafia syndicate — one of the largest crackdowns on organized crime in the country’s history. The vast scale of the operation — with some 3,000 police agents carrying out 305 arrests, conducting 55 searches, and seizing criminal assets worth an estimated $75 million — is testimony to an extremely well-coordinated police investigation operating simultaneously in northern and southern Italy.

Every few years after a major mafia crackdown, the American press tends to trumpet a crucial turnabout in the war against organized crime in Italy. But the truth is, the high number of arrests is also an indication of the growth and pervasiveness of one of Italy’s strongest and least well-known crime groups. One hundred and sixty of the arrests took place in Milan, the financial capital of northern Italy, where the ‘Ndrangheta is believed to have 500 affiliates. Less known than Sicily’s Cosa Nostra and the Camorra, the Neapolitan equivalent of the mafia, the ‘Ndrangheta has remained much more elusive. According to the Italian think tank Eurispes, it is also one of the wealthiest of Italy’s organized crime groups, accounting for about 50 billion euros a year, about half of it from illegal drugs. (Eurispes estimates that organized crime accounts for about 9 percent of Italy’s GDP, and the ‘Ndrangeta accounts for about a third of that.)

The recent blitz carried out in Italy appears to be a genuine accomplishment and not merely a public relations exercise. In more than two years of patient investigations, police and prosecutors have gathered a staggering amount of evidence — reportedly 64,000 hours of videotape and more than 1 million phone conversations.

Along with arresting major mafia bosses, including the man police believe to the No. 1 figure in the ‘Ndrangheta, 80-year-old Domenico Oppedisano, the ongoing investigation has provided authorities a valuable look at the inner workings of the organization for the first time. Contrary to previous thinking, which supposed the ‘Ndrangheta to be a "horizontal" organization of groups operating independently of one another, Italian police now believe that the syndicate has a very tight vertical structure, with a clear hierarchy and a commission at the top, responsible for all the most important decisions. When members of the Milan group pushed for autonomy, their leader was summarily shot and killed. "The provincial government fired him," commented one boss on tape. The detail and quality of the information gathered in this case promises a real breakthrough in finally penetrating the ‘Ndrangheta.

Now for the bad news. Although Italian police have registered many important successes against organized crime in the past 15 years, arrests and prosecutions have not substantially lessened the power of organized crime in Italy. Police and prosecutors are fighting an uphill battle in which they often find themselves at cross purposes with Italian politicians, many of whom continue to have close ties to organized crime figures.

Further, many Italian politicians continue to promote and profit from a system of corruption and patronage that offers myriad economic opportunities for mafia groups like the ‘Ndrangheta. For this reason, almost all criminal justice legislation of the past 16 years — not coincidentally, since the arrival of on the political scene Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (himself a defendant in numerous corruption cases) — has been aimed at limiting prosecutorial power, watering down anti-mafia and corruption statutes, and, above all, making it extremely difficult to investigate politicians themselves. Consider: On the day that the ‘Ndrangheta crackdown was announced, Italian papers were filled with news of another investigation in which several powerful politicians and businessmen close to the government were indicted for constituting a kind of parallel government-within-the-government aimed at steering government contracts, influencing the Italian judiciary, and using false information to intimidate or defame political opponents.

One of that group’s aims was to win highly lucrative contracts for a shady businessman with a criminal past, Flavio Carboni, to allow him to build wind-power stations off the coast of Sardinia. Prosecutors suspect that Neapolitan Camorra mafia groups may stand behind the companies Carboni was looking to promote. Adding to their suspicions is the presence in this group of Nicola Cosentino, Berlusconi’s undersecretary of the economy and a politician from the Naples area whom several former camorristi have named as one of the Camorra’s best friends in government. Despite the longstanding suspicions surrounding Cosentino, Berlusconi insisted in keeping him in the government until this week when the round of new evidence made Cosentino’s position politically impossible. Some members of Berlusconi’s own party, the People of Liberty, rebelled and forced Cosentino’s resignation.

Although the defendants in the "wind power" case have not yet been convicted on any charges, the saga does underscore the seamy underside of the Italian system, in which influence-peddling, political connections, and insider access generally trump merit in the allocation of government resources.

This is the very system that has provided the perfect soil for organized crime in Italy. It is connections to legitimate authority — politicians, judges, businessmen — that give mafia groups their particular force, relative impunity, and ability to direct public resources and patronage, which in turn gives them electoral power.

Government contracts represent an important source of income for Italy’s main mafia groups. Lucrative public works projects designed to promote economic development in southern Italy have helped transform the ‘Ndrangheta from a poor, rural mafia into the powerful national group it is today. Indeed, several local politicians were swept up in the recent ‘Ndrangheta crackdown, along with a handful of allegedly corrupt police officers.

And what is the response from Italy’s top politicians? At present, Berlusconi is pushing extremely hard for a new law that would make it much harder for prosecutors to obtain and maintain wiretaps — which were, of course, the backbone of both this latest ‘Ndragheta investigation as well as the "wind power" scandal. The bill proposed by Berlusconi would outlaw the use of bugging devices in most instances. Although the law makes exceptions for cases of mafia and terrorism, mafia prosecutors have universally criticized the effort as a major potential impediment to their work.

The law, if passed, would also include stiff penalties for journalists and publishers that publish the contents of wiretaps before a case reaches trial: prison for journalists and very substantial economic fines for publishers. This was clearly done to end further embarrassment to Berlusconi and his associates, who have been frequently caught talking on the phone with criminal suspects whose phones were being tapped. Unless those conversations involved convictable criminal offenses — rather than simply inappropriate behavior, unethical self-dealing or dangerous liaisons with crooks — the questionable conduct of politicians would be cloaked in silence.

Had this law been in place, the Italian public would probably know little or nothing of many scandals that have rocked the country during the last year: Berlusconi consorting with prostitutes in the pay of a businessman fishing for government contracts; a government minister acquiring an apartment overlooking the Colosseum largely paid for another government contractor; the head of Italy’s emergency management agency — a huge source of construction contracts — getting free "massage" services and a free apartment from one of his principal contractors; Berlusconi ordering a commissioner of Italy’s TV regulatory authority to take off the air a series of programs that had dared to cover his problems.

Within Italy, there is intense debate as to whether there has actually been a kind of pact between Berlusconi and the mafia — guaranteeing him electoral support in mafia-controlled regions of southern Italy in exchange for favorable legislation.

Yet one doesn’t need to believe in secret-pact conspiracies to see that Berlusconi is clearly doing favors for organized crime. From the beginning of his time in office, Berlusconi has tried to limit the power of the Italian judiciary; his war on Italy’s justice system has only intensified in recent years. As Giuseppe Guttadauro, a Sicilian mafia boss who was wiretapped by Italian police, cunningly observed a few years ago: "Berlusconi, in order to solve his problems, has to solve ours."

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