In Other Words

In Other Words: Mob Rule

Italy is becoming the failed state of Western Europe, but do Italians even care that the mafia is running the show?

Vincenzo Guida is the notorious crime boss of Naples, and in 2006, he and his Camorra clan were well on their way to infiltrating Milan, using a construction business as a front to launder more than $25 million of dirty money. By late fall, however, Italian authorities were on Guida’s trail, tapping the phones of his lawyer, Barbara Sabadini. That’s when Sabadini called Rep. Francesco De Luca, a member of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s party, urging him to use his sway to help her criminal clients. De Luca seemed only too happy to oblige, alluding to a "friend," a judge who was about to take over Guida’s trial. As Corriere della Sera reported last year, the Italian police were listening to all of this.

Investigators must have thought they hit the jackpot — that is, until they realized they were listening in on an elected representative’s conversation. At the time, Italy’s Boato Law conveniently required Parliament’s permission to intercept the phone calls of elected officials. So the wiretap was cut off. Before the police could get clearance to investigate, Parliament was dissolved and elections held. De Luca was reelected and only a few members of the Guida clan were arrested last year.

Stories like this are no exception in Italy. No doubt, the mafia has been powerful in Italy for a long time. But as a series of insightful books published there over the last year documents in vivid detail, Italy is now becoming a mafia-sponsored state. Its powerless judicial system, corrupt politics, and bloated but weak bureaucracy are enabling the mafia to take over the world’s sixth-largest economy — from construction to agriculture, waste management to manufacturing, small-time loan-sharking to high-end finance.

According to Confesercenti, the Italian association of small-business owners, the mafia’s activities account for nearly one tenth of Italy’s GDP. Corruption is finally starting to repel foreign direct investment, which in 2008 plunged more than three times as much in Italy as in the rest of the European Union. Indeed, in the World Bank’s 2008 "Doing Business" report, the efficiency of Italy’s justice system ranked 156 out of 181 countries — below Iraq and Pakistan, and just above Afghanistan.

This troubling picture is one that Italians don’t like to confront. But the recent publication of no fewer than six books — from insider accounts of mafia investigators to the sober investigations of intrepid journalists — has rejuvenated a decades-long national debate about the health and future of Italian democracy. At the heart of this debate, and running throughout these new books, are devastating questions: Is Italy becoming the failed state of Western Europe? Is the mafia running the show? And do Italians even care?

Roberto Scarpinato, a deputy district judge in Palermo’s anti-mafia division, and Saverio Lodato, a journalist, offer the most comprehensive account of the behind-the-scenes dealings between the mafia and politicians. Their Il Ritorno del Principe (The Prince’s Comeback) has the grand sweep appropriate to a social history of organized crime in Italy. The term "mafia" — likely from mafiusu, 19th-century Sicilian slang connoting swagger or a kind of fearless, bullying arrogance — has become a catchall term around the world. But the mafia actually comprises many organizations controlling separate territory, five of which are remarkably high profile: the Cosa Nostra in Sicily, the Camorra in and around Naples, the ‘Ndrangheta in Calabria, the Sacra Corona Unita in Apulia, and the Basilischi in Basilicata. And as Scarpinato and Lodato show, Italy’s mafia cartels are not simply violent, drug-dealing gangs; they are 21st-century corporations with an integrated system of governance, blurring the line between licit and illicit activities.

Scarpinato and Lodato argue that there are two faces to the mafia: the more visible military component — the low-ranking foot soldiers who rob, kill, and deal drugs — and the white-collar mafia, or "mafia bourgeoisie." These professionals, entrepreneurs, and academics are not necessarily involved in criminal activity directly, but they are tied up in it nonetheless, and they manage the mafia’s relationships with Italy’s political class, which have recently grown much closer. Politicians let the mafia go about its business in exchange for votes and a cut of the illicit multimillion-dollar action. In turn, the mafia relieves the state of its duty to provide public goods. Take pizzo, the money for protection from rival clans and petty criminals that mafia bosses extract from business owners. The annual pizzo take is now estimated at nearly $19 billion.

Despite thousands of high-profile arrests and legislative attempts to conquer the mafia’s influence, Italy’s crackdowns raise their own suspicions. As Scarpinato and Lodato document, these intermittent efforts often coincide with attempts by the mafia’s armed wing to override its bourgeois counterpart. Any real progress is conveniently stopped just short of exposing the role of the white-collar mafia. It is unclear who really works for whom. And as the bond between politicians and the mafia deepens, Italy’s democratic state is hollowed out even more.

Indeed, many Italian politicians are not only themselves compromised, but as Bruno Tinti charges in Toghe Rotte (Broken Robes), they actively work to undermine the few parts of the Italian state that still have some integrity. Italian politicians chronically underfund the country’s traditionally independent judiciary and enact reams of legislation to debilitate it, like the Boato Law on wiretapping. Tinti, a former deputy district judge in Turin, writes, "If one examines the activity of the Parliament and the majority of the ministers of justice over the course of the last 20 years, one will discover something incredible: Not only has nothing been done to increase the efficiency of the justice system, but serious efforts have been devoted to further weaken it."

Toghe Rotte offers a crash course on Italy’s dysfunctional justice system, and many of its stories and anecdotes should be filed under "funny if it weren’t true." For example, there is the case of a 2002 law that Italy’s Parliament passed to try to neuter the judiciary. The measure dealt with prescrizione, or statutes of limitations. It shortened the so-called "period of prescription" for crimes — an allotment of time, now either five or 7½ years, in which Italy’s police and judges must discover the crime, investigate it, try it, and complete three layers of sentencing and appeals before a final verdict can be reached. If they fail to do all of this in time, the crime is expunged, regardless of its nature, and the accused is acquitted of all charges. What this means, according to Tinti, is that the penal procedures for 95 percent of all crimes committed in Italy expire before justice runs its course.

One man who is smiling because of all this is Prime Minister Berlusconi, who has been tried on 12 occasions for various alleged crimes, but has been acquitted eight times on grounds other than his proven innocence. The reason? In most cases, an expired statute of limitations, which Berlusconi’s government reduced even further in 2002 while some of his verdicts were pending. And if you were wondering how deep this scandal goes, according to Se Li Conosci Li Eviti (If You Know Them You’ll Avoid Them), written by Peter Gomez and Marco Travaglio and published in 2008, 100 of Italy’s 945 currently serving parliamentarians have been indicted, tried, convicted, or are awaiting appeal for crimes that will likely disappear because of laws they wrote.

As Italy’s democracy grows more corrupt, the mafia fills the void, operating more freely and in more places than ever. Two recent books document the mafia’s expansion well beyond its traditional stronghold in southern Italy and toward a growing penetration of northern Italy, where its presence was once minimal.

Roberto Saviano’s Gomorrah tells the southern half of the story, providing a gripping picture of the magnitude of the Camorra empire in Campania. Saviano, a journalist who grew up in the Naples projects, recounts how the Camorra’s activities now encompass every sector of the economy, even Italy’s trademark fashion industry.

One of the book’s stories is that of a tailor named Pasquale, whose factory on the outskirts of Naples is one of the Camorra’s many phantom operations — front businesses that the mafia has taken over using generous loans and extortion. The workers, like Pasquale, toil for punishing hours and little reward. Saviano writes that Pasquale was watching television one day in his tiny apartment, and he saw Angelina Jolie at the Academy Awards wearing a white satin suit — that he had made. The mafia knew exactly where the suit was headed, but no one told Pasquale. Such is life in what are essentially the mafia-run sweatshops of Western Europe.

Similar stories are now unfolding in northern Italy, too. This comes to life in Polo Nord (North Pole), written by two young Italian journalists, Fabio Abati and Igor Greganti. They began covering crime around Milan and noticed an increasing number of violent murders in what were once peaceful suburban communities. This discovery led the authors into the dark new world that the mafia runs in northern Italian cities such as Milan, Turin, and Verona, which are becoming hubs for the global drug trade.

Here, too, the mafia is taking over once legitimate businesses and twisting them to their illicit ends, corrupting everyone in the process. The authors tell one such story of a construction entrepreneur from Lake Garda named Giuseppe. He got wrapped up with the mafia when they made him an offer he couldn’t refuse to use his construction businesses to launder money and invest it in local nightclubs. Before long, Giuseppe was helping the clan run a prostitution ring, shuttling Eastern European girls and their wealthy clients between the clubs and hotels. "In Garda’s nightclubs I saw society turn into sewage," Giuseppe told Abati and Greganti, "and tons of people swim in its crap."

Despite mounting evidence of Italy’s growing mafia problems, public outcry has been limited, or at least ineffective. To be fair, some have worked courageously, often under threats of violence, to expose the mafia’s penetration of Italy and pressure the state to do more about it. Still, they’re a minority. Many Italians comfortably tolerate the mafia’s presence. Others, because of their deep distrust of the corrupt and feckless Italian state, even support some mafia-wrought changes to their communities — so much so that, at times, they resent the efforts of crusading public servants to crack down.

One Italian who tasted this resentment firsthand is Raffaele Cantone, a former judge in the anti-mafia division of the Naples courts, who recounts his ordeal in Solo per Giustizia (Only for Justice). When Cantone first moved to Giugliano, a city just north of Naples, he received a chilly welcome. In addition to cracking down on the Camorra clan, which was seamlessly woven into the fabric of everyday life in Naples, Cantone supported police efforts to do small things such as regulate traffic and fine drivers who displayed fake insurance tags. Tensions really peaked when the police decided to check public licenses and discovered that most businesses were, in fact, illegal. The police promptly shut them down, and the locals became enraged, blaming Cantone for disrupting the peace. "I kept wondering," he writes, "if a similar reception would have been thinkable had a Camorra boss moved to Giugliano instead of me."

These truth-telling books are receiving a warmer reaction in Italy than Cantone did in Giugliano, but that’s not saying much. Saviano’s Gomorrah rose to international acclaim. It was made into a movie in 2008 and won lavish praise, including the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival. But soon thereafter the Camorra clan made death threats against Saviano. Polo Nord sparked real controversy by exposing the infiltration of northern Italy by southern criminal cartels. This is a development Italians don’t want to hear about.

Still, whatever debate is now stirring in Italy is mainly confined to a relatively small circle of intellectuals, activists, and avid readers. Italy’s democracy remains immobile when it comes to stemming the country’s corruption. These books have come nowhere close to rousing Italians to demand better governance and a rejection of illegality and organized crime. Instead, as the authors show, too many Italians have been settling for a mafia state for a long time now, and they appear content to continue doing so.

Valentina Pasquali is a freelance journalist in Washington DC. She is originally from Italy and, among other things, writes about US politics for Aspenia Online of the Aspen Institute Italia.

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