Mafia, Poverty, and the Pandemic

In southern Italy, an already shaky economy is left struggling by the coronavirus—leaving a vacuum for organized crime.

A man looks at a solidarity basket displayed with a note reading "Who can, put, who cannot, take" in one of the deserted streets in the historic center of Naples on April 3.
A man looks at a solidarity basket displayed with a note reading "Who can, put, who cannot, take" in one of the deserted streets in the historic center of Naples on April 3. CARLO HERMANN/AFP via Getty Images

CATANIA, Italy—In the nine years Salvatore Pappalardo spent as a charity worker in the Sicilian port city of Catania, he never saw as much desperation as he has during the past two months.

“I’ve noticed an exponential increase in Italian beneficiaries for our meal services,” said Pappalardo, who works as a coordinator at Caritas Diocesana, a national church-run charity. “Until earlier this year, we would mostly assist marginalized migrants, but now we help about 200 Italians a day. Many feel embarrassed to come, but they tell me they have no other choice.”

On March 9, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte imposed a nationwide quarantine in an attempt to fight Europe’s worst coronavirus outbreak, which to this date has killed almost 29,000 people and infected more than 210,000. Nonessential work has ground to a halt, and citizens can leave the house only for grocery shopping or emergencies—which require a self-declaration form attesting to their intended movements.

During the early lockdown days, videos of Italians coordinating flash mobs to lift one another’s spirits portrayed a national image of resilience. But the initial wave of cheering from balconies and terraces across the country stopped weeks ago in southern Italy, where hope has given way to social unrest.

“Hunger and poverty are scarier than the virus,” Pappalardo explained, as he prepared one of the 500 meal packages that his association delivers every day to people in need.

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic.]

The health care emergency so far has mainly impacted Italy’s northern regions. The south, with far fewer coronavirus deaths, seems to have avoided the worst of the pandemic. According to Conte, an early lockdown for the south meant sparing its already fragile health care system from a similar breaking point to that of the Lombardy region. But for those like Rossella, a 46-year-old mother of three who heavily relies on food and clothing donations from Caritas and asked that her real name not be used for security reasons, the lockdown is responsible for hardship she can ill afford.

“I lost my already precarious job as house cleaner. My husband scraped by with daily gigs, he’d work where and when he was needed, but now he’s stuck at home. Will the government pay me for the months we lost our income? I don’t think so,” she said.

According to Italy’s National Institute of Statistics, there are more than 3.5 million so-called invisible workers employed under the table in Italy and who rely on daily gigs, like Rossella and her husband. They are the ones hardest hit by the lockdown, with no access to financial relief plans because they work off the books, while funds are dispensed to those employed in legal labor.

In the five regions south of Rome, plus two islands, the economic situation was already worrying even before the virus came, with unemployment rates hitting 17 percent and as high as 50 percent for youth—compared with 27 percent youth unemployment nationwide and under 10 percent general unemployment (with unemployment in the north hitting just 6 percent).

That economic north-south divide is a result of more than a century of organized crime’s influence in the southern regions, where a consolidated system of political corruption contributed in keeping the south poorer, particularly in the health care field. Now the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development predicts that about 27 percent of Italians are at risk of poverty as a result of work restrictions during the lockdown, foreshadowing Italy’s worst economic crisis since World War II. While the report doesn’t break its figures down regionally, the south would doubtless be the hardest hit.

So far the central government has put together a $4.3 billion solidarity fund to be distributed across hundreds of municipalities— part of Italy’s larger economic relief package, which totals $435 billion. The cities will manage the funds independently, determining how to parse it out to those in need over the next three months. Cities have also been handed an extra $440 million in food stamps after a number of mayors in the south labeled the solidarity fund as insufficient.

But those funds have taken longer than expected to be distributed, giving opportunity for organized crime groups, which have begun providing much-needed services and gaining legitimacy in the process. In Naples, the mafia has stepped in as a provider of food parcels and loans. In Palermo, the brother of a mafia boss was reportedly seen distributing food packages in the city’s poorest neighborhood, an organized crime stronghold. Palermo’s mayor, Leoluca Orlando, has warned that the mafias are ready to “exploit the desperation of the new poor from coronavirus” and sent more police to monitor the areas most at risk—but it has long been difficult for authorities to penetrate and control areas in the outskirts that are controlled by criminal groups.

It is a common practice for the mafia in Sicily to offer assistance during times of crises, and there have been similar cases, particularly during the 2008 economic crisis, according to Federico Varese, a professor of criminology at the University of Oxford. “[Mafia assistance] is not a practice limited to Italy only. Such episodes are a reminder that some organized crime groups seek a precious, intangible currency during a crisis, namely legitimacy and popular support,” Varese said.

Because of the slowness of local bureaucracy, many people have been confronted with an urgent need of cash in order to survive. In this context, Varese warns that mafias seize the opportunity, offering support to desperate people. Later, they will ask to be paid back “in ways that will make people accomplices of organized crime.”

Adding to the looming threat of organized crime taking advantage of the situation, there have also been signals of social unrest. Since March 25, a Facebook group called “National Revolution” has been encouraging its 2,700 members to loot local supermarkets. In Bari, the capital of the Apulia region, a video of a desperate woman demanding money outside a bank went viral; on March 27, around 15 people stormed a supermarket in Palermo, refusing to pay for their food and soliciting the mayor to provide immediate solutions.

“We are experiencing a sudden 10 percent increase of unemployment in just these two months of lockdown. Those are very worrying statistics because it means that even people who enjoyed a certain degree of wealth are now becoming poor,” Orlando told Foreign Policy.

“Freelance tourist guides, [bed-and-breakfast] owners, sports trainers … these are the people that need financial support the most, who need immediate liquidity to keep themselves afloat.”

As the mayor of one of the south’s biggest cities and one of the most economically impacted—where more than 50,000 people were already without an income before the virus hit—Orlando has been trying to prevent mafia networks from luring in desperate unemployed residents. In recent weeks, his municipality began distributing 12,000 prepaid food cards (a weekly value of between 60 and 110 euros) to those most at risk, and the city is going to inject more cash to help locals pay rent and bills.

Similarly, Vincenzo De Luca, the president of the region of Campania, has prepared a billion-euro relief package for the thousands of informal workers, hoping this will also help identify illegal businesses.

But for some Palermo locals, the path ahead is still long and uncertain. “I have lost at least 5,000 euros [$5,500] in wasted products, even more for rent, which was not suspended,” said Salvatore Cappello, 64, the owner of one of Palermo’s historic pastry shops. The shop employed two dozen workers until early March. All have had to be laid off. On May 4, the government will begin easing restrictions, allowing family visits and the reopening of production businesses. But the future for small businesses like Capello’s remains murky.

“There’s so much fear and uncertainty for many of us. … For now I’ve been living with the 600 euros the Italian government gave me and my personal savings,” Cappello said. “But if I realize the damage was too heavy, I’ve also been considering closing my business.”

In 2009, about 76,000 shops were operating in Sicily, a number that, in 2019, had already dropped to 69,000. With the new crisis expected to peak in the summer, thousands more will shut down.

Currently, the central government’s decision to postpone to June 1 the reopening of all nonproductive businesses, including bars and restaurants, has created a schism between Rome and the south, where local governors feel ready for a gradual, but quicker, reopening of their cities to avoid economic disaster.

From his office in Palermo, Orlando says that if northern Italy offered lessons to the world on how to manage the pandemic, southern Italy will represent a case study for other nations on how to face economic recovery and tame organized crime infiltrations.

“The fact that Palermo has fought against the mafia for decades, I see it as an advantage because we already know how to fight back. We just need to be as quick as possible, and we’ll get through this, too.”

Stefania D’Ignoti is an independent reporter based between Italy and the Middle East. She covers conflict and migration, and her work has appeared in a number of publications, including the Guardian, Time, the Economist and Al Jazeera English. Twitter: @stef_dgn

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