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NAPLES, Italy – The infamous mafioso Franco Cataldo was so brutal that he once sought revenge on one of his associates by kidnapping his 12-year-old son; he abused and tortured the boy for two years until he finally strangled him and dissolved his body in acid.
Franco was sentenced to life in prison for that murder. But 24 years later, the coronavirus — and the fear it would spread through Italy’s notoriously overcrowded prisons — forced the system to release him on house arrest, along with at least 200 other mafia members and high security inmates.
Political opposition groups have called the decision to send mafia members back to the communities they traumatized the “biggest victory over the state since the 1970s” for organized crime syndicates. Since the pandemic took hold in the country, they’ve also seized the opportunity to hand out loans, sell fake PPE, and extort money from vulnerable Italians.
“This period provides the best possible conditions for the mafias to restart their activities. That's because people don't have money and there's a lack of liquidity, so they need help,” Catello Maresca, Naples’ top prosecutor, told VICE News.
Almost three-quarters of Italian businesses have been impacted by COVID-19, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Between 50,000 and 100,000 Italian companies are expected to need direct financial support due to the economic crisis.
Mafia groups have stepped in to offer loans and buy up struggling businesses.
“People turn to the mafia more than they turn to the government. The mafia is much more direct. It is much faster to help.” Maresca said. “People must understand that this is a fatal embrace. Because later, this debt will be settled with life.”
VICE News spoke to one small business owner who borrowed $55,000 from a loan shark and has now accrued an additional $170,000 in interest. The man asked VICE News to withhold his name to protect him and his family.
“I can't see a future at the moment that can guarantee the resolution of the problems!” he said. “I turned to credit institutions to get financial support, but I was denied it. Unfortunately, you have to go to where the situation leads you.”
“They could beat me, they could harm me in some way,” he said of the threats he was under. “Or they would threaten my family — ‘I know where your daughter is’ or my wife, brother or sister, my father, my mother.”
Although there’s no data yet on how many businesses have been bought by the mafia since the pandemic hit, call centers set up for victims of extortion have experienced a 100 percent increase in outreach, according to Italian news outlets. The biggest spike came from small businesses struggling through Italy’s national lockdown. The judicial system is still processing the legal cases of those who have reported extortion, and the number of reports has increased.
The Italian government launched a $435 billion relief program in response to the economic crash caused by COVID-19 in early April. And mafia-associated shell companies have already been busted for exploiting the fund. The fund also failed to help around 3.5 million Italians who previously worked off the books and were ineligible for the benefits.
“Criminal organizations can adapt themselves to whatever the needs of the moment are,” said Lt. Luigi Vessicchio, the leader of a motorcycle unit of the Neapolitan police department known as the Falchi.
Vessicchio’s team recently confiscated more than 3,000 ineffective face masks that the Camorra, one of Italy’s four largest organized crime syndicates, had illegally produced.
“They are completely useless.” Vessicchio told VICE News. He said that medical authorities inspected the masks and ordered them to be destroyed after the seizure. “The use of these masks can probably cause the actual transmission of coronavirus.”
During the national lockdown, Vessicchio and the Falchi police saw street crime drop to almost none, but now they’re back on the streets making arrests.
“Now that the lockdown has been lifted, the Camorra will resume the activities that they were involved with before the Coronavirus started.” Vessicchio said.
While Italy is only now starting to assess the toll the pandemic has taken on human life and the economy, it will take time to see how much progress the mafia was able to make during this crisis.