On the 18th of May, 2020, investigators from Rome's Financial Police walked into Katanè Sapori di Sicilia, a Sicilian bistro near the Italian capital's Tiburtina train station. In their hands was a seizure order; the business had allegedly been bought with mafia money.
When the officers raided the cafe, they found something that seemed to confirm their suspicions. Among the documents hidden behind the counter was evidence of three other businesses – two bistros and a gelateria – recently acquired by the owner of the Katanè chain. One of the bistros, I Siciliani, was just a block away from Katanè Sapori di Sicilia. Costing €840,000 for all three businesses, the deal was completed a month earlier, during the height of Italy's COVID-19 lockdown, when most families and business owners were wondering how to pay the bills.
For Gaetano Vitagliano, the owner of the Katanè food chain – and, crucially, a convicted money launderer for the Camorra, Naples’ organised crime syndicate – the money-sapping lockdown period was the perfect time to strike a deal. Released from prison not long before the coronavirus outbreak, Vitagliano didn’t lose any time, using the hospitality company he controls through nominees to invest in prime business assets in the centre of Rome.
The COVID-19 crisis has brought Italy – like many countries – to its knees. The pandemic has been followed by an economic recession, causing rising unemployment, poverty and inequality. But for the major Italian mafias, the crisis is proving to be more of a blessing than a curse.
There are four large organised crime syndicates in Italy: the Calabrian 'Ndrangheta, the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, the Camorra from Campania and the Sacra Corona Unita from Apulia. Today, the 'Ndrangheta is undoubtedly the strongest, richest and most international. Strictly family-based and almost impossible for law enforcement to infiltrate, the 'Ndrangheta has grown into a truly global enterprise, controlling up to 80 percent of cocaine imports into Europe – a trade that remains just as thriving as ever, even during a pandemic.
The Cosa Nostra and the Camorra – whose power had been faltering due to law enforcement crackdowns and internal infighting – are seeing signs of recovery. Able to buy businesses and assets, such as restaurants, at discounted rates, they can create a perfect avenue for money laundering. Mafia are also trying to tap state subsidies. On Tuesday, Italian investigators revealed that three companies controlled by an alleged 'Ndrangheta member received over €45,000 in relief funds earmarked by the government for the COVID-19 emergency.
"We are seeing legal enterprises turning into criminal ones," Colonel Marco Sorrentino, head of the anti-mafia department of Italy's financial police in Rome, told VICE News. "We have conversations between mafiosi wiretapped during the pandemic, saying, 'We have to be ready and infiltrate the clean economy.’ We're facing an epochal problem that will have dramatic consequences, and we need to be on very high alert. Not just in Italy, because mafias are international and cross-border."
For their cocaine importation business, the 'Ndrangheta can count on affiliated brokers living in Latin America and key Northern European entry points, such as Rotterdam and Antwerp. This ensures a steady flow of drugs and, in tandem, good relations with South American drug cartels and other criminal organisations from countries such as Albania and Romania.
As the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and IrpiMedia discovered recently, these international networks paid dividends when COVID-19 hit Europe, allowing the world’s cocaine industry to adapt better than many legitimate businesses.
Both the 'Ndrangheta and its main Colombian partners, the Gulf Clan, had several months' worth of emergency cocaine stocks already stored in various warehouses around the world, ready to be shipped and distributed. To keep drugs flowing, trafficking routes that became too risky were simply replaced.
According to Sorrentino, during the height of the pandemic, Italian crime groups temporarily shifted some of their operations away from Antwerp in Belgium, Rotterdam in Holland and Gioia Tauro, Genoa and Livorno in Italy, to Spain, where they have large “colonies” within established Italian communities. "[During the pandemic], Italian mafias and their partners started sending cocaine mainly to Algeciras or Barcelona, and then from there they moved it on wheels to the rest of Europe and to Italy," said Sorrentino. The cocaine, as seizures showed, was then transported in trucks filled with fresh fruits or soy flour, which resembles cocaine.
Such a sophisticated distribution network relies on the high level of control the ‘Ndrangheta is able to apply in cities and ports around the world. This mafia has a significant presence in Australia and Canada, mainly due to Calabrians emigrating there after World War Two. But nowhere is this control more powerful than in the ‘Ndrangheta’s heartlands in Calabria, where it exists as an anti-state with its own specific concepts of law and order.
In San Luca, a village on the Aspromonte mountain range – which the ‘Ndrangheta refers to as La Mamma (the mother), in homage to its role as the criminal group's original stronghold – COVID-19 was micromanaged by the mafia.
When the virus exploded in Europe, many sanlucoti (people from San Luca), including ‘Ndrangheta affiliates, returned to the area. They self-isolated in their relatives' homes – many of whom are already equipped with bunkers, built to hide from law enforcement – for over 15 days. Relatives brought plates of pasta to the bunker doors and communicated with the quarantined via video chat. When the carabinieri (the military police) went to check on those who had come back to Italy from abroad, they found a fully compliant population. Because the mafia oversaw such a strict lockdown, there were no recorded cases of the virus in San Luca or any of its surrounding villages. The message was: "We don’t need the government, we can do this ourselves."
In nearby Sicily, the Cosa Nostra also attempted to use the pandemic to win over parts of the local population and engineer a resurgence in support. "The social and economic crisis caused by the inevitable halt to normal activities gives the criminal organization a unique opportunity to win back the operating space which had been partly reduced through decades-long enforcement actions from investigators,” wrote Palermo’s judge, Piergiorgio Morosini, in the indictment for the arrest of 90 Cosa Nostra affiliates in May.
In some of Palermo’s neighbourhoods, the mafia has stepped in to provide deprived families with benefits while the state remains largely absent. At the height of the lockdown, the brother of a Cosa Nostra boss was spotted distributing food parcels to the residents of the ZEN district, among the poorest areas in the city.
People who have lost their jobs have been offered temporary work, usually in illegal activities. Shopkeepers and businessmen, who have run out of cash after months of inactivity, have turned to loan sharking opportunities offered by the mafia families. The mafia’s goal is not so much to profit directly from lending money at extortionate rates, but rather to choke the borrowers to the point that they are forced to give up their businesses. This allows the mafia to take over a company with a clean record, replace managers with its own frontmen and, crucially, launder proceeds of crime.
In early June, Palermo’s financial police arrested eight alleged members of a Cosa Nostra clan that ran a gambling empire worth an estimated €100 million. As COVID-19 brought sporting events and gambling activities to a halt, the accused bought two betting shops outright, in cash. Investigators said this case was likely just the tip of the iceberg of the gang’s efforts to take advantage of the pandemic by investing in businesses while their usual means of making money were curtailed.
Cosa Nostra, much like the 'Ndrangheta, has long tried to transform itself into an “entrepreneurial mafia”, hoping to avoid the public attention that comes with headline-grabbing killings. Now, it focuses on quietly but effectively taking over swathes of the economy, with the help of a wide range of enablers: corrupt officials who rig public procurement in favour of criminal companies; the bankers and accountants who advise clan members on how to exploit the opportunities offered by a globalised financial world; and the unprincipled businessmen who believe mafia backing will take them ahead of the competition.
For instance, garbage management has traditionally been heavily infiltrated by the mafias, who obtain lucrative public contracts either by paying bribes or promising local politicians a number of votes in upcoming elections. In the latest of a long series of cases, this Monday a councillor was arrested in Busto Arsizio, a city near Milan, as part of a wide-ranging police investigation into a waste-trafficking ring run by the ‘Ndrangheta.
According to Alessandra Dolci, an anti-mafia prosecutor in Milan, mafias have been moving to take over contracts to dispose of medical waste produced during the COVID-19 emergency. “We are seeing how organised crime is interested in acquiring [waste service contracts] through front companies that are already authorized to manage waste,” she told a parliamentary committee in June.
While mafias maintain a territorial presence in their strongholds in Southern Italy, their most lucrative laundering activities take place in richer areas: in Northern Italy and abroad.
“Virtually all countries in Europe are susceptible to predatory investments from mafia groups,” says Anna Sergi, a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Essex. “Italian mafias have poured money into sectors such as restaurants and bars in Germany, France, Belgium and the Netherlands. There is now a palpable risk of more mafia funds entering these countries.”
The UK faces a more subtle, but no less dangerous, threat from mafias. Their physical presence may be more limited, but organised criminals exploit the country’s financial sector to orchestrate complex money laundering operations and property schemes. Last week, an investigation revealed how ‘Ndrangheta families have packaged millions of euros of dirty money into specialised bonds sold to unwitting customers by investment banks with offices in the City of London.
According to Colonel Claudio Petrozziello, Italy’s financial police liaison officer in London, the sheer volume of financial transactions and the ease of doing business represent attractive factors for criminal investors. “There are numerous consultants, accountants and lawyers that offer services aimed at hiding a company’s real owner or obfuscating financial transactions,” he told VICE News. “They find misalignments between the laws and regulations of different countries and exploit them to create opportunities for criminal actors.”
Historically, the mafias’ presence in Europe outside of Italy has rung very few alarm bells. But this is changing.
Germany was largely oblivious to the tight-knit network of ‘Ndrangheta families operating in the country, when in 2007 six mafia members were brutally murdered outside a restaurant in Duisburg as part of a feud. Now the mafia’s main business in Germany is to use the country as a base for the reinvestment of its cocaine trafficking proceeds – in property, restaurants and construction.
More recently, Slovakia abruptly woke up to the dangers of mafia infiltration when investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee were assassinated while investigating Italian organized crime’s links with powerful political and business figures.
However, there are now signs of a greater awareness of the mafias’ influence in Europe, which in turn is leading to more enforcement actions. In the last few weeks, transnational police operations coordinated by Europol led to the arrest of 12 ‘Ndrangheta and 46 Cosa Nostra affiliates across the continent on charges of drug trafficking, use of firearms, extortion and corruption in public tenders. Meanwhile, Interpol has launched the Cooperation Against ‘Ndrangheta, a joint project bringing together 11 countries (including the United States, Australia and Canada) to pool knowledge and resources to fight the crime syndicate.
Now in the fourth year of his London post, Petrozziello says that, after some initial difficulties, cooperation with British enforcement agencies is working well. “Nowadays, you cannot isolate yourself, hoping you will be able to fight transnational crime within the boundaries of your country,” he says. “They have understood how dangerous the infiltration of criminal capitals is. It chokes economic freedom, because law-abiding businessmen cannot compete with mafia-funded rivals, which do not need to make a profit.”