Why Prosecutors Believe the Mafia Played a Role in the Italian Earthquake Deaths

It may be a natural disaster, but the complex relationship between organised crime and the aftermath of earthquakes goes back decades.

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13 September 2016, 1:20pm

Firefighters clear rubble in Amatrice, Italy (Photo: Antonio Calanni/AP)

Following last month's tragic earthquake in Amatrice, in which 290 people died and thousands were displaced, the head of Italy's National Anti-Mafia Directorate Franco Roberti was quick to stress the need to prevent the Mafia from becoming involved in reconstruction efforts. Speaking to La Repubblica, he said, "Post-earthquake reconstruction is a tasty morsel for criminal organisations and business interests."

That's not an unfounded fear. A European Parliament report found that, following the L'Aquila earthquake of 2009, a part of the €494 million (£420 million) provided to the region following the earthquake went to companies with "direct or indirect ties" to organised crime, with the head prosecutor of the National Anti-Mafia Department, Olga Capasso, declaring that "Aquila is one of the biggest problems at a national level" when it comes to Mafia activity.

However, articles covering both the L'Aquila and Amatrice earthquakes shed little light on how the Mafia engage in these practices.

The 1980 Irpinia earthquake was the first Italian crisis that truly spurred on Mafia involvement in reconstruction and public works. John Dickie writes in Mafia Republic that just two weeks after the earthquake members of the Camorra Mafia murdered a town mayor because he tried to block companies with ties to Mafia organisations winning contracts to clear rubble.

At that time there was little accountability for agencies involved in contracting, which led to corruption and disastrous results: over 28,500 people were still living in canvas accommodation ten years after the earthquake. The methods the Mafia used back then – coercion, violence and corruption – to acquire contracts were largely in line with the Godfather cliches about Mafia activity.

Today, though, the Mafia is far less visible and its tactics have changed. Dr Felia Allum is one of the UK's foremost Italian Mafia experts, whose latest book The Invisible Camorra traces Neapolitan crime families across western Europe. Speaking by phone from Bath she outlined how she believes Mafia tactics have evolved to make it far harder to prove their involvement.

It's not necessarily these criminal families going into local councils, shooting everybody and saying, 'Give us the contracts.' It's much more subtle.

"When you ask about the different Mafia methods, perhaps in the 1980s I could have drawn up a list: they're going to set up a very specific clientelistic exchange, etc. Whereas, now, they don't need to do that because they're already there. They have the political contacts and they have the businessmen in place, so they just have to be the invisible partner. They don't have to do anything spectacular, and that's when it becomes more difficult to trace. It's not necessarily these criminal families going into local councils, shooting everybody and saying, 'Give us the contracts.' It's much more subtle. They've managed to impose themselves on specific markets, perhaps by previously using violence, corruption or lending money to companies in need, but they're now an established force. They don't need to do anything particularly Mafia-like."

Rather than threats in dark rooms, accidents on building sites and briefcases bursting with bills, the modern Mafia employs more business-like tactics. Instead of images of The Godfather, a better analogy might be the Panama Papers. Massive, billion euro businesses hiding their influence and money in a complex web of companies until you're unable to tell where the legitimate economy ends and the illegitimate begins. With reconstruction and profiting from earthquakes, Dr Allum suggests this infiltration comes from a slightly surprising source: cement.

"It's not that all the big cement businesses are Mafia businesses, but a lot of these criminal organisations – and we're talking since the 1980s – saw the potential in cement. They invested money, got close to businessmen and were therefore able to invest in an invisible way, so that now they don't necessarily need to do anything heavy-handed. It's quite sophisticated; they don't necessarily need to target the politician, or they don't need to target the local administrator, because the Mafia are so involved and intertwined in the cement sector that they probably have a hand in lots of people who provide cement and therefore are in a win-win situation."

That's why the Mafia has also been blamed for the level of disaster caused in the recent earthquake. The cement and reconstructed buildings were not built to withstand earthquakes, meaning more houses collapsed and more people died than should have. That said, Dr Allum stresses again that this is not as simple as the Mafia blatantly breaking the law. There is a further political level that needs to be investigated, as suspect companies use poorly defined regulations to avoid prosecution.

"One of the ongoing debates at the moment is a lot of the houses that came down were rebuilt because of the L'Aquila rebuilding programme," she said. "Now the ministry gave indications and measures about how they should be rebuilt and there were two levels. One level was just mere 'upgrades' and the other was reinforcement against earthquakes. A lot of them just had to have upgrades, and 'upgrades' could be interpreted in any way. If the contractor comes in and has been told to upgrade it then they might not have actually broken the law. Even the sub-contractor may have technically not done anything wrong if he's been told to come in and just put a lick of paint on. It's a whole system from that perspective. It's not just a few dodgy criminals coming in and badly rebuilding; it is also the lack of political rigour and the need for stricter legislation to make administrators and businessmen more accountable."

In regards to whether the Mafia has already begun attempting to capitalise on the disaster, Dr Allum is firm in suggesting they are. "Franco Roberti, the head of the National Anti-Mafia Directorate, said steps must be taken not to let them infiltrate the reconstruction efforts – but if it's already seeped in, how do you undo that?"

Giuseppe Saieva – chief prosecutor in the provincial capital of Rieti, and one of the people tasked with proving Mafia involvement in shoddy construction – summed up the task ahead of them. "Everyone suspects such a tragedy was not just a question of destiny," he said. "Our duty is to verify if there was also responsibility, human culpability."

Of course, that increasingly seems like an impossible task, when the Mafia are so entangled with the institutions of Italian industry and government that they've become almost invisible.

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