In Depth

Where does the Mafia still have power?

String of attacks in Italy prompt fears of a new criminal organisation

An explosive device that blew the doors off an Italian care home in April has sparked fears of the emergence of a "fifth mafia" in the country's Puglia region.

The owner of the residence, Luca Vigilante, is a key witness in a trial against an underground mob that Italian officials fear has been carrying out criminal activity in the area undetected for several years, says The Guardian.

Although no one was injured in the explosion, it is the second to be carried out on the premises this year. “I’d be a liar if I told you I’m not afraid,” Vigilante said. “But we cannot give up. They must not win.”

His brother Christian, who is also planning to give evidence in court, had his car destroyed in a similar fashion just several weeks prior.

The care home is located in the city of Foggia, which has seen a string of violent incidents this year, including three car bombs and the shooting of a 50-year-old man.

Initially thought to be the work of the Sacra Corona Unita, often dubbed the "fourth mafia", the attacks are now throught to be the work of a wholly independent, and highly aggressive, new criminal organisation. 

Where is the mafia still active?

Italy

The most powerful Mafia syndicate in 21st century Italy is not the Neapolitan Camorra, or the Sicilian “Cosa Nostra” of TV and movie fame, but rather the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta - whose rise is an inadvertent side effect of the state’s war on the Sicilian mafia.

In the 1990s, a spate of assassinations across Sicily targeting anti-Mafia judges, police chiefs and politicians prompted a public backlash against the Mafia and a huge government crackdown that did indeed curb the power of the Sicilian syndicate.

However, “while the Italian authorities and media attention were focused on the Sicilians, the Calabrians were able to slowly but steadily expand into Italy’s wealthy north”, Al Jazeera reports.

The crackdown, which was accompanied by a flood of grass-roots anti-Mafia campaigns, also led to another major change in the crime syndicate’s culture, prosecutor Piero Grasso argued in his 2001 book The Invisible Mafia.

Gone are the days of the celebrity mob boss, flaunting flashy cars and expensive cigars; today’s mafiosi keep a low profile. “By disappearing from public view - no more dead policemen or kidnapped journalists - the Mafia has lulled opponents into complacency,” Grasso wrote.

That myth of the Mafia as a defanged beast could not be further from the truth, especially in the south of Italy, where organised crime “occupies the entire territory”, according to national anti-Mafia prosecutor Federico Cafiero De Raho.

Across Calabria, in particular, legitimate businesses, particularly those involved in construction and public works, are frequently controlled by gangs, says the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project investigative platform.

In addition, in some hotbeds of Mafia activity, the line between organised crime and the state is far from clear-cut.

In January last year, police arrested 169 people in Germany and Italy over suspected connections to Mafia organisations, more than a dozen of whom were local Calabrian government officials, including three mayors and a deputy mayor, reports Italy’s Rai News.

Despite a continual stream of arrests and prosecutions, in the 21st century the Mafia “has proven very adaptable to new scenarios, preying on weakness and looking for economic crises as sources of opportunities”, says The Daily Telegraph.

The EU and beyond

Since the start of the century, the Mafia has extended its operations across Europe and beyond. Thanks mostly to the global drugs trade, Italian crime families now operate “from Armenia to Australia”, as The Sydney Morning Herald puts it.

Common rackets include extortion, prostitution, counterfeiting and arms sales, but drug trafficking is by far the most lucrative.

A 2014 profile of the ‘Ndrangheta by the Demoskopika research institute found that the organisation had raked in a total of €53bn (£47bn) over the previous year - “more than Deutsche Bank and McDonald’s put together”, says The Guardian, and equivalent to 3.5% of Italy’s GDP.

Even the heavily regulated EU is not immune to the Mafia’s predilection for infiltrating legitimate businesses.

A 2015 report funded by the European Commission found evidence of Mafia investment in “a large number of European countries… in particular, in real estate, construction companies, bars, restaurants and the wholesale and retail of food products”.

Cristiano Tomassi, an Italian anti-mafia police colonel and organised crime analyst, said some European cities are under the control of organised crime groups even when the public are unaware.

“Why does it seem like nothing's going on in those areas? Because the mafia is in control, but it is not a healthy control, it is like a cancer that progresses. And where there is a cancer there is no more life,” Tomassi told AFP.

The ‘Ndrangheta can now call upon up to 60,000 foot soldiers scattered across 30 countries, says Quartz.

The US

Many people assume that TV shows such as The Sopranos paint an exaggerated picture of Mafia influence in 21st century America. However, the “Mob” has proven surprisingly resilient.

In 2011, a raid dubbed the “largest Mob round-up in FBI history” brought in 127 suspected mafiosi on charges including racketeering, extortion, drug trafficking and murder.

Despite the impressive arrest tally, the head of New York’s FBI office acknowledged that the best efforts of the justice system had not “eradicated the problem”, telling The New York Times that the idea of the mob as a thing of the past was “a myth”.

In July this year, 19 people were arrested in a wave of raids across Sicily, with Italian police alleging ties between the Sicilian Mafia and the Gambino organised crime family in New York, says the BBC.

“There have long been ties between Sicily's Cosa Nostra and the New York mob,” the broadcaster adds.

In 2016, Selwyn Raab, an authority on the US Mafia, wrote that the 9/11 attacks had proved an unexpected boon to the syndicate, as the majority of the FBI’s organised crime agents were reassigned to the war on terror.

This reduced scrutiny has allowed hounded US crime families to regroup and revive in recent years. “They’re still getting reinforcements, they’re shipping more blood over from Sicily and Southern Italy,” Raab told Rolling Stone magazine.

However, one sign that the US Mafia remains far from regaining its heyday is the group’s current lack of political clout, says Raab.

Until well into the 20th century, “they were so influential in politics and the court system, and with that influence they could fix elections”, he says. “That is the scariest aspect.”

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