January 10, 2012
The country's four mafia groups have broken out of their traditional strongholds in the dusty 'Mezzogiorno' south of Rome and spread their tentacles across the whole country, taking advantage of the economic crisis to snap up ailing businesses and ramp up their loan-shark operations.
They now boast estimated cash reserves of €65bn, collectively making them "Italy's biggest bank", according to a study released on Tuesday by Confesercenti, a prominent employers' association.
They groups make an estimated annual profit of €100bn – about 7pc of Italy's GDP.
It seems the average mobster is no longer a gun-toting hoodlum but a savvy businessman in a sharp suit with a smart phone and a sophisticated knowledge of finance.
"Mafia Inc is Italy's number one bank, with €65bn euros in liquidity," the association said in its report, Criminality's Grip on Business .
With the economic crisis meaning banks are loath to lend, Mafia dons have profited as desperate businesses are forced to turn to loan sharks demanding crippling rates of interest.
Organised crime groups - including Cosa Nostra in Sicily, the Camorra around Naples and the 'Ndrangheta in Calabria, have bought ailing businesses, shops and restaurants.
The exorbitant rates they charge for loaning money have pushed many enterprises to the wall.
"Among the illegal activities of mafia organisations is loan sharking, which with the economic crisis has become a national emergency," said Marco Venturi, the president of Confesercenti.
"According to our estimates, loan sharking caused the closure in 2010 of 1,800 businesses and destroyed thousands of jobs. Right now, Mafia Inc is the only business enterprise willing to make substantial investments."
Small business owners with tight margins and limited cash flow were the most vulnerable – some 200,000 had fallen victim to usury, said Mr Venturi.
They were also being hit by extortion and straightforward robbery by the mob - at a rate of one crime a minute.
The mafia's influence was felt not only in its traditional strongholds such as Palermo and Naples, but increasingly in the wealthy north of Italy in regions such as Lombardy, which includes the business capital, Milan.
Organised crime groups had been able to expand their territory into the wealthy north through the "complicity" of some politicians, as well as professionals such as lawyers and accountants, the report said.
The mafia's revenues were far greater even than big companies such as Eni, Italy's oil giant, which in 2010 notched up around €100bn in sales.
Confesercenti, which represents 270,000 small-to-medium businesses, said the new technocrat government of Mario Monti had to help firms "retake territory occupied by the mafia".
But it will be an uphill battle. Organised crime controls everything from gambling to construction and the disposal of industrial and household waste.
Mafia chiefs have also moved into new areas of business such as public health, transport and logistics.
Gambling is particularly lucrative. The average adult Italian spends nearly €1,300 a year on slot machines, bingo and other forms of gambling. This €76bn market is Italy's third biggest industry, according to a report presented in Rome on Monday by Libera, an anti-mafia association.
The grip of the Camorra on toxic waste management has been hugely detrimental to the environment in parts of southern Italy and has caused a rubbish crisis in Naples for years.
The European high court said yesterday that the Italian government had violated the rights of people living near Naples by failing to tackle the waste collection crisis, which left tonnes of stinking refuse on the streets.
The Strasbourg-based court said that at the height of the crisis residents in the town of Somma Vesuviana, who filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights, had been forced to live "in an environment polluted by the piling up of rubbish on the streets".