Il socio occulto (The Hidden Partner). This is the catchy title of the latest book by Marella Caramazza, a corporate training expert and director of the ISTUD Foundation. It is also an apt description of the strategy employed by criminal organisations with businesses in Italy’s wealthiest and most dynamic areas, such as Lombardy, Veneto and Emilia, but also Piedmont, Liguria and even the tiny but attractive Aosta Valley. This “hidden partner” infiltrates businesses through a strategy of subsidies, support, protection and funding schemes. Then it securely takes over the company, often expunging its original leaders. And from there it proceeds to expand, destabilising the market, its competitors and social structures, while bribing its way into politics and public administrations.
For years, and unfortunately even until recent times, we’ve heard plenty of people ‒ including prominent local and national politicians ‒ say that “there is no mafia in Lombardy” or that “there’s no sign of it in Veneto, and anyone who says otherwise is trying to slander us”. The same things were said in the 1960s in Sicily, Naples and Reggio Calabria. Then, in time, we found out how much influence Cosa Nostra, the Camorra and the ‘ndrangheta had in those regions, how deeply they had penetrated the socio-economic fabric of the towns and cities, killing, harassing, blackmailing and destabilising so much of Italy’s south. Today, those gangsters rely less on guns, but they are still hell-bent on raking in profits and gaining control of companies and interest groups, destroying businesses and communities, just like a cancer.
A cancer that has spread. It must be fought and excised through better understanding of how the Modelli Criminale (Criminal Models) are evolving, to paraphrase the title of an excellent book by Giuseppe Pignatone, State Attorney of Rome (following a long and distinguished career in Palermo and Reggio Calabria) and Michele Prestipino, Adjunct Prosecutor of Rome. Their book, published by Laterza, is a well-documented and compelling reconstruction of how mafias have changed and are changing, from the Sicilian ‘ndrine of the 1980s that first made its way up North, to the Camorra’s drug-trafficking and illegal waste-disposal operations, all the way to “Mafia Capitale”.
The alarming extent of mafia presence in the North of Italy is confirmed by the latest report published by DNA, the national anti-mafia agency: “’ndrangheta infiltrations in the legal economy of Northern Italy are widespread. This is evident also from the many anti-mafia injunctions issued against companies in the north in such sectors as construction, waste management, transportation and the restaurant business.”
These criminal activities and shady relations are found within political and financial circles. In fact, the DNA report highlights how “gangs, when identifying possible candidates to serve as frontmen for their operations, pay little attention to where these people are from or to the geo-criminal context in which their companies are headquartered”.
Mafia bosses from Calabria, Sicily, Campania and recently also Apulia are colluding with businesspeople in Milan, Brianza and the wealthy industrial areas of Lombardy (“’ndrangheta, you see Cantù but you think it is Locri”, said Nando Dalla Chiesa, director of the CROSS Monitoring Centre on Organised Crime, commenting on a trial involving ‘ndrangheta bosses and local accomplices). But they are also in Brescia and Bergamo (where several ‘ndrangheta men specialised in “debt collection services” were arrested just days ago) and in the rich cities of Veneto and Emilia.
The mafia in Northern Italy is a growing menace that we must try to defeat in the name of a healthy economy.
Further evidence that the problem exists comes from Verona, where the Chamber of Commerce and Avviso Pubblico (a network of local associations against organised crime) have recently sponsored a conference on “Mafias and the economy”, which saw the participation of magistrates, businesspeople, public administrators, members of law enforcement and a vast contingent of students.
“Pay the utmost attention to red-flag offences,” was the warning offered by State Attorney Angela Barbaglia: odd corporate bankruptcies, invoice fraud, tax evasion, bribery. Bruno Cherchi, the lead anti-mafia prosecutor for the Veneto region, noted that “the entire region is at risk of mafia infiltrations”. Indeed, as much was clear just this past February, when a major sting operation led to the arrest of 50 people including ‘ndrangheta and Camorra bosses (with ties to the infamous Casalesi clan), local administrators and businesspeople involved in construction, money laundering and other activities typically related to organised crime.
The answer? According to Verona’s new prefect, Donato Giovanni Cafagna, the answer is to “weaken the mafia by limiting its economic power”. Incidentally, Cafagna, who cut his teeth in the troubled Terra dei Fuochi area of Campania and then in Apulia, also worked in Milan during the delicate Expo years provides an excellent example of how prefecture injunctions to companies suspected of entertaining criminal relations can improve the odds of completing major public projects quickly and efficiently, while also ensuring transparency at all levels of public administration.
We must therefore look closely at what is happening in Milan in order to identify new criminal trends and understand how civil society reacts to them.
Which brings us back to Ms Caramazza’s book: “The mafia’s choice to penetrate the lawful business landscape by taking control of healthy companies represents one of the major risk factors for the preservation of a free market ruled by principles of fair competition.” The author goes on to add: “Their strategy is aggressive but silent and mimetic: lawful business becomes a target for criminal organisations up to the point where the line between legal and illicit – or even criminal – activities is no longer clear.”
The awareness of this phenomenon is exactly what prompted Assolombarda ten years ago to focus on safeguarding and promoting legality as a key element to keep Milan and its businesses competitive, considering mafias (starting from the ‘ndrangheta, which is currently the most prominent and powerful) as a dangerously subversive presence. Subversive for the market, for economic sustainability, and for business and labour relations in countless areas of society and of the economy, including construction, public contracts and procurement, healthcare, commerce, transportation, waste management and a variety of financial services. Assolombarda has championed a staunch anti-mafia effort founded on researching the phenomenon, on strong relations with the Judiciary organs (investigative and repressive action is crucial, even though it isn’t enough on its own) and on constant awareness-raising and communication activity aimed at the leaders of member companies. The key message is to understand that the mafia isn’t a service agency you can contact to solve a problem, obtain a loan, collect a debt, win a public contract, best a competitor or resolve a labour dispute. A relationship with the mafia is “for ever”. So, once a company is “contaminated”, it is bound to sink permanently into the murky waters of illegality.
Message received. “Hidden partners” are still lurking in the shadows – a constant temptation – but so far, they aren’t winning.