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The Mafia Still Holds Sway in Italy

Thursday, Oct. 25, 2007

As Corridors of Power reported this week, a recent report from an Italian retailers association revealed the incredible extent to which the mafia still plagues the southern Italian economy:

TONY SOPRANO, EAT YOUR HEART OUT -- Italy's harassed store owners paid $8.5 billion in protection money to organized crime in one year, almost all of it in the south and Sicily, where the Mafia and its Neapolitan counterpart, the Camorra, hold sway. About 160,000 businesses were targeted throughout the country, according to the Italian retailers association, Confesercenti. Loan sharks took in double that amount: $17.1 billion. From 2004-2006 Mafia loan sharks "foreclosed" on 165,000 businesses nationwide, and nearly 50,000 hotels.

Confesercenti -- quoted in the newspaper Corriere della Sera -- listed the fixed rates for protection. Market stall holders paid $14 per day per stall. Store owners budgeted between $140 and $200 a month (more in Palermo), and building contractors anything up to $17,000 to keep things from going wrong on a construction site. Paradoxically, says the retailers association, the more mobsters the police arrest, the more protection money needs to be raised to cover lawyers' fees.

In a related story, the Economist earlier this month looked at how one Italian businessman is taking on the mob:

To most observers, Marco Venturi must seem like a model southern Italian businessman. He is a shareholder and director of Sidercem, a firm founded by his father in 1982 that checks the quality of construction materials. Two years ago he became chairman of the small businesses' association of Caltanissetta, the province where he lives in Sicily. Last year he took up the same job at the local chamber of commerce.

Not everyone approves of Mr Venturi's enthusiastic involvement in civic circles. In August, his wife found a bag outside their home containing two bullets, along with a note saying that he had gone too far. It was only the latest of a series of threats from local mafiosi. The authorities have provided two armed policemen to protect him.

Whether the Camorra around Naples, the 'Ndrangheta in Calabria, or Cosa Nostra in Sicily, Italy's Mafias remain a force to be reckoned with. On October 2nd, following a long string of arson attacks around the province, Caltanissetta's prosecutor-general called for the army to be sent in so that more policemen would be available to fight crime. In a survey that tried to measure the risk of extortion in Italy's different provinces, Caltanissetta ranked second, after a province in Calabria.

But few southern businessmen, Italy's prosecutors gripe, ever dare to report the mobsters' misdeeds officially, let alone campaign against their influence. That is how Mr Venturi earned the Mafia's ire.


We don't usually think of such old-style criminal organizations in the same way as other non-state actors -- terrorists or armed guerillas -- who threaten state sovereignty. But its clear that Italy's Mafia has for a long time waged a brand of insurgency that is quietly devastating to the Italian economy and the civic virtues that are part and parcel of lawful economic activity.

Perhaps Italian authorities will increasingly get the cooperation they need to break the mafia's hold, and 10 years from now Italian television can run a popular series about the last days of the mafia era, as told through the lives of a family in whatever is the Italian equivalent of the northern New Jersey suburbs.