Mass arrests in Italy and Germany this week indicate scale of operations
Italian and German law enforcement yesterday arrested a total of 169 suspected mafiosi who allegedly controlled businesses ranging from food production to funeral parlours in both countries.
The joint police operation targeted the Farao-Marincola branch of the ‘Ndrangheta family, one of three Italian syndicates - along with the Sicilian Mafia and the Camorra in Campania - whose reach extends far beyond Italy, Reuters reports.
So what does the 21st century Mafia look like - and have reports of its demise been greatly exaggerated?
Where is the mafia still active?
The most powerful Mafia syndicate in 21st century Italy is not 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.
Among the 169 people arrested in this week’s German-Italian raids were more than a dozen 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”.
The ‘Ndrangheta can now call upon up to 60,000 foot soldiers scattered across 30 countries, says Quartz.
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 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.”