Business Is Booming for the Italian Mafia during COVID

Latin America World

 “MX” for Borderland Beat; VICE Magazine

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– The infamous mafioso Franco Cataldo was so brutal that he once sought revenge
on one of his associates by kidnapping his 12-year-old son; he abused and
tortured the boy for two years until he finally strangled him and dissolved his
body in acid. Franco was sentenced to life in prison for that murder.

But 24
years later, the coronavirus — and the fear it would spread through Italy’s
notoriously overcrowded prisons — forced the system to release him on house
arrest, along with at least 200 other mafia members and high security inmates.

Political opposition groups have called the decision to send mafia
members back to the communities they traumatized the “biggest victory over the
state since the 1970s” for organized crime syndicates. Since the pandemic took
hold in the country, they’ve also seized the opportunity to hand out loans,
sell fake PPE, and extort money from vulnerable Italians.

“This period provides
the best possible conditions for the mafias to restart their activities. That’s
because people don’t have money and there’s a lack of liquidity, so they need
help,” Catello Maresca, Naples’ top prosecutor, told VICE News.

three-quarters of Italian businesses have been impacted by COVID-19, according
to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Between
50,000 and 100,000 Italian companies are expected to need direct financial
support due to the economic crisis. Mafia groups have stepped in to offer loans
and buy up struggling businesses.

“People turn to the mafia more than they turn
to the government. The mafia is much more direct. It is much faster to help.”
Maresca said. “People must understand that this is a fatal embrace. Because
later, this debt will be settled with life.” VICE News spoke to one small
business owner who borrowed $55,000 from a loan shark and has now accrued an
additional $170,000 in interest. The man asked VICE News to withhold his name
to protect him and his family.

“I can’t see a future at the moment that can guarantee the resolution of
the problems!” he said. “I turned to credit institutions to get financial
support, but I was denied it. Unfortunately, you have to go to where the
situation leads you.” “They could beat me, they could harm me in some way,” he
said of the threats he was under. “Or they would threaten my family — ‘I know
where your daughter is’ or my wife, brother or sister, my father, my mother.”

Although there’s no data yet on how many businesses have been bought by the
mafia since the pandemic hit, call centers set up for victims of extortion have
experienced a 100 percent increase in outreach, according to Italian news

The biggest spike came from small businesses struggling through
Italy’s national lockdown. The judicial system is still processing the legal
cases of those who have reported extortion, and the number of reports has
increased. The Italian government launched a $435 billion relief program in
response to the economic crash caused by COVID-19 in early April. And mafia-associated
shell companies have already been busted for exploiting the fund.

The fund also
failed to help around 3.5 million Italians who previously worked off the books
and were ineligible for the benefits.

“Criminal organizations can adapt
themselves to whatever the needs of the moment are,” said Lt. Luigi Vessicchio,
the leader of a motorcycle unit of the Neapolitan police department known as
the Falchi.

Vessicchio’s team recently confiscated more than 3,000 ineffective face
masks that the Camorra, one of Italy’s four largest organized crime syndicates,
had illegally produced. “They are completely useless.” Vessicchio told VICE
News. He said that medical authorities inspected the masks and ordered them to
be destroyed after the seizure.

“The use of these masks can probably cause the
actual transmission of coronavirus.” During the national lockdown, Vessicchio
and the Falchi police saw street crime drop to almost none, but now they’re
back on the streets making arrests.

“Now that the lockdown has been lifted, the
Camorra will resume the activities that they were involved with before the
Coronavirus started.” Vessicchio said. While Italy is only now starting to
assess the toll the pandemic has taken on human life and the economy, it will
take time to see how much progress the mafia was able to make during this