Italy's white-collar mafia

ROME, Italy — This week, Italy commemorates the cold-blooded murders of two anti-Mafia heroes. Eighteen years ago, Judge Paolo Borsellino was blown to pieces in full daylight when a small Fiat car, loaded with TNT, detonated in front of his mother’s house in Palermo, Sicily.

Weeks earlier, his colleague and friend, Judge Giovanni Falcone was killed by the Sicilian Mafia — Cosa Nostra — in a similar attack. It was the summer of 1992, the darkest and bloodiest time in the history of Italy’s war against the mob.

The public outrage that followed the judges’ deaths pushed the Mafia to reconsider its tactics.

Since then, Italian organized crime — Cosa Nostra in Sicily, the Camorra in Naples and the 'Ndrangheta in Calabria — have shifted from open massacres of public servants to stealth negotiations and the infiltration of Italian institutions. Because of this, experts say, the truth about those murders never surfaced.

“There is no doubt that those Mafia attacks were accomplished with the help of the Italian Secret Services,” said Francesco Forgione, the former president of the Anti Mafia Parliament Committee. “The state maintained a dialogue with the Mafia during those attacks,” he said. “We are still waiting for the truth.”

"Today’s Mafia are people with college degree; we call them the white-collar Mafia. They are professionals in jacket and tie who understand finance and sit at the same table with politicians and businessmen." — Luigi De Magistris

Today, the 'Ndrangheta is Europe’s exclusive broker for cocaine traffic from South America. “They are the only Italian criminal organization connected to the new Mexican narcos,” Forgione said.

In Italy, they have chosen Milan as their financial hub. Forgione said that explained why Milan had the highest cocaine consumption rates in Europe. 

The Italian police and Carabinieri forces last week arrested more than 300 affiliates of the 'Ndrangheta — from Calabria to the Milan region of Lombardy. In an overnight raid on July 13, called “Operation Crime,” 3,000 members of the armed forces were deployed for the most important blow to organized crime in the last 10 years. Among the arrested was Domenico Oppedisano, an 80-year-old godfather who was the alleged head of the organization.

“It was an exceptional operation,” said Piero Grasso, the head of Italy’s Anti Mafia Task Force, who summoned reporters at a press conference last week.

“The current 'Ndrangheta is a top-down, tight-knit and pyramid-like organization,” Grasso said, comparing it to the modus operandi of Cosa Nostra in Sicily.

Investigators focused on the bids that were made on the Milan Universal Expo scheduled in 2015. The winning bids would have gained control over massive development projects that would transform 420 acres of semi-industrial land into a state-of–the-art conference center in the outskirts of Milan.

With the help of local wheeler-dealers and politicians, the 'Ndrangheta was using the Milan-based company Perego General Contractors to elbow its way into the Milan bid. Using the same company name, the 'Ndrangheta was also caught attempting to infiltrate projects in the rebuilding of l’Aquila after the city was hit by a 6.3-magnitude earthquake in April 2009.

The daily Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera reported that Perego had become the preferred tool of the Strangio family, a powerful 'Ndrangheta dynasty that exploited Perego’s clean record to win multi-million-euro bids in the entire Milan region.

Last week’s raid was a rude awakening for northern Italy, which realized how deeply the Calabria 'Ndrangheta had infiltrated their local economy. 

“At this point, they don’t need bombs anymore,” said Luigi De Magistris, president of the Committee for Budget Control in the European Parliament. “Today’s Mafia are people with college degree; we call them the white-collar Mafia. They are professionals in jacket and tie who understand finance and sit at the same table with politicians and businessmen — it’s a devastating system."

De Magistris was forced to quit the magistrature in 2008 when two of his investigations exposed members of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's government. He spent most of his career tracing how the Mafia secures European Union funds by using clean companies as a facade.

Italy has the highest incidence of fiscal frauds against the EU, and current Italian fiscal law is as responsible for this phenomenon, De Magistris said.

Last year, the Berlusconi government passed a Fiscal Shield law that guarantees anonymity for offshore account holders who re-introduce their capital into the country. Once it re-enters as legal assets, it remains impossible to trace.

Forgione estimates that the 'Ndrangheta alone makes between 100 and 150 billion euros a year. “Of all that money, at least 70 billion is laundered to become part of the Italian GDP,” Forgione said.