For the Mafia, business is booming

 

There's no downturn for Italy's four major crime organisations, and if shops and businesses in Naples or Palermo don't pay the 'pizzo', they'll feel the crunch, writes Paddy Agnewin Rome 

A FEW YEARS ago, this correspondent paid a visit to the handsome and much visited Sicilian tourist resort of Taormina. Such was the mild, sunny weather on a Sicilian springtime day that we were able to eat a splendid meal, sitting out on the terrace of a little beach restaurant that nestled in a pretty cove just down the hill from Taormina.

Whilst we were paying for our meal, we complimented our waiter on both the food and the location, enquiring if he was the owner or part-owner of the restaurant. Surely, we reasoned, this is a thriving little business. Our interlocutor, a Sicilian, cut us short. He told us that not only was he not the proprietor of the establishment but also that he had no intention or desire to ever become the owner of this or any other Sicilian establishment.

"What would I do that for? You'd be working your ass off only to have the 'lads' [members of the Mafia] turn up every month looking for the 'pizzo' [protection money]. Why should I work for them?"

Our waiter in Taormina has a point. In its annual SOS Impresa report, The Hands Of Organised Crime On Business, Confesercenti, the Italian retailers' confederation, this week suggested that Mafia business is booming. Between them, Italy's four major crime organisations - the Mafia in Sicily, the 'Ndrangheta in Calabria, the Camorra in Campania and the Sacra Corona Unita in Puglia - have a combined turnover of €130 billion, whilst their annual "profits" for the year 2007 were approximately €70 billion. Put it another way, organised crime is Italy's number one business, weighing in at 6 per cent of Italian GDP.

In their report, Confesercenti even draw up a hypothetical annual statement from "Mafia Inc" in which they point out that organised crime's major earnings come from drug trafficking (€59bn), garbage and industrial waste disposal (€16bn), money lending (€12.5bn) and protection rackets (€9bn). On top of that, the arms trade, the trafficking of clandestine immigrants, prostitution rings, agriculture and, of course, public works contracts are all healthy earners for the "lads".

As a retailers' confederation, Confesercenti is obviously preoccupied with the flourishing racketeering business. They reckon that retailers in Italy pay out approximately €250 million daily by way of protection money. They point out too that paying the "pizzo" in cities such as Naples and Palermo simply becomes part of the culture, an everyday reality that comes complete with its own price list, as confirmed by a series of "pay registers" that have been seized over the years during anti-Mafia raids.

In other words, a normal shop in Palermo could be paying up to €500 per month protection, whilst a city-centre, upmarket shop could be paying upwards of €1,000. For a supermarket, the price is higher at €5,000 per month while a Palermo building site could be asked for as much as €10,000 per month.

Traditionally, organised crime uses protection money to look after the families of "lads" currently in prison, with a Mafia wife being paid up to €2,000 while her man serves time. One restaurant owner in Gela, Sicily, tells a revealing little tale. When he asked his "exactor" for a delay on the payment of that month's "pizzo" of €1,500, saying that business had been slow, he received a chilling reply: "What do you think, that all our guys in prison are dead?"

Whilst the request for protection money might be made in an understated way, it remains menacing and inexorable. The various mafia organisations have all got thousands of "lads" on the books and they have all got to be paid their monthly "mesata" (wage). Even here too, Confesercenti estimates salary levels which go from €25,000 for a hired killer to €40,000 per month for a family godfather. "Soldiers" on the ground, such as pushers and the guys who collect the "pizzo", earn up to €2,000 per month.

ORGANISED CRIME, of course, exists in a specific socio-economic context. Whilst the Italian unemployment level for 2007 was 6.1 per cent nationwide, that figure was doubled in the "mezzogiorno" (the south, including Calabria, Campania, Puglia and Sicily) where it registered 12.2 per cent. In parts of those four regions, too, unemployment is actually much higher, for example registering more than 40 per cent in certain zones of Naples. Not for nothing, then, organised crime flourishes in Italy's poorest regions.

In a recent article in the daily newspaper Il Riformista, magistrate and former lower house speaker Luciano Violante tells the story of a Neapolitan grandmother who went to visit her local godfather, taking him a handsome present and asking him to find her grandson a job: "There was a time when you went looking for a job for a boy to keep him out of harm's way. Today, you go looking for a job so that finally the boy will find himself in harm's way, on the only road which in that context can offer him both a role and survival," comments Violante.

If organised crime flourishes in (and indeed greatly contributes to) the relative poverty of certain regions, it has, of course, always relied on an alarming level of infiltration of the judiciary, the police forces, the media and, last but not least, the political class: "While I was on the run, I often met deputy Nicola Cosentino. He told us quite clearly that he was at our service for whatever . . . We had helped the deputy get elected and he was at our service for whatever we wanted to ask him. If we were to ask him for a certain contract, there was no way that he could refuse." The speaker is Dario De Simone, a member of the crime organisation the Camorra, who made the above accusations in a detailed statement to police on September 13th, 1996. In the 12 years since then, four other men, three members of the Camorra and one businessman, have confirmed these accusations, claiming that not only did Cosentino help the Camorra win various contracts in return for electoral support but also that he had carried messages from the imprisoned Camorra boss, Francesco "Sandokan" Schiavone, to his "soldiers" outside.

None of these accusations, however, seem to have done Cosentino much harm since his political star has, in the intervening years, risen and risen and he is now a junior minister at the Italian department of finance. Cosentino has been defended by prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and when his case came up in a parliamentary question last month, the minister for relations with parliament Elio Vito pointed a finger at those media sources (in particular weekly magazine L'Espresso) which had highlighted the case, saying that they had threatened "the credibility of state institutions". In the meantime, however, Neapolitan mafia investigators have opened an enquiry into Cosentino.

The point about Nicola Cosentino is that he comes from Casal di Principe, the little Campania town that is dominated by the Casalesi crime family, a family whose violent activities have received international attention thanks to author Roberto Saviano's bestseller, Gomorrah.

Now a film, Gomorrah won an award at the Cannes film festival last May, and it has been selected to represent Italy in the foreign language film category at next year's Academy Awards in Los Angeles.

Since writing his book, Saviano has lived under constant police protection because of fears that the Camorra would try to kill him. Media reports last month claimed that a supergrass had told his police contacts that the Camorra intended to kill Saviano by the end of this year, prompting an international show of solidarity for the Neapolitan writer led by public figures such as Nobel Prize winner Mikhail Gorbachev, writers Günter Grass and Ian McEwan and film directors Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee.

In the meantime, as it tries to reassert control, the Casalesi family is believed to be behind a campaign of terror and intimidation that resulted in the killing in September of six African immigrants in the Campania town of Castel Volturno. Investigators believe that the Africans, who may well have been small-time drug pushers, were killed because they had moved onto Casalesi "territory" without either "permission" or paying their dues.

It was partly as a memorial to those six immigrants and partly as an expression of solidarity with Roberto Saviano that legendary black South African singer Miriam Makeba agreed to sing at a concert in Castel Volturno last Sunday night. It was, sadly, to be her last concert because she died shortly after being taken ill on stage.

It would be nice to think that the concert and Miriam Makeba's insistence on singing there will change something. Nice but by no means guaranteed. Last Saturday, as workmen were putting up the stage on which Makeba was due to sing, "unknown persons" walked onto the concert site and arrogantly asked the workmen to pay the "pizzo". It may have been an anti-Mafia event, but the "lads" still wanted their cut. For the Mafia, business is business.