Criminal enterprises — like their legitimate counterparts — have suffered during the pandemic-induced economic crisis. But the Italian mafia has already laid the foundation for a massive payday.
Last year, when countries were seized by lockdowns, the mafia started infiltrating cash-starved companies in a bid to siphon money from the European Union’s recovery fund and the 1.8 trillion euros ($2. .2 trillion) that will, in part, start flowing to struggling firms later this year, according to Maurizio Vallone, Italy’s top investigator on organized crime.
Criminal groups including the N’drangheta in the southern Calabria region and Cosa Nostra in Sicily have sought to gain footholds in lawful businesses that will be first in line to get EU aid, such as those in environmental and digital, said Vallone of the Antimafia Investigative Directorate, which groups investigators from the main police forces.
“The mafia has been choosing the companies that are best-placed to take part in recovery fund tenders, especially in the health and infrastructure sectors where a great deal of money will be spent,” Vallone told Bloomberg at his Rome office on Tuesday. “It will try to take everything. We have to make sure they don’t get even one euro.”
And Italy is a prime target for criminals since it’s poised to be the largest recipient of EU grant money.
The new government of Prime Minister Mario Draghi is drafting a spending plan for its 209 billion-euro share of the EU funds as it struggles to shake off the worst recession since World War II. Italian firms are particularly vulnerable since a scheme for state-guaranteed bank loans has been too complex and limited to be effective, said Vallone.
As a result, companies that have shaky credit-worthiness have benefited little from state help, he said. Mafia gangs have seized on the opportunity, with regional and national lockdowns, to reach out to small and medium-sized companies desperate for liquidity in an economy that contracted 8.9% last year.
Mafiosi typically seek to muscle in on a firm’s share capital, fund struggling businesses through usury, or exploit them through a hidden partner, Vallone said. The number of suspicious financial operations reported by the Bank of Italy increased by 7% last year to 113,000. “That makes us strongly suspect that there is organized crime interest,” he said.
The European Anti-Fraud Office, called OLAF, will screen spending plans by member states to ensure they meet control and anti-fraud requirements, and will in the future carry out investigations of its own, according to a spokeswoman. The organization will also team up with national authorities and partners including Europol.