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Shining light on the Mafia to tackle organised crime

Violent acts carried out by Italian Mafias are far from fictional. Our researcher is charting the impact of underground criminal gangs in Italy and beyond.

The city of Naples in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, viewed from the water
Mafia violence in Naples can have knock-on effects around the world. Photo by Dr Felia Allum.

Talk about the Mafia and images of Marlon Brando in The Godfather spring instantly to mind. Brando’s portrayal of Vito Corleone may have been fictional, but it still reflects the reality of how violent organisations seek to control an illegal economy and infiltrate a legitimate one.

In 2012, a major report by Confesercenti suggested the cash reserves of the four main Mafia groups in Italy could be as high as €65 billion, with annual profits of up to €100 billion – about 7% of Italy’s GDP at the time.

Gang-related crime and Mafia-inspired violence remains commonplace in modern Italy. A recent assassination plot led by Sicily’s infamous Cosa Nostra even targeted Italian interior minister Angelino Alfano until it was uncovered by a police wiretap operation.

The problem with Mafias in Italy and around the world is still as current today as when Mario Puzo wrote The Godfather in 1969.

London: 'global haven for criminal activity'

Scratch below the surface of these day-to-day stories in Italy, and organised crime in other parts of the world is increasingly having knock-on effects elsewhere. A turf war in Naples or Bogota, orchestrated by different crime syndicates, may only be covered by the local newspapers. But its effect is likely felt in London, Paris, New York and beyond.

On a street near you, a new restaurant opens. It looks legitimate, but it’s financed through money laundered by a complex, international network. And that network uses increasingly sophisticated means to plan and coordinate their activities and perpetuate their position.

In the UK, money laundering is estimated to be worth about £23 billion a year. In January 2015, the head of the UK National Crime Agency described London as ‘a global haven for [such] criminal activity’ – something which the Prime Minister pledged to tackle.

Mapping the links from local to international

Joining up the dots between criminal activity in one area and its knock-on effects in another is a key research focus for Dr Felia Allum. Felia is a lecturer in our Department of Politics, Languages & International Studies whose work specialises in organised crime in Italy and around Europe.

Felia speaks English, French and Italian and has spent much of her career focusing on Italian mafias, particularly the Neapolitan Camorra. Her popular final year course ‘Organised crime and the challenge to democracy in Italy’ explores how Italian Mafias operate and their impacts abroad.

Felia is the co-convenor of the European Consortium for the Political Research group on organised crime, which is hosting its first General Conference in Naples between 11-12 December 2015. The conference aims to bring together the latest European research and intelligence about the reach of organised crime gangs and ways to reduce their spread.

I catch up with Felia on her return from a recent fact-finding trip to Naples ahead of the Conference. She recounts her journey to the heart of Mafia land in the city’s infamous Barra District.

A thousand different cities of Naples

“Getting into a cab in the centre of Naples, the taxi driver asked me, ‘Where are we going then? Somewhere nice or somewhere nasty?’ At that point I really don’t know.

“A lot of writers have often talked about Naples being two cities. Driving towards Barra, this sort of non-descript periphery which is dirty, edgy and characterised by long, long roads, I thought it’s not a tale of two cities, but of a thousand.

“The sun and the looming presence of Mount Vesuvius in the background may unite this part of town with the centre but other than that it feels like a world unwashed and where even public transport won’t venture”, she tells me.

Providing an alternative to the life of crime

Felia was in Barra to speak to members of Il Tappeto di Iqbal, a social cooperative established to provide young members of the community with an alternative to a life of criminal activity. The group uses performance art to explore the challenges facing the community. Its members are acutely aware of the dominance of Mafia bosses in their area, having grown up under their watchful gaze.

Giovanni, the charismatic founder and spokesperson for the group, is taking great strides in recruiting young people to join the movement and learn new skills. Their members can then teach those skills to kids in the district.

“The significant challenge in Barra”, Felia says, “is the lack of viable opportunities for young people other than drug dealing or organised crime. Il Tappeto di Iqbal is challenging the status quo by presenting an alternative vision for the young which is the kind of initiative fundamental to breaking the cycle of violence in these areas.”

Giovanni explains: “We are at war. We need to show these kids that there are beautiful, clean and kind things around.”

Felia spent time with the group at a local after-school club where the members are trying to engage children and their parents in the targeted, proactive anti-mafia initiative.

United Europe key to fighting Mafia gangs

Understanding the nature of organised crime and money laundering is essential to respond to its threat. But a coordinated regional, national and international response is needed to deal with its effects.

Marco Del Gaudio is a judge from the Italian National Anti Mafia Directorate. He explains that while recent progress in policing to tackle mafia activities in Italy is significant, it’s not enough. For a sustainable, long-term response, international cooperation needs to be ‘dramatically improved.’

“Today gangs are increasingly willing to move away from their areas of origin, but we still often tend to think of them as 'local' associations. We need to change that perspective and dramatically improve international cooperation”, he says.

“I think the trend will be – or at least should be – to fight organized crime in places where it traditionally was not present, in Northern Italy, or in Western European countries for example. But to take this step we must first overcome the challenge of education. We have to convince judges that the Mafia, the Camorra and the Ndrangheta are no longer only present and active in Palermo, Naples and Reggio Calabria.”

“Our present international collaboration is not enough”, he goes on. “This is not through the lack of will on the part of judges or prosecutors but more the lack of legal instruments available to enable proper and streamlined cooperation [between EU member states] to take place.”

So what about Britain’s continued role in the EU and the prospects for a Brexit following a referendum on our EU membership?

“London is at the crossroads of many investments. It is the financial heart of Europe and the place where most financial transactions take place. The exit of Britain from the EU would be an additional, significant advantage for Mafia gangs”, he says.

Current systems are insufficient

The case of Domenico Rancadore, Felia highlights, shows the failure on the part of EU and international collaboration to bring a convicted criminal to justice after years on the run.

Former Mafia affiliate Rancadore was finally arrested in August 2013 when he was found living in Uxbridge, west London. He had lived under the alias of Marc Skinner in the UK for over 20 years. In 1999, he was convicted by an Italian judge for his part in Mafia activities and sentenced to seven years in jail. Despite all this and efforts since to extradite him, Rancadore still remains in the UK.

“Domenico Rancadore’s case serves as a high-profile reminder to us that the current systems in place to deal with under-the-radar Mafia in the UK and around the EU are insufficient. But the only answer is greater cooperation between member states, not less.

“As the criminal networks get smarter, so too does our policing and security response need to get wiser. At a time when many are re-evaluating the UK’s position in the EU, we need to bolster our efforts to work collaboratively, share intelligence and develop EU-wide responses to these challenges if we’re to outsmart these groups.”

Back in the UK, Felia reflects on the challenges of conducting academic research into organised crime. Developing our understanding through research is crucial for policy-makers to successfully tackle it.

This begins with a full assessment of organised crime’s direct and often violent impacts within countries. But examining the much more complex, nuanced indirect links tied to money laundering overseas is essential too.