On May 28, a high-profile trial opened in the Italian island of Sicily, famous for its organised crime networks. The 10 accused in the box include Salvatore “Toto” Riina, one of the most notorious mafia bosses Italy has known, feared and hated for his brutality, and Nicolas Mancino, who once served as interior minister.

Judges are looking at allegations of collusion and secret agreements between the mafia and state players — both bureaucrats and politicians — following a series of bomb attacks in the 1990s that killed several people including the anti-mafia investigators, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, who instituted the “maxi trials” of organised crime bosses and their acolytes.

It is alleged that as a result of these negotiations, officials relaxed the very stringent solitary confinement rules, better known as article 41 bis, then in place against mafia dons, that disallowed telephone calls or contacts with other inmates, restricted family visits and imposed other constraints including imprisonment on isolated islands. Among those being called to the witness box are Italy’s President Giorgio Napolitano who served as interior minister from 1996 to 1998.

As Italy witnesses a new “maxi trial” in an attempt to ascertain the degree of collusion between organised crime and state players, Vaiju Naravane spoke to Franco Roberti, the chief prosecutor of Salerno, who is tipped to become the country’s next chief prosecutor. As a magistrate, Roberti has had a distinguished career, including that of chief investigator at the Anti-mafia Investigative Directorate (DIA) in Naples and has exposed several cases where officials gave public works contracts to front companies run by organised crime. A handsome, grey-haired man in his mid-sixties, Roberti has the hoarse, nicotine-laden voice of the heavy smoker. His office is so overflowing with files, that a perch on the edge of a chair stacked shoulder-high with folders was the only available seat. On the day of the interview, he announced the busting of a new mafia-related public works racket. Excerpts:

Does organised crime continue to flourish?

Yes it does, and there are several reasons why the Mafia in southern Italy has not yet been vanquished. The main reason is that there aren’t enough magistrates and policemen to fight them. The fighting force is clearly insufficient. Because the Mafia, like the Neapolitan Camorra, is a social phenomenon and it’s a constitutive element of a large part of southern Italy. What we need is a clear political will that makes the fight against organised crime an absolute priority.

And that’s not the case now?

We’re not there yet. Because were it the priority of the government, we would have more resources, more means for the magistrates and the police. And it would mean a total clean-up within institutional and legislative organisations in their dealings with the mafia.

Are you suggesting there is collusion between state players and the mafia?

There is a strong collusion. There are manifold cases of collusion. Also because the Mafia or Cosa Nostra (Sicily) and the Camorra (Naples) but particularly the Camorra, have not only managed to infiltrate the organisms of state, they have also entwined themselves with the legal economy. The Camorra recycles gains from extortion, drug dealing and other activities into the legal economy and it is this that leads to an interconnection between the legal and illegal economies.

What you often refer to as the “grey” economy.

That’s it. That is a very large, ample zone and it’s difficult to tackle because it means following leads from the legal into the illegal. It’s difficult to untangle these very complicated webs. And this grey economy will continue to grow in parallel with the illegal economy and will strangle the real or legal economy.

For how long have you been investigating organised crime?

Oh, for as long as I can remember. At least 30 years, I think.

And do you get the feeling that you are going somewhere? Advancing, stemming the rot?

Yes, I get the feeling that we are damping down on organised crime, taking tiny steps to curtail it. But we are in no way equipped to confront it or to stop it.

Tell me, in what way is the Neapolitan Camorra changing the face of organised crime?

The Camorra is increasing its influence and its control through the companies it has founded or taken over illegally as a result of the financial crisis. The worst part of this new development is that the Camorra is extending its influence to other regions of Italy, particularly the north, Lazio, Tuscany, Umbria, Emilia-Romagna, Lombardy, which had, to some extent, been free of organised crime. It is going where it can launder and recycle dirty money in commercial activity or in service sectors like hotels or tourism. A number of the best restaurants in Rome are in the hands of the mafia. It is important to understand that in a crisis when there is a credit squeeze, the mafia and the Camorra have no difficulty finding money. They are flush with it. They have liquidity and this money makes its way into the legal economy.

The moment you cut back on legal means of getting credit, you automatically enlarge the possibility of obtaining illegal credit. The mafia offers loans to struggling companies. If the company is unable to repay the sum, which happens in the near totality of cases, the mafia takes possession but allows the original entrepreneur to remain as the titular head, a man of straw, but introduces its own men to run the business. The company is legal but is run by and for the profit of organised crime.

Do you have an idea how much money the Italian state allocates as part of the national budget to the fight against organised crime?

Difficult to say, because the money gets split up between various policing and investigating agencies — the police, the magistrates, revenue and customs, the security services. It is not more than one or two per cent of the country’s total budget — really very, very little and the Berlusconi government reduced that sum.

And do you have an idea of the number that constitutes the different mafia groups?

Only for the Camorra in Naples and its surroundings, there are over 100 clans or gangs. The Sicilian Mafia has a similar amount or more and we are talking about over a thousand people each time. When you take into consideration that many of these gangs get active support from their families, you realise there are tens of thousands of people working either directly for the mafia or in conjunction with it. The turnover of organised crime is very quick and very large because these organisations always manage to make new affiliations.

The moment we arrest one person, they recruit a replacement. Even if we confiscate their holdings, their companies, houses, buildings, bank accounts or other assets, they find it easy to rebuild their capital. Take the Casalesi clans. These past years they have committed a series of killings. What was the aim? To terrorise the population and to force shopkeepers, companies or others to pay them extortion money. And the fact that they have money during this crisis gives them even greater power to acquire companies that are shaky or in debt. In a crisis, organised crime flourishes. So we cannot really say what the turnover is. It’s an impossible calculation to attempt. Agencies that monitor money-laundering activities suggest that laundered money is equal to two per cent of the world’s GDP each year.

According to you, which of the four big organised crime syndicates of Italy is the most dangerous and most alarming?

It’s difficult to say. The Sacra Corona Unita is actually a breakaway from the Naples Camorra and wishes to establish control in the Puglia region on the east coast. They are involved in people trafficking, smuggling and have links to other organised crime gangs like the Russians, the Japanese the Chinese, the Montenegrins or the Albanians. But I think in terms of sheer brutality, the Calabrese of the Ndrangheta are the worst and of course they are the world’s biggest drug traffickers. Although the Camorra in Naples is fast catching up.

What for you is the most difficult part of the fight — the fact that they have better lawyers, means of communication, faster speedboats, more arms and money? Where do your most flagrant weaknesses lie?

Our best arm against the mafia is the legal arsenal at our disposal. We have excellent laws and these have been tightened. We need to apply them well and we don’t do that. But there are some flagrant weaknesses: the institutional slowness of the penal procedures — not efficient as a deterrent even if the sentence condemning the criminal is finally pronounced. Judicial structures: we simply do not have enough people working for us. And then there is the really serious problem of the pollution of our services and institutions — investigators, judges, policemen, politicians — people who have been bought, corrupted, co-opted with or against their will, and who can give tip-offs to the criminals. And because of the crisis and all these factors, criminal activity is getting worse.

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