ROME (Reuters) - Italy’s mafia clans are taking advantage of the coronavirus pandemic to buy favour with poor families facing financial ruin, prosecutors and officials say, and are offering loans and food in what is seen as an age-old recruitment tactic.
After decades of campaigning to curb the influence of the mafia in its traditional strongholds of southern Italy, officials and charitable groups say the pandemic has created new opportunities for organised crime to regain people’s loyalties.
“We know that ‘families of friends’, all of them loan sharks, are making themselves available to give money to the people in difficulty,” said Amedeo Scaramella, using a euphemism by which clans of the Camorra criminal syndicate are known.
Scaramella, a lawyer by training, heads the San Giuseppe Moscato Foundation, a Catholic group in Naples that fights loan sharking, in part by guaranteeing bank loans to people normally considered credit risks.
He told Reuters the sharks start by offering loans at rates that compete with banks and later entrap borrowers by driving them up to 300%.
Federico Cafiero De Raho, Italy’s national anti-mafia prosecutor, said his agents had noticed suspicious activity in Naples including Camorra clans distributing free food to families left short on cash by the national lockdown.
“We have evidence,” De Raho told Reuters, declining to give details because investigations are ongoing.
Past experience suggests the mob could seek repayment for such largesse in the future by asking recipients to take on activities such as transporting drugs, he said.
“The Camorra knows this is the right time to invest.”
Naples charity worker Antonio Lucidi said his charity “L’Altra Napoli” (The Other Naples) has raised more than 150,000 euros ($163,065) to deliver food to needy families so they won’t have to accept it from the mob during the lockdown.
“When hunger becomes a real issue, it’s hard to resist temptation,” he told Reuters.
Italy’s government has promised 400 million euros of welfare for the poor, including issuing food coupons for those who cannot afford to shop.
Officials believe the coronavirus has badly disrupted the mob economy, in part because the shutdown has made it hard for criminals to move around.
“The collapse of drug dealing is causing serious damage,” said Michele Emiliano, the governor of the southern Puglia region and a former magistrate.
Nicola Gratteri, one of Italy’s best-known prosecutors who lives with a 24-hour police escort because of his investigations of the ‘Ndrangheta clans in southern Calabria, said the mob was more than willing to help small businesses stay afloat now or start up again later.
“Mobsters can buy these properties (if loans are not repaid) and use them for money laundering,” he told Reuters. “Mobsters want less guarantees on loans, because for them the main guarantee is the life of the victim.”
Editing by Philip Pullella and Mike Collett-White