Members of the Italian mafia like to travel abroad – not necessarily for pleasure, but to make money. And the harm they are doing to European economies is often underplayed, trivialized or ignored.
Organized crime groups are good at exploiting business opportunities away from home. Companies set up for money laundering purposes distort European economies because their constant cash flow gives them an unfair advantage in the marketplace.
When I walk around London, I wonder how many of the busy nail bars, shops and restaurants are merely fronts for organized crime. For I was once told by a former member of the Neapolitan mafia: “The ambition for [an Italian] mafia member, is to go abroad, and particularly, England.”
They consider the UK to be an attractive destination because it is relatively easy to set up a company, and its legal system does not recognize “mafia membership” as a crime.
Officials are fighting back with some success, however. In December 2018, hundreds of Dutch, German, Belgian and Italian police officers arrested dozens of members of the powerful Calabrian mafia, the ‘Ndrangheta, on suspicion of drug trafficking and money laundering activities across Europe. They also seized large amounts of drugs and cash from locations including Italian restaurants and ice cream parlours.
An Italian restaurant in Pulheim, west Germany, where police arrested a man suspected of mafia ties. Photo: Oliver Berg/DPA/AFP
But is this too little, too late? Since the 1990s, there have been stark warnings of the harm Italian mafias can inflict on European countries as they exploit opportunities created by globalisation.
In 1991, British police based in Rome warned of the presence of Italian mafias in the UK. Two years later, the French parliament reported on the fight against the mafia’s attempt to penetrate France. Similar warnings were being made in the Netherlands.
But it wasn’t until 2012 that the European Parliament really addressed the situation. The following year, Europol (the European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation) finally published an “Italian Organized Crime Threat Assessment”.
It attempted to fill the “important information gap” which exists around the activities of Italian mafias in Europe. As Europol itself noted, the “difficulty in collecting information” highlights the fact that mafias operate “under the radar” outside Italy.
Finally, in November 2018, Europol set up a specific operational network focusing on Italian mafia activities abroad, with the Italian Anti-Mafia Police playing a leading role.
Photo: Alessandro Fucarini/AFP
This is an important step in the fight against Italian organized crime. But it is worth noting that it was a step mostly driven by Italian law enforcement agencies (whose success has helped to force Italian mafiosi and their money abroad to neighbouring countries) after the initiatives of the European Parliament.
Now their fellow agencies across Europe must develop more efficient and coordinated strategies in response. Yet there appears to be no agreement on the action needed. The European Parliament and Europol remain limited and isolated if the majority of their members still refuse to engage with the problem. As one Italian prosecutor told me:
My job is to investigate Italian mafias and their activities in Italy, not when they travel abroad. If my European colleagues are not interested in following up the information I provide them with on Italian mafia suspects, I cannot do very much more.
Ultimately, there is a lack of understanding across Europe about what mafia membership crime looks like – which can be difficult if you have not witnessed first hand the power of a mafia, and how it imposes itself on society, economics and politics.
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As criminal groups travel and export their activities abroad, there needs to be flexibility around policing. Organized crime groups thrive as borders come down, whereas law enforcement agents appear to flounder when closer international cooperation is required. They become entangled in bureaucratic procedures and cultural misunderstandings. Different legal systems need to work together to avoid situations where criminals can be condemned in one country but go free in another.
We also need to address the lack of political will to tackle organized crime and mafia activities. European politicians engage and seek to defeat terrorism but as far as Italian mafias and organized crime go – and their ability to infiltrate legal economies and launder their proceeds of crime, made more often than not, from drug trafficking – there is no consistent political will to defeat them.
The recent arrests of 'Ndrangheta members across Europe can be seen as a concrete step forward. But it also highlights how far we are behind in terms of understanding and developing a coordinated European strategy to follow Italian mafia money.