Italian public officials arrested as police uncover major mafia fraud

Public officials were among 63 people arrested in a major operation targeting Calabria's powerful 'Ndrangheta mafia.

Italian public officials arrested as police uncover major mafia fraud
Police and soldiers outside the Italian National Anti-Mafia Services (DNA) headquarters. File photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

Italian police said on Thursday they had dismantled a major organised crime ring involving public works tenders valued at over 100 million euros ($110 million), including EU funds.

READ ALSO: Mafia set to profit from Italy's coronavirus devastation

Eleven public officials were identified among the 63 people targeted in the operation, codenamed “Waterfront”, against the powerful 'Ndrangheta mafia of southern Italy, Reggio Calabria  financial police said in a statement.

Allegations include public tender fraud, abuse of office, and bribery.

“The aim of the criminal association was to guarantee the control of the entire system of public tenders issued by Calabrian contracting entities,” the statement said.

Fourteen people were placed under house arrest, while police seized the financial assets of 45 suspects and the corporate assets of 36 companies based not only in the south but also around Rome and Tuscany.


Investigators said the cartel was made up of multiple companies “capable of winning – through auction disturbances facilitated by the mafia – at least 22 public tenders, in systematic fraud against the Calabria Region and the European Community.”

Seven of the tenders from 2007 and 2013 involved European Union funds totalling 42 million euros to redevelop urban and waterfront areas near Gioia Tauro, a port city at the toe of Italy's boot.

“Systemic fraud” was also found in related public supplies contracts, police said.

Besides accounting irregularities, investigators also found that complicit contractors had failed to perform quality tests on asphalt to be used in various sports complexes and an underground car park in Gioia Tauro, while concrete intended for sections of highway used “materials of lower quality”
than demanded by the contract.

The 'Ndrangheta, centred in the most southern region of Calabria, has surpassed Sicily's more famous Cosa Nostra to become Italy's most powerful mafia group.

A major police sting in December against the group resulted in the arrest of 334 people, including a police colonel and a former MP.

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How murdered judge Giovanni Falcone shaped Italy’s fight against the mafia

Thirty years ago, the murders of anti-mafia judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino shook Italy and inspired a new generation of anti-mafia crusaders. But judges today warn that the same threat still exists.

How murdered judge Giovanni Falcone shaped Italy's fight against the mafia

When anti-mafia judge Giovanni Falcone was killed by a car bomb 30 years ago in one of Italy’s most infamous murders, his death – and that two months later of fellow magistrate Paolo Borsellino – marked a sea change in the fight against organised crime, prosecutors say.

“It was war and we all felt called up. No-one could afford to look away any longer,” says Palermo prosecutor, Marzia Sabella, remembering the murder of Falcone, his wife and bodyguards by the notorious Cosa Nostra mafia in Sicily on May 23, 1992.

READ ALSO: Italy marks 30-year anniversary of anti-mafia judge murder

The murders inspired a new generation of anti-mafia crusaders who, decades on, risk their own lives daily to carry on Falcone’s and Borsellino’s fight.

Sabella, then 27, was training to become a notary but after the massacre in Capaci, a small town in the province of Palermo, “I suddenly swerved off course towards Palermo’s prosecutors’ office”, she told AFP. “I have never regretted it.”

The deaths of Falcone and Borsellino stunned the country and resulted in tough new anti-mafia laws.

The judges were attributed with revolutionising the understanding of the mafia, working closely with the first informants and compiling evidence to prosecute hundreds of mobsters at the end of the 1980s in a groundbreaking ‘maxi trial’ – with similar trials involving hundreds of defendants still being carried out today.

“Thanks to Falcone and Borsellino, the Sicilian mafia became a notorious fact, not something that had to be proved to exist at every trial,” Sabella said.

Giovanni Falcone (2nd left) surrounded by his bodyguards on October 21st, 1986. Photo by GERARD FOUET / AFP

Judge Roberto Di Bella – who obtained his first posting the day before Borsellino and his police escort were blown to pieces on July 19, 1992 – said the murders “prompted nationwide protests… and a decisive cultural change”.

The 58-year-old, now a judge at the juvenile court in Catania, was assigned an armed escort in 2016 after threats to his life, “which was very difficult, particularly at the start”.

The mob felt able to target Falcone because he was perceived to be isolated after being snubbed for the post of chief magistrate in Palermo in 1988, according to judges, who warn of repeating the same mistakes today.

Those concerns prompted a backlash this month over the failure to name Nicola Gratteri, Italy’s foremost ‘Ndrangheta combatant, as national chief anti-mafia prosecutor.

Choosing someone else “would come across as a dangerous institutional distancing from such an exposed magistrate in the eyes of the mafia”, judge Nino Di Matteo argued before the vote.

It risked creating “the conditions for isolation, the most fertile ground for murders and massacres”, he warned.

READ ALSO: The life and death of Sicilian anti-mafia judge Paolo Borsellino

Giovanni Melillo, an institutional favourite from Foggia, home to Italy’s fourth-largest mafia, was picked instead.

Security services have reportedly just stumbled across fresh plans to assassinate Gratteri, who has been under police guard for 30 years.

Amid fears that not enough is being done, a trade union called last week for a “civilian escort” to help protect and support him.

Falcone’s murder was just one of a string of deadly attacks which abruptly stopped in 1993.

Since then, the Cosa Nostra has been hit repeatedly by mass arrests – but though it has lost much of its power, it is far from vanquished.

And while investigators concentrated on Sicily, other underworld groups flourished, most notably the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta.

Sabella compared the mafia to coronavirus: “If you drop your guard it spreads like before or worse than before.

“If we dropped our guard even for just one month, we’d have to start all over again, collecting the dead from the streets.”