Crime Wave

Italy’s Mob Extends Its Reach Into Daily Life

Organized crime in Italy has extended its reach into nearly every aspect of life, from coffee to livestock—and the recession is only making it stronger. By Barbie Latza Nadeau

07.29.12 8:45 AM ET

Every four hours, seven days a week, one of Italy’s organized-crime syndicates commits an unforgiveable offense against the environment. The crimes by the eco-mafia and agro-mafia run the gamut from the blatant dumping of toxic chemicals on protected national parkland and working farmland to the more subtle influence the mob has on everything from trucking and transportation to the illicit importation of fillers used in coffee, pasta, and even sugar.

“Coffee, water, fruit, bread, milk, meat, cheese, and even biscuits are all products of organized crime,” says author and journalist Roberto Saviano, who lives under police protection after receiving death threats from the Neapolitan Camorra, one of Italy's Naples-based organized-crime syndicates. Other groups include Sicily's Cosa Nostra and Calabria-based 'Ndrangheta. “The breadbasket of the Camorra, Cosa Nostra, the 'Ndrangheta touches every aspect of a typical day of an ordinary citizen. Every gesture, from the first that we do in the morning until dinner, may enrich the clan without our knowledge.”

Earlier this month, Italy’s foremost environmental group, Legambiente, issued its annual eco-mafia report on the mob’s illicit impact on the environment in 2011. Not only did eco-mafia crimes grow by 10 percent over the previous year but new categories were created, meaning the mob’s tentacles have reached even further into the fabric of Italian society thanks to a burgeoning economic crisis. 

When banks and financial institutions are unwilling to help out small businesses, the mob fills the vacuum. Collectively, Italy’s various mob rings earned €16.6 billion in 2011, an astonishing figure considering the country’s deep recession. Nearly 20 local governments across Italy were taken over by mafia infiltration, according to the report, and there is a worrying increase in the illegal trafficking of art and lifestock, not to mention the rogue burning of over 150,000 acres of land to clear the way for illegal construction. According to Saviano, who wrote the preface for the eco-mafia report, no one cares. “The clans’ impact has been forgotten, removed, erased from the collective memory,” he says. “No one even remembers when this phenomenon started, it is so common now, like a faraway ghost.”

In all, there were 33,817 known infractions against the environment in 2011, mostly centered in Italy’s southern provinces of Campania, Puglia, Calabria, and Sicily. But despite the increase in crimes, there was a decrease in investigations and arrests–especially in the illegal trafficking of waste, which is the mob’s primary business. Both Naples and Rome are teetering on the edge of serious garbage crises, unmanageable by the local governments that are unable to build adequate landfills and incinerators because of the dense population in the cities’ hinterlands. The report suggests the mob may be holding both cities hostage, which it says explains why the number of investigations into known crimes like the illegal dumping of toxins may be down. 

Another worrying indicator underscoring Italy’s complicated relationship with organized crime is the steady increase in allegations of crimes within the gastronomic sector. Last week, Giuseppe Mandara, often called the “Armani of Mozzarella” for his influence in shaping the wide popularity of buffalo mozzarella in the global market, was arrested on suspicion of Mafia collusion for allegedly entering into an illicit business arrangement with the Camorra’s powerful Casalesi clan. Mandara’s group, which exports the famous cheese worldwide, is one of Italy's most important mozzarella makers. The $123 million company was seized by Italian police last week, stopping production and exports. In addition to being accused of mafia collusion, Mandara is also under investigation for threatening public health by allowing the contamination of two tons of mozzarella with ceramic fragments from a broken piece of machinery. He is also accused of cutting corners in the production of his famous cheese, in some cases using cow’s milk instead of the richer buffalo milk that gives the cheese its creamy texture. 

In an article in Monday’s La Repubblica, Saviano painted a disturbing picture of just how integrated the mob has become in the lives of citizens by tracing its imprint on everything an average Italian consumes in one day, starting with a cup of espresso coffee, which, he says, has likely been mixed with illegally imported coffee beans. Even the sugar is contaminated or, at the very least, illegally imported. Saviano says Italian durum wheat in the pasta is actually from somewhere else, and the meat Italians eat has likely been raised on contaminated land or butchered by someone mob-affiliated. 

“The clans have their feet firmly rooted in this country, its provinces, in the land, in its things,” Saviano says. “Starting with our basic needs like food and daily bread … a sad fate for Italian excellence.”