The Mayor Who Took Down the Mafia That Ruined Rome

They stole millions meant for basic services and refugees. How a new mayor uncovered an internal syndicate that’s been strangling the Eternal City for years.

Emil Lendof/The Daily Beast

Over the last few days, Rome has been rocked by a scandal that redefines Italian corruption and explains why one of the world’s most beautiful cities has fallen into a state of degradation.

A new organized-crime syndicate, dubbed Italy’s “fifth Mafia” by the Italian press and “Mafia Capitale” by the police, has been operating for years, it would seem. But rather than using violence to do their damage, they’ve been exploiting Rome’s weakest residents and starving the city of basic amenities like street cleaning and garbage collection, which has made the Eternal City increasingly unlivable—and dangerous. “The investigation into Rome as the mafia capital exposes a disgusting, horrifying situation that goes well beyond even the darkest hypothesis,” consumer-rights group Federconsumatori said.

Italian authorities have arrested 37 people so far, including Massimo Carminati, a 56-year-old one-eyed former neofascist terrorist who allegedly guided a gang of white-collar thugs that bilked the city of hundreds of millions of euros over the last several years. Hundreds of people affiliated with the group are also under investigation, including Rome’s former mayor Gianni Alemanno—an ally of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi—and the man he hired as his anti-corruption tsar, Italo Politano. The president of Rome’s parliament and the head of the city’s public-housing division were also arrested. Authorities have seized more than $250 million in assets from businesses across Rome.

According to transcripts from wiretaps collected over the past year, the group has even been siphoning off profits from refugee centers and bolstering petty criminals, including Gypsies who run unchecked in the city’s high-traffic tourist areas. “Do you have any idea how much I can make on these immigrants?” Carminati wingman Salvatore Buzzi was caught telling an associate, bragging about making a €40 million profit (about $49 million) on everything from migrant housing to fake contracts for liaison services between the Rom and Sinti shelters and city hall. “It’s a lot more profitable than drug-trafficking.”

Laura Boldrini, Italy’s speaker of the lower house and a former United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, expressed her disgust with the overt exploitation of immigrants. “We’re all horrified,” she said. “The investigators need to go all the way with this and clarify the situation because the idea that you can make money on the backs of the weakest and most vulnerable is just disgusting.”

According to prosecutors, Buzzi ran several shell companies that were given contracts for necessary services the city has been left to struggle without—including leaf removal, the lack of which has left cobblestone streets a death trap and caused millions of euros in flood damage from even nominal storms when sewers get stuffed with dead foliage. Investigators have also suggested that the city’s police department and secret services may have complicit members.

The Mafia Capitale investigation began last year, shortly after Ignazio Marino was elected to succeed Alemanno as mayor. Marino described to the foreign press how one of the first things he did when he took over the office was to call the tax police to invite them to check the books. As he had suspected, he said, there had been years of corruption and layers of deceitful action that went back at least three administrations. He found payouts in the hundreds and thousands of euros to people who had no right to them, including settlements to suspicious characters for injuries suffered due to the absence of vital services—all of which were missing because of fake contracts to nonexistent firms who weren’t performing them. “Everything I found I gave to the prosecutors,” he said.

When the criminal group reached out to Marino after his election last June, he handed over incriminating evidence about their methodology and extortion tactics to the cops. When he wouldn’t help keep business as usual as previous mayors allegedly did, Marino suddenly became the center of a banal scandal involving a series of parking violations with his Fiat Panda—which painted him as an inept mayor. Residents of Rome even called for his resignation for defying city ordinances. The scandal, dubbed Panda-gate, was fake all along. “The [wire] interceptions speak for themselves,” Marino said Friday. “I have nothing to add.”

Rome police have now insisted Marino, who is widely known for bicycling around Rome, be put under 24-hour police escort for his own safety. He told reporters that he didn’t agree. “There are more than 1,000 people in Rome right now under police escort, mostly politicians who say they need it out of convenience of always having a car ready for them,” he said. “I’m not sure I want to be part of that.”

The Italian government is said to be considering whether to dissolve Rome’s city government and start over, even though Marino is credited with helping to crack the new mob. Italy’s senate speaker, Piero Grasso, a former anti-mafia prosecutor, said the current city government should stay intact. “It takes more to dissolve a municipality,” he said.

Meanwhile, Marino promises “radical changes” and vows to check every contract the city has—to see if they are valid. “I am proud to be Italian,” he said Friday. “And I’m proud to be the mayor of Rome.”

The Rome mob followed some of the same tenets of Italy’s more famous crime syndicates, including the Cosa Nostra of Sicily, the Camorra of Naples, and the ‘Ndrangheta of Calabria. Its leader, Carminati, was a well-known member of the Armed Revolutionary Nuclei, a group that was accused of bombing the Bologna train station in 1980, which killed more than 80 people. He was also involved with Rome’s notorious Magliana Gang, which was largely snuffed out in the 1980s. When authorities arrested him this week, they confiscated millions of dollars worth of assets, including original works by Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollack. On one wiretap, he described the Mafia Capitale’s involvement in the underworld. “It’s all about the Middle Earth theory,” he said. “You see, up above us are the living and below us are the dead and then there is us, in the middle… and that is a middle world where everybody and everything meets.”