Over five years ago, in November of 2014, Rome’s mayor, Ignazio Marino, blew the whistle on a massive corruption scheme in the city’s administration. Marino had become particularly suspicious of Salvatore Buzzi, the leftwing leader of a cooperative that controlled, among other things, the city’s recycling, trash disposal, and street cleaning services. Buzzi had been imprisoned in the 1980s for homicide, but was supposedly a thoroughly reformed champion of progressive causes. In fact, he was the right-hand man of Massimo Carminati, a former member of a neofascist terrorist group. Using collusion, exchange of favors, extortion, and intimidation, Carminati and Buzzi diverted hundreds of millions of euros intended for the improvement of Rome’s infrastructure to private bank accounts. And if this wasn’t enough, the group even skimmed resources from housing projects designed to shelter refugees, with Buzzi famously caught on a telephone intercept saying “Do you have any idea how much I earn on these immigrants? They’re more profitable than drugs.”
In sum, these Roman criminal groups, which are popularly known as Mondo di Mezzo (the World Between) or Mafia Capitale (Capital Mafia), had thoroughly infiltrated Rome’s municipal government. Indeed, their connections reached the upper echelons of Roman government, including former mayor Gianni Alemanno, who was ultimately convicted of corruption and illicit funding. Buzzi and Carminati, along with more than 40 other individuals, were ultimately brought to trial over these crimes. Prosecutors under magistrate Giuseppe Pignatone pushed for this organization to be recognized as a mafia—which is important, because under Italian law, there is a special, and especially severe, set of criminal laws reserved for mafia members and mafia-type associations. This past October, however, the Italian Court of Cassation ruled that the Mondo di Mezzo did not qualify, legally, as a mafia-type association (associazione di tipo mafioso).
This ruling has been controversial, and indeed much of the attention that Mondo di Mezzo has received has been based on the “mafia” element of this case. But whether or not Mondo di Mezzo is a mafia, this case has revealed the Italian capital’s vulnerability to corruption by organized criminal networks. In the words of Pignatone, the mafia is not Rome’s first problem. Instead, the most serious issues “are the crimes against the public administration and the economy. It is corruption, auction disruptions, bankruptcies, multimillion-dollar frauds. Mafia Capitale is just a piece of a much larger and more complicated mosaic.” And Mondo di Mezzo demonstrates that Italy must take concrete action to reduce the vulnerability of municipal governments to infiltration by criminal groups.
Italy’s new Spazzacorrotti law takes some steps to address these vulnerabilities. For instance, this law implements a life-long ban on serving in public administration or holding public office for individuals who have been convicted of the most serious corruption-related crimes, including embezzlement, corruption in judicial proceedings, and trafficking in illegal influence. However, these solutions are mostly reactive, and do relatively little to prevent the corruption of politicians who don’t have a criminal record. Several weaknesses remaining within the Italian system should be the focus of reform efforts moving forward.
- First, public procurement is generally perceived as one of the more corrupt aspects of Italian politics, and Mondo di Mezzo has highlighted the ways in which municipal government contracts can be taken over by criminal interests. The fact that Buzzi was able to receive significant government contracts for many years despite his criminal record and associates shows that municipal public procurement requires significantly increased oversight to protect against criminal infiltration.
- Second, Mondo di Mezzo owed much of its success to the ability of the criminal network to secure high-level public jobs for its associates. This included placing a lawyer on the Board of Governors of Rome’s main public company, AMA Ltd, as well as the head of the Municipal Commission of Transparency. The ability of criminal groups to secure the appointment of their own allies to such high-level positions suggests the need for far greater scrutiny of public appointments, particularly in the municipal context.
- Finally, one of the striking features of the Mondo di Mezzo case was the degree to which nearly all political parties were implicated. The ubiquity of corruption among parties reduces the incentives for any one party to risk actively undertaking reform. Indeed, Ignazio Marino, the center-left mayor who blew the whistle on Mondo di Mezzo, was considered an outsider within his party. Marino reported experiencing considerable harassment from all sides, and was forced out of office in the wake of the scandal. Since Marino’s ouster, the relatively new 5-Star Movement, a populist party that campaigns on an anticorruption platform, has held the mayor’s office in Rome. However, 5-Star’s fractious nature and recent allegations of corruption within its ranks call into question this movement’s ability to counter the embedded cultures of corruption.
Ultimately, Mondo di Mezzo is a wake-up call to the susceptibility of Italian government and public administration to corruption by organized criminal groups. Moving forward, it is important that Italian municipalities remain on guard against such groups and begin to take steps to address the vulnerabilities that Mondo di Mezzo revealed.