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.
Thanks Maura for your great post on the complicated nature of Italy’s attempts to combat corruption. I was particularly interested in your highlighting of public procurement issues in Rome. This avenue for corruption seems to be one of the hardest areas to regulate as crafty individuals and criminal networks seem to find loopholes and ways to exploit the procurement process even with strengthened safeguards and new laws. Could you speak a bit more about what kind of oversight you envision that would deter corruption? Is there a successful national model the municipality could learn from? Do you think a technological solution would be helpful to make public procurement processes harder to manipulate? I also had a question about Marino. You mentioned he was a political outsider and that he was in fact “punished” for speaking out. Are there many other politicians like him or reformers who are truly committing themselves to anti-corruption reform in Italy, instead of just paying lip service to the idea?
Hi Megan, thank you so much for your comments and questions. I agree with you that addressing the issue of corruption in public procurement is incredibly difficult and complicated. I think the solution will ultimately have to be very multi-faceted to be successful, probably combining enhanced penalties for those who engage in corrupt procurements with enhanced efficiency of the judicial system (as I discussed in my first post, a lot of the problems of corruption in Italy are tied to the impunity of those who are never really punished by the country’s judicial system). So in this sense, I think the current system could provide a lot of the necessary oversight if it was also better placed to institute punishment. I also agree that a technological solution may help to provide oversight. Italian law currently requires transparency in public procurement, but greater digitalization of bids, perhaps combined with some system of automation for awarding contracts could offer some promise. I admit I’m not expert in the technicalities, so I would want to give this some more thought before commenting on possible tradeoffs. As far as anti-corruption leaders, it is a bit hard to say. I was hopeful that Five Star might prove itself successful on this front, and it did initially offer some promising political figures. For instance, Rome’s current mayor, Virginia Raggi, campaigned largely as an anti-corruption leader. And Five Star has had some successes, including the Spazzacorrotti law. With that said, many of those who have been seen as anti-corruption reformers ultimately end up proving to be involved in corruption. A lot of the work that is being done to address this issue is coming out of ANAC (the National Anticorruption Authority). And in terms of criminal corruption specifically, innovative judges and prosecutors are key. I would include Pignatone in that list, as well as Nicola Gratteri, the chief prosecutor in Catanzaro, who recently oversaw a massive arrest of members of the ‘Ndrangheta (Calabrian mafia), which included members of the police and former MPs.
Italian superior courts are more similar to Brazilian superior courts than one can imagine; ultimately, they end up issuing decisions that benefit corrupt defendants and corruption at large. In this situation, the Court of Cassation’s ruling overlooks that systemic corruption schemes, like that of Mafia Capitale, are based on rules of silence (omertá) and on reciprocal coercion (intimidation) to make unlawful arrangements work continuously, resulting in the control over an economic activity or a public service, as any mafia association. That was a significant defeat to anti-corruption efforts. But unfortunately, it is not surprising in countries where corruption is pervasive, like Italia and Brazil.