Checking the Spread of Criminal Corruption Is Necessary to Protect Italian Democracy

Author’s Note: The following piece was originally drafted back in February, before the massive coronavirus outbreak in Italy. The post was supposed to have been published in early March, but I put it on hold, because I was unsure whether it would be appropriate to publish a piece on criminal corruption in Italy at a time when Italian society has been so devastated by this public health crisis. After considering the issue, I decided to post this piece, in part because it deals with issues that have plagued Italian society in the run-up to the coronavirus outbreak, and that could prove to have significant implications for the handling of coronavirus. In particular, criminal corruption has been linked to the development of inadequate infrastructure, which threatens to have serious consequences in the face of a major public health crisis. To be clear, I have not yet seen any evidence that corruption has played a major role in Italy’s handling of the coronoavirus epidemic. While such evidence might emerge in the future, neither this introductory note or the post that follows should be construed as arguing that corruption is responsible for Italy’s current situation. I encourage all readers of this blog to keep the people of Italy in their hearts as they continue to combat the threat of coronavirus.

Last December, in an operation called Rinascita-Scott, Italian police arrested over 300 suspected members and associates of the ‘Ndrangheta, a mafia-type network based out of the Calabria region. These arrests spanned twelve Italian regions, and were coordinated with arrests in Switzerland, Germany, and Bulgaria. Among the accused were a large number of corrupt public officials—demonstrating the depth of the ‘Ndrangheta’s ties to the Italian political world. For example, Gianluca Callipo, the mayor of the town of Pizzo Calabro and president of the Calabrian branch of the National Association of Italian Municipalities, is accused of leveraging his position to secure provisions favorable to the ‘Ndrangheta’s interests, or to prevent the adoption of measures harmful to those interests, in exchange for electoral support. Similarly, Nicola Adamo, the former regional assessor of Calabria, is under investigation for influence trafficking as a result of his involvement in diverting funds to ‘Ndrangheta affiliates in exchange for votes. And these are not isolated cases. Previous operations in 2019, in the provinces of Val d’Aosta and Emilia Romagna, led to the arrest of several ‘Ndrangheta-connected city counselors, including city council president Giuseppe Caruso, who is accused of using his position in the Customs Agency to fraudulently divert EU funds to members of the ‘Ndrangheta. These operations have demonstrated that the ‘Ndrangheta, which was long considered a somewhat localized Calabrian organization, has entrenched itself in Italian politics, not only penetrating municipal governments throughout Italy and across party lines, but even extending its influence to national politics.

The rise of the ‘Ndrangheta highlights mafias groups’ ongoing ability to corrupt politicians, as well as the importance of developing a national strategy to combat this corruption. The exchange of votes for money and influence trafficking distorts Italian democracy and jeopardizes the provision of public goods to which the Italian people are entitled; moreover, mafia-affiliated businesses that benefit from corrupt public procurement often produce subpar goods that put public safety at risk. And while the successes of Rinascita-Scott and other operations highlights the professionalism and effectiveness of Italy’s antimafia legal institutions—particularly the investigators and prosecutors who specialize in mafia cases—checking the spread of this group will require a multifaceted approach. Both the government entities responsible for regulating elections and the political parties themselves have an important role to play, and could to more to address this clear and present danger to Italian democracy.

  • With respect to government action, in addition to criminal prosecutions, more can and should be done to secure Italian elections. While organized crime groups of course can and does bribe or threaten politicians personally, in many cases the key to the mafias’ power is their ability to mobilize voters in support of allied politicians. Particularly in small municipalities, the ability to guarantee even a small number of votes can give a criminal group considerable power. Moreover, even the perception that voting is controlled by mafia groups risks undermining citizens’ faith in their democratic institutions. To counteract this power, Italy should take visible steps—above and beyond the existing criminal prohibition on mafia association—to ensure the integrity of its elections. One way to do so would be to engage civil society groups to monitor elections, particularly at the municipal level. Election monitors—which would need to be nonpartisan, and might even be international—could be deployed strategically in areas thought to be particularly at risk. Such steps could both limit mafia groups’ leverage and improve the Italian public’s confidence in its local elections.
  • The responsibility to address mafia corruption of Italian politics does not rest with the government authorities alone. The political parties themselves need to take more responsibility and initiative, swiftly and publicly distancing themselves from members who engage in corrupt relations with organized criminal groups. To date, responses to the discovery of mafia ties have been inconsistent, even within parties. In the wake of the investigation of Giuseppe Caruso, Caruso’s party, Fratelli d’Italia, forbade him from taking any party position as long as the proceedings against him were underway, and even indicated its willingness to become a civil party in the case against him. By contrast, Fratelli d’Italia’s response to the arrest of another party member, Giancarlo Pittelli, was muted. Such inconsistency not only risks leaving corrupt actors with access to the levers of government, but also feeds public cynicism that political parties are hopelessly corrupt. Parties should automatically and immediately remove politicians that have been arrested for mafia ties from party positions, at least for the duration of the investigation. While some might object that taking immediate steps against an accused politician is inconsistent with the presumption of innocence, reducing the roles of politicians who have been credibly accused of mafia ties after some measure of official investigation is a reasonable and necessary prophylactic measure. If a politician is cleared, he may be promptly restored to his position. Institutionalizing this practice would help restore faith that parties are not shielding misbehaving members at the expense of the public, while still guaranteeing fair treatment for the accused.

     These and other reforms are vital supplements to existing law enforcement efforts against mafia groups. Operations like Rinascita-Scott are important, but prosecutions alone are not enough. Both Italian government agencies and Italian political parties must do more to check the spread of mafia groups’ influence and to protect Italian democracy from criminal subversion.

8 thoughts on “Checking the Spread of Criminal Corruption Is Necessary to Protect Italian Democracy

  1. Maura, thank you for the interesting and informative post.

    Much of the corruption you discuss appears to be centered around elections and mafia voter mobilization. In your first proposed reform, you mention the need for civil society groups to monitor elections. Are civil society watchdogs more engaged in government oversight separate from election monitoring or could civil society engagement be more robust in combatting corruption, not just during elections but on a regular basis?

    I was also wondering about instances where non-elected public officials engage in corruption, as neither ensuring free and fair elections nor decisive stances from political parties would necessarily address this. Is there substantial corruption among unelected bureaucrats, or is it largely confined to politicians? in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, where civil servants likely have a major role to play in disbursing medical supplies and funds, bureaucratic corruption might be particularly problematic, but I would be curious to hear your thoughts on this.

    • Hi Rachael,

      Thanks for your comments!
      I focus on election monitoring here, given my emphasis on corruption of politicians, but the problem is certainly broader. I think elections present a critical node of criminal activity that should be a first-order priority, however, I would certainly see a role for civil society in monitoring of a wide array of government activities beyond elections. For instance, public procurement is notoriously corrupt and non-governmental actors can provide a very important role in monitoring government transactions.
      This also goes to your second point. Again, I focus on politicians here, but corruption is a bigger problem than this. Bureaucrats, and even private actors are subject to corruption in Italy. And you are right that coronavirus is bringing this to the fore. For instance, there is evidence emerging of mafia groups selling counterfeit medical groups and considerable concern that they will use this opportunity to shore up their local power through making extortionate loans to local businesses in dire straits (see https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/04/06/italys-south-coronavirus-is-not-only-thing-fear/). In order to prevent this, bureaucrats and government agencies will need to be relied on to actively pursue these transactions, so ensuring that these actors are not corrupt is increasingly critical.

  2. Hi Maura,

    Thank you for this very interesting post. I had a question about your recommendation for parties to expel members who are accused of having ties with the mafia. Given the fractious nature of Italian politics, do you foresee the danger of the most prominent expelled politicians forming their own parties and remaining active in Italian politics? Alternatively, would they join other parties – perhaps some whose voters care less about mafia affiliations? Obviously the expulsion from their parties would be a serious penalty, but could this mechanism cause a reorganization of mafia-linked politicians, rather than their disappearance?

    • Hi Eric, it’s a really great point. To be precise, I wouldn’t advocate for kicking accused politicians out of their parties right away, since I think that would violate norms of due process. I would suggest that they should be removed from positions of public trust pending investigation, but this would be a temporary measure at the outset. If the investigation turns up no evidence of wrongdoing, they would need to be restored to their previous positions. Of course, if the investigation turns up evidence of mafia association, the politician should be subject to legal sanction, including criminal prosecution. In all likelihood, many of those who are not guilty will simply ride out their investigation and stay with their party, and many of the guilty will be removed from politics. Of course, some may choose to leave their parties, but given how widespread this problem is across the political spectrum, I’m not sure there will be enough to unite these individuals under a single banner. In addition, I tend to think that there is sufficient distaste in Italy for the mafia to make the establishment of a “mafia-affiliated” party politically difficult. What seems more likely is that politicians who are being investigated will claim that they are victims of persecution by their enemies (a la Berlusconi). If investigations become seen as unfair, this could undermine trust in the parties’ ability to self-police. It is a very delicate balance, and one parties will probably struggle with, but I suspect the only way this can work is if it is applied consistently and transparently.

  3. Hi Maura, thanks for another great post. As someone that focuses on a region with similar mafia and corruption-related issues, I appreciate you outlining some best practices that could be helpful in Italy but also apply to broader regional contexts. I was particularly interested in your election-related recommendations. I think election integrity is extremely important but also very hard to protect, especially at the municipal level. How would the election monitoring play out in practice? I do believe that having observers present at polling stations on election day is beneficial in deterring election tampering, but in many places the vote buying or pressuring happens long before election day and is thus much harder to address. Crafty criminals and politicians sometimes employ a practice where voters are given a pre-filled out ballot to cast. The voter then brings out the blank ballot they received at the polling station to present to the party (showing that they did in fact cast the pre-filled out ballot). I was wondering if this happens in Italy. Lastly, in many countries, local employment is contingent on party loyalty. I wonder if citizens would still vote for the parties with mafia-connections out of fear, including fear of employment retribution or physical harm. Could better election monitoring begin to address this more systemic issue or at least make individuals feel safer in voting against these parties?

    • Thanks for this comment Duffy. It’s true, election monitoring in this context is certainly complicated by the fact that a great deal of the relevent undue influence takes place before voters get to the ballot box. I’d argue that this speaks to the importance of having local groups involved in the election-monitoring process, since they are often best-positioned to recognize signs of voter intimidation or election interference prior to the casting of ballots. Of course, even this is imperfect since, as you rightly point out, it may not always be necessary for mafia groups to directly demand certain voting behavior. In many cases, individuals may know who they “need” to vote for without any obvious pressure. That’s a much harder problem, and one that will need to be tackled with more than just election monitoring. Breaking mafia links to power, undermining the ability of mafiosi to secure corrupt procurement deals and actively prosecuting organized crime are all needed to ensure that citizens do not feel a sense of obligation to vote for mafia candidates. I don’t think election monitoring can fix all of that, but it may help to create spaces in which individuals feel more secure in the secrecy of their ballots and can offer an opportunity for civilians to reject mafia involvement in politics. Such electoral security is necessary but not sufficient to undermining the broader system of mafia corruption.

  4. Hi Maura. Thank you very much for this very interesting post. Your recommendations are really good. However, I would like to know if mafia organizations play any role in financing electoral campaigns of politicians. Perhaps better control, more effective supervision, or even efficient investigations on electoral funds might help to hamper the relationship between mafia and politics.

    • Hi Rodrigo,
      Thanks for this comment. You are absolutely right to point this out. Mafia organizations have historically been important funders of political parties, and there is evidence that this continues. I didn’t discuss it here, but the criminal justice system does address this problem, and Italy has a pretty well-developed investigative apparatus which is absolutely essential to the success of these efforts. Elected officials who accept money from the mafia are subject to very severe criminal penalties under law 416-ter. I admit that I’m not too well-versed in how campaign finances work, particularly at the municipal level. However, I suspect that in terms of preventive measures, there are additional improvements that could be made, including along the lines you suggest.

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