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.