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. Continue reading