Italy's mafias swap cement collars for white collars

Rome (AFP) - Italy's mafia syndicates are increasingly eschewing violent crime as they seek to infiltrate the business and political worlds to make money, the head of the country's anti-mob police agency (DIA) said Tuesday.

DIA chief Nunzio Antonio Ferla said the number of homicides thought to be the work of organised crime groups had declined significantly in the last ten to 15 years.

"But the various mafia groups have shown themselves to be extraordinary adept at fitting it to every region and every social milieu," Ferla told an end-of-year briefing for the media on where Italy stands in its fight against groups like Sicily's Cosa Nostra, Naples' Camorra and Calabria's 'NDrangheta.

As a result of this "powerful and ever changing" enemy, the DIA's work is now increasingly focused on "checking tender processes, combatting money laundering and the acquisition of assets with funds raised through crime."

Italian authorities confiscated assets ranging from works of art to luxury villas worth a total of 2.6 billion euros ($2.8 billion) in 2015 -- around a fifth of which have been definitively declared state property.

Matteo Piantedosi, deputy chief of the National Police, said a particular and successful effort had been made to prevent this year's World Expo in Milan being targeted by mafia groups and that the model used would be applied to similar large events in the future.

"The mafia is killing less but corrupting more," said Rosy Bindi, a lawmaker who chairs the Italian parliament's anti-mafia commission.

Mafia infiltration of apparently clean businesses has been underlined this year by arrests in northern Italy which have confirmed that the 'NDrangheta, credited with controlling much of the world's cocaine trade, has been putting down roots in the richer regions of the country for at least the last three decades.

Police believe they are using legitimate activities in the north to recycle the huge amounts of cash that their illicit drugs business generates.

- Investing dirty money -

The last year has also seen Rome shaken by revelations that the city administration had, for years, been infiltrated by a mafia-style network which siphoned off millions of euros destined for public services.

Leading members of the alleged Mafia Capitale network are currently on trial on charges of criminal association.

Although corruption in Italy is a much broader problem than simply the existence of mafia groups, Piantedosi said they had a disproportionate impact on the country's image, deterring badly-needed inward investment.

Italy ranked 69th in a 2014 table of 175 countries ranked according to perceptions of corruption by NGO Transparency International.

A World Bank study calculated the impact of concerns about the influence of the mafia at 16 billion euros in lost investment between 2006 and 2012.

Ferla said arrests of mobsters were now most likely to occur as a result of them trying to spend their ill-gotten gains.

"It is the moment when they seek to invest their dirty money that the mafia are weakest," he said.

Thanks to a Bank of Italy system known as SOS (Signalisation of Suspect Operations), police get regular tip-offs about bank clients who suddenly become rich without any apparent explanation.

Following up such leads is an increasingly important part of anti-mafia police work, but the Italian authorities also continue to track down known mobsters on the run and to apply punitive sentences and asset seizures which run contrary to Italy's otherwise liberal penal system.