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Thriving Mafia sucks hope from Italy’s struggling south

Six companies registered in Malta had their assets seized last July as part of a major clamp-down spearheaded by the Italian police on illegal gaming activities and money laundering linked the Calabrian ’Ndrangheta’. Photo: Chris Sant Fournier

Six companies registered in Malta had their assets seized last July as part of a major clamp-down spearheaded by the Italian police on illegal gaming activities and money laundering linked the Calabrian ’Ndrangheta’. Photo: Chris Sant Fournier

Most southern Italian businessmen do not cross the ’Ndrangheta Mafia. Gaetano Saffioti did, and paid a high price.

The owner of a successful cement business near the small town of Palmi, Saffioti, in 2002 became one of only 30 people to turn state’s witness against Calabria’s ’Ndrangheta.

That year, out of deference to the mobsters or fear, 55 of his 60 employees quit, local banks closed his accounts and his clients shunned him. His company’s sales fell 97 per cent, and he and his family have lived under 24-hour armed guard ever since.

“Most businessmen learn to live with the ’Ndrangheta,” Federico Cafiero de Raho, chief prosecutor in the region’s largest city, Reggio Calabria, said of the crime syndicate with a global reach and deep pockets thanks to narcotics.

“It is the arbiter of who can do what in the economy,” added Cafiero de Raho, whose court resides in a city that even saw its local government dissolved in 2012 because it had been infiltrated by the group.

While the ’Ndrangheta flourishes, Calabria, the poorest of Italy’s 20 regions with a population of almost two million, has seen no benefit for its local economy.

Like the rest of the Mezzogiorno – Italy’s six southern regions plus the islands of Sicily and Sardinia – Calabria has suffered seven straight years of recession and is challenging Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s efforts to fuel a recovery.

From 2008 to 2014, output in Calabria, which forms the toe of Italy’s boot, shrank more than 11 per cent. Unemployment is three times that of the north and annual per capita output is €15,800, the weakest in the country.

In July, Svimez research institute said 744,000 people left the Mezzogiorno between 2001 and 2014, and more than 70 per cent of the emigrants were under the age of 34. The body warned of a “a permanent state of underdevelopment” in a region also home to separate Mafia groups in Sicily, Campania and Puglia.

Renzi has promised to tackle the mob and offer a ‘master plan’ for the withered south in coming weeks. But filing cabinets in Rome are full of failed economic initiatives for the south and well-meaning anti-mob plans that have achieved little.

For Saffioti, the reason growth has stubbornly failed to take root in Calabria is because the ’Ndrangheta chokes it off.

“The ’Ndrangheta wants a hand in everything,” Saffioti, 54, said. “If Calabria were wealthy, there would be no need for the ’Ndrangheta. Real growth would marginalise it.”

Thanks to Saffioti’s testimony and closed circuit video recordings he made when he paid the mob, 48 ’Ndrangheta members from nine different crime families went to jail. According to his own records and testimony, he paid the equivalent of €2.5 million in extortion over 18 years.

If Calabria were wealthy, there would be no need for the ’Ndrangheta. Real growth would marginalise it

He could have fled and assumed a new identity as part of the witness protection programme, but he chose to stay.

Now both his home and adjacent business are surrounded by four-metre concrete walls, barbed wire, towering spotlights and dozens of video cameras. Four police stand on duty.

“It looks like Guantanamo,” quips the bearded and bear-like Saffioti. “But I’m very happy to have rid my life of that scum. I’m a free man now.”

For many, the Italian mob evokes images from the fictional Godfather movies or The Sopranos TV series, but the ’Ndrangheta’s power is real and thriving on the eurozone’s southern periphery in the 21st century.

Over the past two decades, the ’Ndrangheta, which takes its meaning from ‘strong man’ in ancient Greek, has eclipsed its more storied Sicilian cousin Cosa Nostra by becoming Europe’s biggest cocaine broker and establishing criminal colonies across the globe, prosecutor Cafiero de Raho said.

But the ’Ndrangheta business model, he says, requires it to be a local power broker with broad consensus, especially among businessmen, politicians and the Church.

The ’Ndrangheta’s role as an intermediary – from job provider to lender of last resort – dates back to the creation of Italy 150 years ago, when a northern king conquered the south.

The mob has long cultivated a warped sort of colonial mentality where the state is considered a foreign occupier.

“Whoever is born here must follow the unwritten rules of a parallel state. To buy or sell a property or open a business, you go to the ’Ndrangheta, not the bureau of commerce,” Saffioti said, adding that no deal was too small.

Before he turned state’s witness, he had a job pouring concrete in the nearby town of Polistena. Though he was going to earn only some €250 for the work, the local boss, Giovanni Longo, demanded his cut.

“He told me it wasn’t a question of money, but of respect. He said: ‘It’s like when you go visit someone’s home, you knock on the door. You don’t just walk in.”

In 2001, a Mafia hit man shot Longo dead.

David Bumbaca, whose seaside restaurant and bathing area in Locri is just the kind of economic activity the area needs, is weighing up whether his future lies there.

Over the past year, because he refused to pay extortion “as a matter of principle”, two of his cars were burned, two men wearing ski masks tried to beat him up in front of his home, and he received an anonymous letter with a death threat.

“My problems began when I started to be visibly successful,” Bumbaca said, sitting in a shaded corner of his restaurant, which specialises in fresh seafood salad and other local treats.

For now, in part because magistrates and police are among his regular clients, he is holding out. He has reported the threats to police, but he does not want to become a state’s witness like Saffioti.

“I admire the people who make those choices. I just don’t know if I could do it. I want to be with my family and live a safe life. I don’t want to be anyone’s hero,” he said.

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