Beating 'er sistema', the fight against organised crime

Picture from Wikipedia: Giovanni Falcone and fellow magistrate Paolo Borsellino

ROME - When it comes to fighting organised crime, Italy has the expertise.

 Roman authorities are currently demolishing the illegally built villas of the Casamonica clan, the mob family who controls parts of Rome and its province. Mayor Virginia Raggi attended the first demolishing. Interior minister Matteo Salvini even operated a bulldozer. Prior to the demolitions, police officers took pictures of a golden cradle, ornate four-posters, marble bathrooms and ebony statues to show the world that Lazio, like Campania, Calabria and Sicily, has its own mafia.

 Earlier this month, the “Istituto Italiano di Cultura” proposed two interrelated events on organized crime: on Nov. 13, the institute together with the Italian embassy and the Free University of Brussels held a round table on the international fight against organized crime; a week earlier, the institute itself hosted a debate on journalists who investigate criminal organisations.

 “Organised crime is a transnational business,” Italy’s ambassador to Belgium, Elena Basile, kicked off in a chock-full auditorium. She stressed the need for harmonising legislation across countries and sharing best practices among police forces. “Because,” she concluded her introduction, “mafia does not equal Italy.”

 According to Brian Donald, Europol’s Chief of Staff, about 5,000 criminal organisations are operating throughout the EU. Some organisations, like the ‘ndrangheta from rural Calabria, even operate on a global scale.

 Hence why every country should ratify the Palermo convention: the UN’s multilateral treaty against transnational organised crime acts as a legal basis for joint investigations, mutual legal assistance, law enforcement cooperation and international cooperation for the purpose of confiscation. “Criminal organisations tend to take the path of least resistance,” remarked Federcio Cafiero De Raho, Italy’s national anti-mafia prosecutor. Unfortunately, international police collaboration often conflicts with state sovereignty.

 During the round table talks, every guest speaker more than once highlighted Italy’s unique expertise in fighting organised crime. For instance, the country inspired Europol’s pan-European fugitive search network.

 “Italy’s history is one of magistrates fighting criminal organisations,” pointed out Italy’s national anti-mafia prosecutor. After the round table, Caterina Chinicci would attend the screening of a feature movie on her father, anti-mafia magistrate Rocco Chinicci. In the early Eighties, Rocco Chinicci created an anti-mafia pool: a group of magistrates shared all details of a case in order to prevent the loss of information lest the magistrate handling the case would perish. A couple of years later, Chinicci was killed by a car bomb.

 At the time, another member of this pool, Giovanni Falcone, already recognised the need for countries to collaborate –in a sense, Falcone initiated the Palermo convention. Europol, which stands for “European Police Office”, was created in 1999 precisely to foster such collaboration. The office acts as a hub for European police forces. It facilitates information sharing and interconnects multiple information systems. Italian anti-mafia authorities already created a central database that was available to local offices back in 1992.

 “Lately, Europol has been adopting a more horizontal approach. I.e. follow the money,” Brian Donald explained. This horizontal approach echoes the approach of another member of the anti-mafia pool, Paolo Borsellino. In order to expose criminal organisations, Paolo Borsellino looked for activities that traditionally are not mafia-related, economic activities in particular.

 Finally, the Italian ambassador remarked that Italy adopts an utmost powerful practice in the fight against organised crime: Italian authorities may confiscate assets of criminals without convicting them. Like the cars and furniture of the Casamonica clan. This practice still is unique in Europe.

 Even now that every European country has signed the Palermo convention, there is still a need for harmonising national and supra-national legislation. Recently, the EU Court of Justice condemned the Italian state: the court judged that the Italian state had mistreated a prisoner, a “capo” who was being hospitalised, by depriving him of all contact with the outside world. Yet Italy’s anti-mafia authorities know from experience that mob heads keep running their business even when in prison.

 A week earlier, the debate in the “Istituto Italiano di Cultura” revealed that, besides advanced legislation and unique expertise in the fight against organised crime, Italy also offers exhaustive protection to journalists who receive threats from criminal organisations. Currently, 20 journalists are benefiting from state protection, the most famous of them being Roberto “Gomorra” Saviano.

 Three journalists have been murdered in the EU last year. All three of them were investigating organised crime. Ján Kusiak for instance was investigating activities of the ‘ndrangheta in Slovakia. According to Alberto Spampinato probably none of these journalists would have died if (s)he had been working in Italy. “Actually, most Italian journalists who lose their lives because of their work do so abroad.” Spampinato heads “Ossigeno”, an association that assists investigative journalists who are under threat.

 “Ossigeno” assists Federica Angeli, a journalist from Ostia who is living under protection. During the debate, Miss Angeli indicated she prefers fieldwork to desk study. For example, she went three months undercover in order to investigate illegal dogfights. In 2013, she wanted to find out whether or not local crime in her hometown qualified for mafia activity. Hereto she would apply article 416-bis, the article of Italian penal law that lists the criteria for an organization to be considered as mafia. Miss Angeli concluded that each of the three clans that rule the seaside town near Rome meets all criteria. For example, during her investigations she witnessed a civil servant ensuring a member of the Spada clan he would obtain the licence for a kiosk on the coast. The licence belonged to a family who had been running the kiosk for 30 years. When she witnessed an attempted double homicide, the Spada clan, who is related to the Casamonicas, threatened her and her family.

 Miss Angeli’s employer did not take the threats seriously and for two years did not make public that one of his employees was under threat. When asked as to why her employer ignored the threats, Miss Angeli evoked two reasons: “In the first place because I am a woman. In the second place because nobody believed Rome had its own mafia.”

 Only since a Spada clan member headbutted a –male– journalist live on national television, Italy recognises Rome has its own organised crime. Fabrice Rizzoli, professor at Paris’ Sorbonne University and specialised in Italian organised crime, confirmed Miss Angeli’s second statement. He put forward that organised crime is not perceived as long as there is no criminal conviction of the kind. Rome has known activity from mafia clans from the South of Italy, but it was always assumed to not have a mafia clan of its own –even the notorious Magliana gang has never been convicted for mafia activities.

 Comparing Italy to other countries, professor Rizzoli remarked that, e.g. in France, transcripts of trials against criminal organisations are not available. Italy on the contrary records every single telephone conversation and keeps it for a period of six years. Telephone hearings of mobsters threatening journalists even make it to the internet.

 The Italian government protection programme transfers journalists to parts of the country different from the one where they live and work. This often results in immense solitude and inability to work. Miss Angeli, however, decided to stay in her hometown. “I won’t leave,” she said. “They will.”