Downturn May Tighten Mafia Grip on Italy's Economy

Italian shopkeepers pay about 250 million euros a day to Mafia protection rackets and loan sharks and fear the current downturn could allow the mob to further tighten its stranglehold on the vulnerable economy.

The warning came on Tuesday from the Italian shopkeepers' association Confesercenti, many of whose members are frightened into paying the "pizzo" -- as protection money is known -- to the various regional crime groups in southern Italy.

"The economic crisis makes the Mafia even more dangerous," said Confesercenti Chairman Marco Venturi, presenting a study called "Crime's Hold on Business."

"Mafia businesses threaten to use the economy's weakness and uncertainty to strengthen their position," he said, urging banks and government to secure credit so that desperate firms do not turn to loan sharks, though an estimated 180,000 already have.

The four biggest mafias -- Calabria's 'Ndrangheta, Sicily's Cosa Nostra, Naples' Camorra and Puglia's Sacra Corona Unita -- make up "a huge holding company with total turnover of about 130 billion euros ($165.6 billion) and profits approaching 70 billion euros."

This chimes with recent data suggesting that these groups' combined earnings would make them the biggest company in Italy, equivalent to a large chunk of the country's economic output.

Interior Minister Roberto Maroni said last month that the 'Ndrangheta alone, which, with its hold on the European drugs market, has outgrown the Cosa Nostra, makes 45 billion euros a year, which he said was "almost 3 percent of GDP."

The new study focused on Mafia activities directly relating to the business world, from protection money and usury to night clubs, restaurants, building, butchers, fish markets, bakeries and even funerals -- a commercial empire worth about 92 billion euros a year or 6 percent of the economy, the association said.

"Every day a huge mass of money goes out of the pockets of Italian shopkeepers and entrepreneurs and into those of the mafias, something like 250 million euros a day, 10 million an hour and 160,000 a minute," said Confesercenti.

Executive Pay

The study, drawing on information from Confesercenti's huge network of members and its own Mafia research arm, SOS Impresa, even gave estimates of pay structures in the mob, ranging from 10,000-40,000 euros a month earned by a "Clan chief or CEO" to the 1,500 euros paid to a racket "enforcer" or a drug pusher.


It detailed the going rates for protection money in Sicily and Naples, with building sites forking out 10,000 euros a month to avoid sabotage, supermarkets 3,000-5,000 a month, small shops 200-500 and market stalls handing over a few euros a day.

There were stomach-churning tales of the mafia in the food industry, from shady butchers repackaging rotten salami or meat from diseased livestock to bakeries using unsafe fuel for ovens -- "in some cases wood from coffins after bodies were exhumed."

Italy's center-right prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, has promised to deal decisively with organized crime, as grass-roots movements in Sicily and Naples increasingly urge businesses to refuse to pay the "pizzo," despite the threat of violence.

But Confesercenti warned against the "double morality" of some businesses who obey "the rules of the state and the market when they operate in northern central Italy but adapt very easily to mafia rules if they have interests in southern Italy."