US, WASHINGTON (ORDO NEWS) — At first they act kindly. A friendly hand on his shoulder, extended bills, a telephone message: “You know that you can count on us.” The victim agrees. Debts choke her, and she sees salvation in a generous visitor. But after a few months, he comes for debt (at a bloated rate of up to 1,000%) and, if necessary, can threaten with a weapon.
After the appearance of covid-19 in Italy in February this year, such “good Samaritans”, the most important wheels in the mafia mechanism, launched a storm of activity. “Pawnbrokers are more active than ever in times of crisis, such as economic downturns and natural disasters,” said prosecutor Alessandra Dolchi, head of the anti-mafia department in Milan. “The covid-19 crisis caused the mafia a unique opportunity to strengthen power.” On its territory (the center of the prosperous part of Italy, which was especially badly affected by the pandemic), the mafiosi of the Ndrangheta group were among the first to offer money (loans up to 300,000 euros) to entrepreneurs on the verge of bankruptcy.
All of them are doing fine work. Both in the north and in the south of the peninsula, they tailor the offer to their needs and know how to become irreplaceable. So, in early April, the brother of the mafia boss sitting behind bars was noticed on the periphery of Palermo (Sicily), distributing baskets of food to the poorest. Be that as it may, the help was by no means disinterested: its recipients now owe generous patrons.
According to the Italian Ministry of Internal Affairs, usury is the only type of criminal activity that has shown growth during the pandemic period: + 9.6% since the end of March. All this caused alarm among such famous fighters with the mafia as the writer Roberto Saviano and the prosecutor Nicola Gratteri. According to estimates by the Chamber of Commerce of Rome, the risk of contacting a usurer increased by 50% in May, which was facilitated by a partial resumption of commercial activity.
“Thanks to the proceeds of drug trafficking, organized crime can respond to the needs of people in need or businesses that are in a difficult situation by replacing banks and the state,” says the Milan prosecutor, not hiding his concern as “usually prosperous entrepreneurs from the tourism and hotel industry business and construction, for the first time in their life they associate with mafia groups. ” According to the investigation, these same clans penetrated the market of sanitary products (in particular, the import of masks) and the disposal of hospital waste in Lombardy.
Their financial reserves seem inexhaustible. In recent weeks, police have not only revealed unusually large-scale operations to deliver drugs to the peninsula, but also found large amounts of cash. So, on June 8, they got into their hands 15 million euros in banknotes, which were in 28 boxes in a hiding place in a Milan apartment of a drug dealer.
“The use of such illicit financing is largely due to a lack of confidence in a shaky banking system,” said Luigi Cuomo, director of SOS Impresa, which helps enterprises that find themselves in the grip of money lenders. As noted by the Federation of Businessmen, the emergency assistance promised by the state (including a loan of 25,000 euros) is insufficient and belated. In addition, banks may refuse to provide it at all, which involves a number of draconian criteria.
A few months later, when the time comes to pay, the guardian angel turns into a devil, a “friend” who will visit the store every day, get acquainted with all his bookkeeping, and also find out the names of the debtor’s children … “Usury is a psychological crime,” Luigi believes Cuomo. “The victim is in the hands of the tormentor, as in the Stockholm syndrome.”
By signing such an agreement with the devil, debtors inevitably plunge into the ruthless mafia world. “Gradually, they lose their freedom and tranquility,” explains Vincenza Rando’s lawyer. Her mafia association Libera has opened a hotline for collecting evidence. It does not enjoy much popularity, since mutual responsibility reigns everywhere. “Now we get four to five calls a day from frightened citizens. They say that the mafia contacted them … But no one dares to name the usurer.”
Few people are willing to openly go against such creditors, who may be associated with the most dangerous clans of the country. At the same time, injections of dirty money (estimated at 30 billion euros per year in Italy) form the basis of the control of mafia structures over business. Experts even consider the presence of usury in a certain territory as a sign of the rooting of organized crime on it.
Luigi Ferrucci, the owner of a seaside bar from the famous mafia town of Castel-Volturno (located near Naples), became one of the few businessmen who had the courage to speak out against criminal exactions. “It was 2009, shortly before Christmas,” he recalls. – A young man of 19 years demanded 1,000 euros from me. I refused. The next day he came with the head of the clan and threatened to smash my head. ” Luigi Ferrucci told them to the police. Since then, no one else has tried to racket him. He believes that extortion and usury go hand in hand – mafiosi use one or the other depending on the state of affairs in the economy.
Today, he leads the Federation of Racket and Usury Associations. This summer seems to him a difficult period, not only because of sanitary measures and the lack of tourists: “Racketeers usually appear three times a year: before Christmas, Easter and the Assumption. Since everything was closed at Easter, they will try to catch up at the new opportunity. Moreover, they are likely to be even more persistent than usual.”
The tactics of combining usury and extortion arose a very long time ago. “Since the end of the 19th century, extortion has been developing in Sicily’s society and economy, in particular in the trade in citrus fruits,” recalls General Giuseppe Governale, head of the Investigative Office to Combat the Mafia. “As yesterday, and today, especially during this period of the pandemic, usury helps maintain tight control over the territory and strengthen a certain social consensus.” According to our information, the new management report (scheduled for release in mid-July) will contain a special chapter, covid-19, on how such mercenary solidarity allowed criminal groups to strengthen their positions, occupy new territories and ensure people’s loyalty.
Vincenzo the Mad and His Fiat Panda
Operation Libera Fortezza may serve as a case in point. It was launched on June 16 by the anti-mafia prosecutor’s office of Reggio Calabria. On that day, 300 police and customs officers traveled to the suburbs of Polisten to detain 22 members of the Longo Versace clan. A serious blow to one of the Ndrangheta families, who raised usury and racketeering to the category of local attractions.
The 2,030-page arrest order says how the entire economy of a small town gradually fell into the hands of the clan. Entrepreneurs could not open their own business without his consent and work normally without regular payments. All of them were in the hands of the “accountant” Longo Versace. This man with an euphoric character, nicknamed “Vincenzo the Mad”, a hairdresser in everyday life, traveled around Polistena on his Fiat Panda, setting laws among entrepreneurs and collecting money from them.
Through all the investigation goes the case of Massimo B., a marble worker by profession. He was in a difficult position, and the bank refused his support. In April 2013, he received an offer from Vincenzo the Mad. He kindly granted him a loan of 13,000 euros, but he should have returned 40,000 euros: in other words, the clan imposed on him a rate of 601.47% per annum. Soon the “accountant” began to put pressure on him. He called him 8-10 times a day, threatened to take away the tools and the enterprise, and then vented his anger: “If you don’t pay, we will put you in a bucket and throw you into the sea!” Massimo could not pay and was forced to let the moneylender pick up the money owed to him for the work (a few tombstones, a bar counter …), and then transfer control over the entire company to him. The “accountant” and the boss then released new promotional t-shirts of his enterprise,
Large-scale money laundering
The poor artisan was in a bind. One December night, he washed down a whole box of sedatives with a bottle of liquor. The sister managed to save him at the last moment and delivered to the intensive care unit, from where he was transferred to psychiatry. After discharge, he immediately spoke about police money-lenders. This was the starting point of the investigation, which was enriched by a dozen other testimonies …
In Polisten and other cities, the consequences of using the services of moneylenders in the first half of 2020 will make themselves felt for a long time to come. The slightest gesture, even assistance in a couple of tens of euros, will require a reciprocal service: providing a place for a cache of weapons, participating in the transportation of drugs … As for enterprises, they may be in the hands of usurers or become a cover for the clan. Restaurants and shops, which received the generous help of “well-wishers” during quarantine, will become tools for laundering dirty money. “The mafia will use them as ATMs,” warns Alessandra Dolchi.
In addition, dishonest lenders keep in mind a date other than the due date: the elections scheduled for 2021. “Benefactors will not forget to remind gratitude to debtors when they go to the polls,” warns Vincenza Rando’s lawyer. “Usury is at the heart of such a thing as voting in exchange.” In other words, the debtors will have to provide a service: to support in the local elections the candidate that the creditor needs …
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