In Italy, Confiscated Mob Villas Handed Over To Needy Families

Buccinasco, a town just outside of Milan, was quietly invaded decades ago by the ‘Ndrangheta mob from the southern region of Calabria. But a new program could be sweet revenge.

Buccinasco Milano skyline
Buccinasco Milano skyline
Chiara Baldi

BUCCINASCO — Giulia prepares lunch for her two-year-old son Luca and smiles. "It's nice here," the teenage mother says.​

Giulia, just shy of turning 18, is what Social Services call a "fragile mother." But the courts have recently given her one last chance to keep custody of her child. She'll try to do so with the help of social workers present 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in an apartment inside a villa in a small city of about 28,000 that is just south of Milan.

They call this the "Platì of the North," in reference to the small town in the province of Reggio Calabria, in Southern Italy, that produced the leading families in the ‘Ndrangheta crime syndicate. Starting in the 1960s, those families — the Sergis, Papalias, Barbaros and Trimbolis — established their new kingdom in Buccinasco. They did business here, relocated their families from Platí, acquired assets.

But a series of nationwide investigations that began in the late 1990s has since put many of the crime network's leading figures behind bars. Today, those assets have been confiscated, and one woman, with the mayor's backing, has put those properties in the hands of mothers.

The ex-mafia's mansion valued 2 million euros is now converted into three apartments that house 18 people.

Rosa Palone, 33, is originally from Puglia in the South, but has long lived in Buccinasco. Since 2017 she has served as Councilor for Welfare, Social Innovation and Anti-Mafia Culture in the wealthy heart of Milan (one of the top 40 Italian cities ranked by income per capita).

On Oct. 26 she inaugurated La Tua Casa (Your House) for Giulia and other mothers like her. The "house" is a mansion really, valued at 2 million euros and converted into three apartments that will house 18 people. It previously belonged to boss Paolo Sergi.​

After the property was first seized it became a private asylum. When that failed, the city, under Mayor Rino Pruiti, acquired the property, paying off its 400,000 euros of debt. The city then accepted bids for potential projects and ultimately decided to turn the property over to a group called the Aibc Cooperative, for mothers in need.

"These are women with histories of violence, alcohol, drugs, destroyed families," says Valentina Bresciani, who works with the cooperative. "They need a peaceful environment. This is the ideal place."

The Office, where all the mafia's kidnappings were planned, today it's a recreational center.

But it's not just them, Rosa Palone explains. It's also or the children. "We felt it was natural to dedicate these confiscated spaces to families," she says.

On the Via Bramante lies the Spazio Gioco, or play space. It once was known as L'ufficio — The Office, otherwise known as the pizzeria belonging to the ‘ndrina, where all the organization's kidnappings were planned, including those of Cesare Casella and Alessandra Sgarella, which made headlines around the world.

Today it's a recreational center. In the afternoons kids do their homework under supervision, and on Friday evenings mom and dad can drop them off to enjoy three hours of freedom. "This past Friday we had 20 kids, and we're already full up for the next few weeks," says Palone.

A little further down the way, along the via Nearco, there's another villa, half of which has been seized. In the front part of the building lives the wife of boss Rocco Papalia. In the back, the confiscated quarters have been used to start a pilot project to house unaccompanied minors under SPRAR, Italy's refugee and asylum-seeker protection organism.

Papalia had other buildings, too, in the via Don Minzoni. Today in two of those confiscated apartments live two families, placed by a social reinsertion and housing project. "They can't afford a house at market rates," explains coordinator Alberto Nodi. "We help them insert themselves in the working world, manage their money, and start saving." Editor's Note: In Buccinasco, rent on a two-room apartment is about 800 euros per month.

The programs of supporting elderly people and disabled kids are all allocated in the villas confiscated from bosses.

The city is also focusing on supporting families who have elderly relatives to take care of. In several weeks it will launch a project to house four autonomous seniors together. The two apartments allocated for the program, on the via Vittorio Emanuele, were also confiscated from bosses.

"We're helping families that often have trouble handling those of a certain age," says Palone.

Finally, in November, a "relief weekend" will be launched for children with disabilities: a suite of confiscated apartments in the via Independenza have been set up for a project called "Dopo di Noi" (After Us).

"Every weekend we will host four disabled children," Palone explains. "The parents get to relax and the kids get to experience community life, and get used to the idea of a life without mommy and daddy."

For Mayor Rino Pruiti, the initiatives are "proof that the ‘Ndrangheta has lost." He acknowledges that the mafia still exists. "But it longer controls our territory," he adds.

The mayor points to the allocation of funds as further proof of this commitment.

"To date, 4 million euros out of the 20 million-euro municipal budget of 2019 are destined for welfare, education and the environment," Pruiti says. "We will never again let the anti-state replace us. In Buccinasco, the government, the State, is now present."

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Why This Sudan Coup Is Different

The military has seized control in one of Africa's largest countries, which until recently had made significant progress towards transitioning to democracy after years of strongman rule. But the people, and international community, may not be willing to turn back.

Smoke rises Monday over the Sudanese capital of Khartoum

Xinhua via ZUMA
David E. Kiwuwa

This week the head of Sudan's Sovereign Council, General Abdel Fattah El Burhan, declared the dissolution of the transitional council, which has been in place since the overthrow of former president Omar el-Bashir in 2019. He also disbanded all the structures that had been set up as part of the transitional roadmap, and decreed a state of emergency.

In essence, he staged a palace coup against the transitional authority he chaired.

The general's actions, which included the arrest of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, are a culmination of a long period of tension between the civilian and military wings of the council.

A popular uprising may be inevitable

The tensions were punctuated by an alleged attempted coup only weeks earlier. The days leading to the palace coup were marked by street protests for and against the military. Does this mark the end of the transition as envisaged by the protest movement?

Their ability to confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.

The popular uprising against Bashir's government was led by the Sudan Professional Association. It ushered in the political transitional union of civilians and the military establishment. The interim arrangement was to lead to a return to civilian rule.

But this cohabitation was tenuous from the start, given the oversized role of the military in the transition. Moreover, the military appeared to be reluctant to see the civilian leadership as an equal partner in shepherding through the transition.

Nevertheless, until recently there had been progress towards creating the institutional architecture for the transition. Despite the challenges and notable tension between the signatories to the accord, it was never evident that the dysfunction was so great as to herald the collapse of the transitional authority.

For now, the transition might be disrupted and in fact temporarily upended. But the lesson from Sudan is never to count the masses out of the equation. Their ability to mobilize and confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.

Power sharing

The transitional pact itself had been anchored by eight arduously negotiated protocols. These included regional autonomy, integration of the national army, revenue sharing and repatriation of internal refugees. There was also an agreement to share out positions in national political institutions, such as the legislative and executive branch.

Progress towards these goals was at different stages of implementation. More substantive progress was expected to follow after the end of the transition. This was due in 2022 when the chair of the sovereignty council handed over to a civilian leader. This military intervention is clearly self-serving and an opportunistic power grab.

A promised to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.

In November, the rotational chairmanship of the transitional council was to be passed from the military to the civilian wing of the council. That meant the military would cede strong leverage to the civilians. Instead, with the coup afoot, Burhan has announced both a dissolution of the council as well as the dismissal of provincial governors. He has unilaterally promised return to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.

Prior to this, the military had been systematically challenging the pre-eminence of the civilian authority. It undermined them and publicly berated them for governmental failures and weaknesses. For the last few months there has been a deliberate attempt to sharply criticize the civilian council as riddled with divisions, incompetent and undermining state stability.

File photo shows Sudan's Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in August 2020

Mohamed Khidir/Xinhua via ZUMA

Generals in suits

Since the revolution against Bashir's government, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.

For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council.

This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy. True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19.

Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse.

Demands of the revolution

The success or failure of this coup will rest on a number of factors.

First is the ability of the military to use force. This includes potential violent confrontation with the counter-coup forces. This will dictate the capacity of the military to change the terms of the transition.

Second is whether the military can harness popular public support in the same way that the Guinean or Egyptian militaries did. This appears to be a tall order, given that popular support appears to be far less forthcoming.

The international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin.

Third, the ability of the Sudanese masses to mobilize against military authorities cannot be overlooked. Massive nationwide street protests and defiance campaigns underpinned by underground organizational capabilities brought down governments in 1964, 1985 and 2019. They could once again present a stern test to the military.

Finally, the international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin. The ability of the military to overcome pressure from regional and international actors to return to the status quo could be decisive, given the international support needed to prop up the crippled economy.

The Sudanese population may have been growing frustrated with its civilian authority's ability to deliver on the demands of the revolution. But it is also true that another coup to reinstate military rule is not something the protesters believe would address the challenges they were facing.

Sudan has needed and will require compromise and principled political goodwill to realise a difficult transition. This will entail setbacks but undoubtedly military intervention in whatever guise is monumentally counterproductive to the aspirations of the protest movement.


David E. Kiwuwa is Associate Professor of International Studies at University of Nottingham

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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