Mobster shootouts may be a thing of the past, but organized crime is still Italy’s biggest business. And the Mafia has changed its business model, expanding into cybercrime, cryptocurrency and even renewable energy.
As mobster shootouts and drug cartels have gravitated from the top of the evening news to bingeable series on streaming services, it could seem that traditional organized crime networks are in terminal decline. Even on the Italian island of Sicily, where Cosa Nostra essentially invented the modern mob, the attention garnered by high-profile murders in the early 1990s, and the subsequent arrest of some 4,000 mafiosi since, have given way to a lower-profile, less violent Mafia era.
Yet traditional criminal activities like trafficking, prostitution and gambling continue. And is perhaps more relevant is growing evidence that the Mafia has adapted to the times by infiltrating the very forward-looking industries fueling the so-called “new economy.”
The rise of the ecomafia
In Italy, the term 'ecomafia,' generally used to describe crimes against the environment carried out by organized crime, emerged around the turn of the millennium. Criminal groups hijacked large parts of garbage collection — dumping toxic waste outside the cities or shipping it to China where it was sold and made into children’s toys, and more recently, to eastern Europe where mountains of garbage have been piling up in Bulgaria.
But there seems to be a contradictory trend: organized crime networks have also entered another industry, this time a green one: wind power. A lack of industry regulation compounded by high product prices, complicated financing and government subsidies made wind energy attractive to criminals. In Italy, it sells for a higher price than anywhere in the world and some 6,000 wind farms are now scattered across the country.
For over a decade, investigators have found links between Sicily’s Mafia and wind parks.
As opposed to the traditional image of Italian criminals, Sicily’s Cosa Nostra has made its way into the wind-power industry by mixing with legitimate business — using corporate vehicles to strong-arm institutions and other companies to acquire land rights and tenders. These are then sold to other firms, both national and international, garnering huge profits.
Criminal investments in renewable energy
What has emerged is a gray area where profits are shared between mafia members, energy companies, politicians, bureaucrats, technicians and entrepreneurs, where the mafia has even succeeded in obtaining substantial state and EU grants for renewable energy projects — a phenomenon that appears particularly worrying ahead of the EU’s new injection of money as part of the COVID recovery fund, which Italy’s Anti-Mafia Directorate (DIA) warns about in its latest report.
For over a decade, investigators have found links between Sicily’s Mafia and wind parks. The most famous arrest was that of Sicilian businessman Vito Nicastri, known as the “King of the Wind,” who has also been convicted for bankrolling Mafia boss Matteo Messina Denaro.In the online economic publication La Voce, researcher Claudio Deiana shows how areas with a high Mafia presence were more likely to build new wind parks when regulations were laxer during the last decade.
More broadly, the mob’s influence spans the entire environmental field, from renewable energy to agriculture and food. According to Italy’s largest agricultural organization, Coldiretti, eco and agromafia combine a turnover of 24 billion euros. “They are educated, well-prepared, multilingual people, with important and reliable international relations at the service of the mafia business which, thanks to them, has acquired and consolidated a transnational and global character,” says the report.
Suspected Mafia member being arrested as part of a joint FBI-Carabinieri operation
Wanted In Milan / Creative Commons
The 21st-century mob: cybercrime, cryptocurrency … and cocaine
In another adaptation to 21st-century crime, the mafia is turning to cybercrime, cryptocurrencies and the dark web, according to the DIA report.
Following a year-long investigation, Spanish law enforcement busted criminals with links to Italian Mafia groups for laundering 10 million euros through a flurry of hacking operations and violent coercion last year.
According to Spanish daily El Pais, a number of the 106 arrested are linked to various clans throughout Italy, including the Casamonica from Rome, the Nuvoletta clan from the Neapolitan Camorra and Sacra Corona Unita from Apulia.
The mafia is transforming itself for our digital and climate-oriented global economy.
Operating out of Tenerife, the criminals coordinated with computer experts to run spear phishing emails that duped victims into sending money to bank accounts. After the mobsters received the ill-gotten gains, they laundered the currency through front companies, local mules and cryptocurrency assets.
Spanish police reports that the mobsters also used voice phishing — whereby Spanish citizens were tricked over the phone into giving up personal information like passwords or credit card details — as well as SIM-swapping schemes where phone service providers were tricked into transferring victims’ phone numbers to another device to access accounts.
A windfarm in Montescudaio, Italy
New frontiers of crime
Already in 2015, European law enforcement wrapped up a Sicily-based crime ring with links to Cosa Nostra that had worked with hackers in Russia, Ukraine and Romania to steal credit card information, mostly from U.S. citizens.
Indeed, while violent crime has dwindled, the mafia is finding new frontiers to crime and transforming itself for our digital and climate-oriented global economy.
There is also no indication that the mob has lost its grip on its traditional industries. For example, ‘Ndrangheta — centered in the southwestern Italian region of Calabria, and now considered more powerful than Sicily's Cosa Nostra — is believed to make half of its estimated early 60-billion-euro profit from the cocaine trade. In 2012, a report by an Italian employers association stated that, overall, organized crime is the biggest business in Italy, generating an annual turnover of 140 billion euros.
As such, the presumed decline of organized crime may only be a subtle pivot in its business model — from notoriety to one of secrecy and large-scale vertical integration into the new economy.
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