Italian Organised Crime, a silent threat to the European Union and worldwide

By David Ellero, Senior Specialist at Europol

“… do not ever forget, when you hear the progress of lights praised, that the loveliest trick of the Devil is to persuade you that he does not exist”[1].


When asked to write on Italian Organised Crime (ITOC), the first thing that comes into my mind is the above mentioned quote, which summarizes the main threat the latter poses to the European Union. In Italy of course the situation is quite different, since the experience Judiciary authorities and Law Enforcement have built up in the course of decades of fights against ITOC have refined both their skills and most importantly their legislative tools.

One for all, the Italian Criminal Code has a specific definition for “Mafia-type Organised Crime”[2] which constitutes a crime per se and identifies the “Mafia” as an Organised Crime Group whose participants:

  • commit criminal offences;
  • Manage or in any way control, either directly or indirectly, economic activities, concessions, authorizations, public contracts and services;
  • Obtain unlawful profits or advantages for themselves or for any other persons;
  • Prevent or limit the freedom to vote, or to get votes for themselves or for other persons on the occasion of an election,

All this by taking advantage of the intimidating power of the association.


In Italy it is in fact the condition of submission derived from the intimidating power of the criminal group which is tackled and inherently differentiates a group of criminals perpetrating a crime from a “Mafia-type” organised crime group.

But when I started this article, it was my intention to identify the main threat Italian Organised Crime poses to the European Union and I will therefore move forward.

Whilst in the areas of origin of the main ITOC groups[3] the latter have an extremely tight control over the territory and its population (which effectively constitutes the base of their power, to the point that often little or no crimes are committed without permission from the local Clans) this rarely happens outside, where economic power is sought rather than military.

In this period of economic turmoil, infact, the Italian Mafias face the opposite problem of legitimate businesses: the latter struggle to receive money to invest, the first have too much money and constantly attempt to inject it in the “legitimate” economy.

To give an idea of the scope of these criminal groups and their economic capabilities, the Ndrangheta alone has recently been estimated to have a 44 Billion Euro a year income, 62% of which deriving from drug trafficking alone[4].

At this point it is easy to determine the main threat these groups pose to the EU, which consists in undermining the real economy: since they do not need to produce with a margin of profit (their purpose is mainly money laundering) in the long run little or no legitimate businesses will be able to afford the competition and will be out of the market.

As a simple example, Mafias have always been particularly active in the construction industry and in the real estate market: these two fields are closely related to each other and often investigations uncover large criminal networks that manage to control all the phases related to these crime fields.

In an ideal, simplified scenario:

  • through the power of intimidation deriving from being associated to a Mafia Clan (or through corruption or simply thanks to unlimited economic resources), a certain group can acquire (in or outside Italy) a certain portion of land;
  • through links to the local administrative offices (again, corruption, infiltration or simple intimidation is often enough), the portion of land can change its destination, i.e. from agricultural use to building residential apartments;
  • Mafia-owned (or controlled) construction companies build the residential apartments;
  • Mafia-owned real estate agencies put them on sale on the real estate market;
  • “investors” are called to invest in these residential apartments, and often do so by moving assets through numerous banks located in several different countries, in order to “conceal” their real nature.

Often all the steps above are managed by the same OCG that can therefore create an effective method to launder money without exposing too much to Law Enforcement attention.

Of course if all these steps would take place in Italy, i.e., with the tools provided to the investigators by Italian law it would be quite manageable to identify this scheme and pursue those responsible. This is extremely difficult when the scheme takes place in different countries.

Firstly, as I mentioned at the beginning of this article, in Italy “Mafia” is a crime per se and can therefore be investigated effectively through wiretappings, interceptions and other technical means regardless of the predicate offence. In this scenario the investigative hypothesis would be that Mafia related subjects are carrying out a series of activities to infiltrate the real estate and this would be enough to start up an investigation. An indication that individuals sentenced for Mafia are constantly present of the construction sites or that their relatives or acquaintances are present in the companies that are carrying out the building activities on site is often key to incriminate the latter and confiscate the whole series of properties, in some cases even without a criminal sentence of the suspects[5]

Would these simple indicators be enough for another country to kick off an effective investigation? Would another country wiretap a suspect just based on his affiliation to a Mafia group? These are just a few of the key issues to which the EU legislator (EU Parliament – Committee on Organised Crime, Corruption and Money Laundering – CRIM) is currently trying to find a solution, but this is extremely difficult since EU Member States have extremely different juridical cultures.

In the meanwhile Europol has set up a dedicated project on Italian Organised Crime created to support those countries who wish to fight against these specific syndicates. Because of its position at the centre of the EU’s security architecture Europol is infact best placed to inform its operational partners on the risks linked to the presence of Italian organised crime within their respective boundaries. It’s a first step against an effective and comprehensive anti-Mafia strategy, but the only way to fight these specific OCG is by sharing all information related to them and promoting efficient Law Enforcement cooperation.

[1] Charles Baudelaire, “The Generous Gambler” (1864)

[2] Article 416 bis Italian Criminal Code

[3] Mafia in Sicily, Ndrangheta in Calabria, Camorra in Campania

[4] 2008 EURISPES study

[5] Misure di Prevenzione Patrimoniali