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Mafia trial

Megan Williams, RomeNovember 5, 2015

The film industry has a long history of romanticizing the mafia's web of intrigue and deceit. But this week in Rome the mafia's real-life dealings will be scrutinized by Italy's justice system. Megan Williams reports.

Italien Streik 12.12.2014 Rom
Image: AFP/Getty Images/A. Pazzoli

Putting real-life mafia violence and exploitation aside, the everyday effects of coordinated and rampant corruption are not quite as intriguing.

If you want to see what the mafia is really all about take a stroll though any one of dozens of Rome neighbourhoods where small hills of uncollected garbage fester, potholes that have dotted roads for years just keep widening and the bus you need to get you to work pulls up 20 minutes late, if you're lucky.

This week in Rome, though, the widespread web of politician-mafia relations that has long drained the city of vital funds will be tested for the first time by Italy's justice system.

Dubbed "Mafia Capitale," 46 Rome politicians, city officials, entrepreneurs and suspected crime group members face charges of siphoning off city funds for everything from road repair to the management of migrant centers. Among those arrested is notorious former Fascist party member and crime leader, Massimo Carminati, who lost one eye in the early 1980s during a shoot out with police.

Italian politician copyright: picture-alliance/dpa/Giacomino
Many of those on trial have a chequered past - like Massimo CarminatiImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Giacomino

Hundreds more, including former mayor Gianni Alemanno, have been investigated in what is considered Italy's biggest anti-corruption operation since the Mani Puliti, or Clean Hands campaign of the early 1990s.

'Historic' trial

Lirio Abbate, an organized crime expert with the weekly L'Espresso, calls Thursday's trial "historic." "This is a group of politicians and business people who had total control of government-business deals in Rome," says Abbate, referring to - as well as previous administrations - the former administration run by once Fascist party member Gianni Alemanno.

Rome's latest mayor, Ignazio Marino, was elected two years ago with the promise to clean up Rome. When Marino assumed power, he handed over Rome's books to prosecutors, who, through wiretaps, identified corrupt City officials and business people and arrested three dozen in sweeps in December 2014. Four chose a quick trial and were sentenced to four years in prison early this week; the rest go on trial Thursday.

But before ex-Mayor Marino could complete his mandate, he was forced to step down last week when his own Democratic Party government resigned en masse after a small amount of questionable restaurant receipts came to light.

While political infighting ultimately sank Marino, Italian author and investigative journalist Marco Lillo says the corrupt political machinery that had Rome in its hands for years, if not decades, was chomping at the bit to rid City Hall of Marino. Wiretaps show alleged crime member Salvatore Buzzi, who had connections to Democratic Party politicians, salivating at the prospect of Marino leaving.

Roms Bürgermeister Ignazio Marino
Marino's efforts to clean up Rome didn't get very farImage: Reuters/Y. Nardi

"When it looked like Marino would have to resign for another minor infraction," said Lillo, "Buzzi was caught on wiretap saying, 'We can now eat Rome.'"

Milking the migrants

Wire-tap evidence also showed Salvatore Buzzi bragging that skimming off funds that were meant to feed and house refugee applicants from Africa and the Middle East was more profitable than dealing drugs.

Lillo and Abbate say that for decades Rome has been a "mafia no-man's land" where various criminal groups and politicians of all stripes operated with free reign, accessing tens of millions of euros in City contracts with bloated costs and shoddy results.

Part of what has made the corruption possible is a general collusive denial. "In Rome there has been no anti-mafia culture," says Lirio Abbate, "no shunning of mafia members as there has been in other parts of Italy."

Abbate compares Rome to the Sicily of the 1960s, several decades before the famous maxi trials of mafia members and dramatic bombing murders of anti-mafia judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino. A time, he says, when many denied the mafia even existed. "In Rome, if people know a restaurant is a mafia-recycling outlet, they won't boycott it, they'll say, 'Ah, but the fish is really good and they just opened in London.'"

Milan's morals

Raffaele Cantone, head of the National Anti-Corruption Authority, echoed the observation, saying Milan had "become the country's moral capital, while Rome has shown itself not to have the necessary antibodies" to stop organized crime.

Experts say the Mafia Capitale trial has powerful symbolic meaning. It is, they say, the first time the long-tolerated corruption in Rome is being exposed and those who profited most being held accountable.

But it will likely be some time before Rome reaps any benefits of fresh, clean governance. Many of those arrested in the police raids were the heads of key city departments, such as public transit, garbage collection and city maintenance, says Abbate.

When they were jailed or put under house arrest, they left voids in the running of the city, which exacerbated Rome's already poor conditions and its unreliable public transport. Public anger flared up against ex-Mayor Marino as the city seemed to look worse than ever, though any long-time Rome resident knows the problems have existed for decades.

Lirio Abbate says it's a little trite to blame politicians. Romans need to take a hard look at themselves and how they perceive their role as citizens.

"This needs to be an example of legality to prevent this from happening again in the future," he says. "But above all, we need to change the mentality of Romans, who are used to finding shortcuts and favors to obtain things here. We need a different culture, a culture of legality."