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Opinion: Italian Mafia exploit EU deficiencies

Tomasz Bielecki
Tomasz Bielecki
December 6, 2018

The largest internationally coordinated anti-Mafia action in the EU led to the arrests of more than 80 suspected 'ndrangheta members. But the fight requires deeper cooperation, DW's Tomasz Bielecki writes.

German Mafia raids
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Reichwein

For decades, Mafia groups have emigrated to other EU countries to hide their members from Italy's justice system, to look for smuggling routes (mainly for drugs) and to launder their money through investments in legitimate businesses. The countries with the strongest economies are the most profitable destinations for such investments. As early as the 1970s, the 'ndrangheta Mafia's income from racketeering and kidnappings in Calabria went to Switzerland and West Germany. Far more money came when the family began outperforming Sicily's Cosa Nostra in the drug business in the 1980s.          

Tomasz Bielecki
Tomasz Bielecki is a Polish correspondent for DW in Brussels. This year, he published a book on the Sicilian Mafia in Poland.

'Ndrangheta members outside of Italy are not the flamboyant gangsters brandishing pistols over spaghetti: They're not the mafiosi known of Hollywood movies. In most cases, they are neatly dressed businesspeople who strive to keep a low profile. Apart from rare incidents, such as a 2007 massacre in Duisburg in which six people were killed in a hit in front of a pizzeria, they don't really do much to trigger their neighbors' fear. And, though the Italian police have begun to decode the family's signals (for example, when the 'ndrangheta subtly presents newly "promoted" mafiosi to local communities by assigning them certain positions in religious processions), the police in other countries are often oblivious to such communication. As we found out a few years ago, the 'ndrangheta had been very active in the sale of Dutch flowers for two decades without anyone noticing it — not even the local police.           

Dozens arrested in mafia crackdown: DW's Lewis Sanders from Pulheim

These deficiencies of law enforcement explain why Italian Mafias often prefer to launder their money abroad. With the help of lawyers, members skillfully play on the differences between the legal systems of various EU countries. Italy is the only state in the European Union in which belonging to a Mafia organization is considered a crime. Criminalizing membership has proved a big help in the pursuit of the Sicilian Mafia. Some EU countries have no regulations at all to cover such criminal networks. Germany and the Netherlands do have such legislation, but it is considered to be too lenient by the Italians.         

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A few years ago, Europol representatives called for new rules that would criminalize membership in Mafia-type organizations. Nevertheless, a full harmonization of anti-Mafia legislation at the EU level shouldn't be expected soon as it touches on a very sensitive issue: the protection of civil rights. This is why thwarting drug routes will often be easier than detecting the 'ndrangheta's investments in real estate, public and private contracts, public utilities, waste disposal, and renewable energy.        This does not mean that there is no room for smaller steps, as requested in resolutions before the European Parliament, on taking over profits from laundered money or even prioritizing extradition requests for fugitive mafiosi. The European Union's fundamental principle of free movement, which is applied to capital as it is to people, makes it easier for dirty money to be invested within a couple of days. This is why  investigative procedures in the European Union must speed up. The impressive Operation Pollino, which led to Wednesday's arrests, suggests that changes at some EU agencies (on police and  justice cooperation) have been fruitful. But the European Union overall must hurry to keep up with international crime. The 'ndrangheta has already expanded to Central and Eastern Europe, where — as the Slovak journalist Jan Kuciak was investigating when he was murdered last February — it may be trying to gain access to EU funds.     At 1830 UTC, DW's editors send out a selection of news and features. You can sign up to receive it here.