Rule, support and buy: Making sense of Mafia strategies in the COVID-19 aftermath

By Luciano Pollichieni

18 May 2020

While COVID-19 continues to spread across the world, analysts and scholars grow increasingly more focused on the so-called “phase two” of the pandemic: the reopening after the lockdown period. What we surely know so far about phase two is that it will be characterised by a serious economic crisis (similar in impact to the 1929 Great Depression, according to some) and, potentially, by a consequent criminal infiltration in the formal economy. Italy finds itself under the spotlight not only as one of the worst hit countries by the health crisis itself, but also as the homeland of what is arguably one of the oldest criminal organisations in history: the Mafia. In this post, I analyse the role of the mafias – used here to refer to all the major Italian organised criminal groups – in the current crisis and outline its potential development in the aftermath of the pandemic. Specifically, I will argue that during the health crisis in Italy, the mafias act as regulators of violence, preventing revolts, but in the aftermath of the pandemic, they will instead try to infiltrate the local formal economy by supporting and buying the economic enterprises that are struggling to stay afloat in the context of the post-lockdown financial crisis. This will help to contextualise the mafias’ role in relation to the current pandemic and to propose ideas for future research in this field.

Mafias’ presence in Italy. Image credit: Euronews

It’s the criminal governance, stupid!

Part of the current analysis on violent criminal actors in Italy and their role in the epidemic has focused on the so-called “criminal uprising”, a scenario in which the mafia could start fomenting social unrest in the poorest parts of Italy, more precisely in the Southern regions.  In late March, Italian police launched an investigation on a Facebook group called “Rivoluzione Nazionale” (National Revolution), after members of the group sought to incite violence against police forces and local supermarkets. Although their incitement did not amount to much, since some low rank fixers linked to Cosa Nostra (the Sicilian Mafia) were present in the group, this instance was been perceived by some of the public as proof of a criminal uprising in the making in Southern Italy. The potential scenario of a mafioso revolt is not just characteristic of journalistic speculations, but it is increasingly taken into account by sectors of the law enforcement and security apparatus in Italy, such as the internal intelligence agency.

Italian Police patrolling a supermarket in Palermo. Image Credit: La Repubblica

This type of scenario needs to be carefully evaluated. From a general perspective, as argued by Sullivan and Muggah, it is true that contemporary organised crime groups often have the skills and the potential to lead wars, insurgencies and uprisings. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that mafias are a specific form of organised crime with important differences to – for example – Latin American cartels or African gangs. One of the most important characteristics of mafias, in fact, is their cooperative rather than predatory relationship with legitimate power-brokers and political institutions, something that differentiates them from drug cartels such as the Mexican Zetas, or from gangs such as the infamous MS-13. This aspect becomes even more evident in times of crisis such as that currently faced. If we look at historical precedents of economic crises in Italy, in fact, we can find many instances of mafias acting as regulators of violence rather than exploiters.

Let’s consider, for example, the reports of Italian journalist Corrado Stajano. In one of his most famous books, he describes the efforts of the ‘Ndrangheta (the Calabrian Mafia) in preventing the escalation of a farmers’ revolt in the village of Africo in 1945. Stajano reports that, when the population of the village disarmed the local Carabinieri and gained control of their station, the ‘Ndrangheta men – together with the local priest – took over the city, distributed food to the farmers and waited for the arrival of British soldiers tasked with commanding the area. From this example it is perceivable how, in the context of a popular uprising linked to a dramatic economic situation, the ‘Ndrangheta acted to avoid the spread of violence and not fan the flames of revolt.

The same can be said for the Cosa Nostra (the Sicilian Mafia), which around the same period was tasked by the Allied Military Government for Occupied Territories (AMGOT) with patrolling the countryside and providing goods (mainly food) in Sicilian cities. In Naples and the Campania region, the Camorra did the same in the post- World War II period, as demonstrated by the ground-breaking studies by James Cockayne. Moreover, the management of the black market by Campanian organised crime helped to create a subsistence economy aimed at feeding the poor, while also allowing the development of a parallel illegal industry which then employed a considerable amount of workforce in smuggling and related activities for decades to come.

This role of the mafias in relation to economic crisis and revolts highlights some controversial aspects in the study of these criminal phenomena. As pointed out by Cockayne, the mafia’s ability to implement forms of social control has sometimes been used by legitimate power actors (the states and their institutions) in order to prevent economic collapse and unrest. It is of course “a deal with the devil” and a demonstration of pragmatism and realpolitik by state authorities. Nonetheless, a potential repetition of this sort of scenario in relation to the post-COVID-19 economic crisis cannot be ruled out. For these reasons, in times to come research on criminal organisations and pandemics should be focused on highlighting their ability to control violence rather than promote it.

Remain, support and buy

As further proof of the mafias’ nature as parallel criminal governments, their economic strategy in the context of the outbreak will mirror that adopted by the Italian government. Put succinctly, mafias will have their own “phase two”, during which they will try to benefit from the forthcoming economic crisis in order to increment their influence on the formal markets. The first stage of this attempt to infiltrate the legal economy will be characterised by the use of financial liquidity to support private firms. To understand this first stage of the forthcoming infiltration attempts by the mafias in the aftermath of the COVID-19, it is important first of all to clarify that mafias are already present in parts of the formal economy. Paradoxically, this presence is proved by the incapability of the Southern Italian health system to face the present pandemic in terms of structures, medical personnel and funding. These issues are due in part to the infiltration of mafias in this sector, a process that has provoked many forms of disfunction and a diffuse waste of resources over time. Before the COVID-19 outbreak, mafias were already present in other sectors of the legal economy, mainly in low-skilled sectors such as tourism, agriculture and earth-moving for real estates.

Anti-Mafia agents in a seized farm. Image Credit: Il Foglietto

In the short term, we are likely to witness the mafias implementing an economic strategy which can be summed up with the expression “support and buy”. The “support” aspect of this strategy will consist in examples of what Sales and Melorio have called “criminal Keynesianism”. This approach consists mainly in providing food, other indispensable goods and cash to the poorest part of the local population just as drug cartels and Latin American gangs are doing. The rationale behind this support is threefold: 1) it is aimed at buying local support by providing a better welfare than that offered by the state, which is often slow to be given and sometimes insufficient; 2) it is aimed at easing the recruitment of the local youth, with mafiosos picturing themselves as social bandits rather than common criminals and thus inciting teenagers and young adults to join their ranks; 3) it is aimed at strengthening the political grip of the mafias in the forthcoming local elections, which are supposedly scheduled for this fall in key regions such as Veneto, Campania, Tuscany and Apulia among the others.

The “buy” part of this early strategy will consist of the acquisition of small businesses, mainly in the tourism sector, which represents an essential industry in Italy – especially in the South. As long as small enterprises struggle with debts and lack of earnings, mafias will enjoy a remarkable window of opportunity to buy them.

Some recent facts show that this strategy is already on its way. At the beginning of April, for instance, a van coming from an unspecified Eastern European country was blocked at the Italian border by the local police; 500,000 Euros in cash was seized, and the men arrested were linked to ‘Ndrangheta families. This seizure can be seen as one of the first empirical proofs of the “support” stage of the mafias’ strategy in the context of the current pandemic. As highlighted by law enforcement personnel, the money was probably aimed at being distributed to Italian families and firms facing the first financial difficulties as a consequence of the lockdown.  In the same period, the Sicilian and Campanian families were already starting to distribute food and other goods in their regions, blending them with the initiatives provided by other legal charities.

Conclusion

As the social and economic crises caused by COVID-19 are worsening, the mafias are ready to play their part. They are not interested in fomenting revolts but rather in regulating violence and keeping local neighbourhoods at peace and local shops open. In analysing the mafia-economy relationship in the aftermath of the current pandemics, it is important to understand how this is based on convenience rather than intimidation: when someone’s back is against the wall, and his or her pocket is empty, they are likely to consider becoming part of the family. On these bases, mafia infiltration can happen potentially everywhere, and so anthropological or ethnic determinism are misleading when approaching this subject. The above-mentioned forms of economic support and social governance, together with these theoretical assumptions, should represent a starting point for future research on this topic. Keep an eye open and support your favourite pizzeria, otherwise someone else will be ready to do it for you.

Luciano Pollichieni is a Doctoral Researcher in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham where he is affiliated at the Centre for Conflict Security and Terrorism. His PhD project on “Islamist Mafias” investigates the phenomenon of the crime-terror nexus with a special focus on the activities of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Haqqani Network.