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Feature Articles


January 2006
Organized Crime
Infiltrates North Italy

By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus


Mike La Sorte is a professor emeritus (SUNY) and writes extensively on a variety of subjects.

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     During the ‘70s, the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta began to take a greater part in legal entrepreneurial activities and also assumed a significant role in drug trafficking. It has extended its operations to North Italy, moving its members to the North and exploiting family ties. Drug trafficking has undergone an important development in the northern regions of Emilia, Liguria, Lombardy and in Veneto, where it is now in the hands of southerners who are working with the locals. In Veneto, the criminal group best known is the "mafia del Brenta." (Umberto Santino)

     LIVORNO 8 May 2000—The Livorno carabinieri and the Mobile Squad of Livorno carried out raids in the Livorno province and in the provinces of Milan, Rovigo and Naples. Rounded up were felons of the important Calabrian clans accused of a variety of crimes, including extortion and usury. Twelve arrests were made. Some of the men are associated with the ‘Ndrangheta and one of the Camorra families. Six others are being sought. The criminals operated throughout Italy in drug trafficking through bases located in Milan and Naples. The alleged capo is the Calabrian Michelangelo Fedele, 55, who previously had been absolved of the crime of mafia association because the tribune of Livorno concluded that there was insufficient evidence that he commanded an organized crime family. (La nazione)

     The presence of the mafia in the North has been a gradual and sporadic development over the past few decades. The causes of this diffusion have been made possible by three developments.

     The first has been a product during the fifties and sixties of waves of worker and family migrations to the fast growing and industrialized northern metro areas, especially in what has been known as the Industrial Triangle (Milan-Turin-Genoa)) These movements have been accompanied by criminal interests, often blending into the populations of the southern immigrant colonies, and protected by networks of relatives, friends and a traditional solidarity expressed through paesano loyalties.

     In addition, convicted mafia lords, beginning in 1965, were sent North to soggiorno obbligato (a form of confinement, confino, or relocation with restrictions, rather than imprisonment) in order to neutralize their influence by removing them from their native power centers.

     The third, more recent, phenomenon is the expansion of mob clans into the lucrative drug markets. Accumulating piles of illegal money, the capos have been searching out fertile ground for investment opportunities not found in the South as well as staging areas for the launching of international ventures. It became obvious that there was bigger game to be found in the capitals of the North.

     Before the advent of these three developments, northern Italy had been immune from an operative presence of mafiosi in the local economies, corrupting public officials and putting their stamp on territory. To be sure, before this significant mob infiltration there had been mafia-type enterprises. These included gambling and the ownership of certain categories of nightclubs.

     The city of Milan was a refuge for well-known mafia hierarchs. The American gangster Joe Adonis (née Giuseppe Doto) established himself in Milan in 1956. Adonis had been an eager pupil of Vito Genovese in NYC, during Prohibition. In 1962, following the demise of Lucky Luciano, who was deported to Italy after the Second World War, where he laid the groundwork for the Italian drug trade, Giuseppe Doto became the representative in Italy for the American bosses. He joined local criminals who were profiting from various enterprises. Relationships were also being developed with businessmen and potentially corruptible city officials to create shields of protection and to penetrate deeply into the economic structure.

     There was also the diabolical Luciano Liggio from Corleone, Sicily. A fugitive for years, he formed a gang while hiding out in Milan. The city also served as a safe meeting place for top mafiosi. The historic summit in 1970 saw the presence of the most notorious Sicilian bosses of that era: Giuseppe Calderone, Tommaso Buscetta, Gaetano Badalamenti, Salvatore Riina and Salvatore Greco.

     For the southern clans the North was terre di conquista (new ground for exploitation), which if exploited systematically could bring more riches than ever before dreamed, compared to the fairly poor pickings of the South. The clans realized, however, that the North was not the South, where they had operated with impunity with open arrogance and defiance of the State institutions. It was necessary to maintain low profiles, to blend in and not make their moves apparent to the authorities. To do this meant emulating the sophistication of the North, minimizing open interclan conflict and operating in an artful fashion. Sicilian ways would not do. But old ways die hard or perhaps it is the nature of outlaws that they cannot rein themselves in. The presence of the new criminal threat in town became increasingly obvious as the evil spread beyond Milan to the surrounding communities.

     The first time the mobsters tipped their heavy hand was with the murder of the lawyer Giorgio Ambrosoli, an important figure who was involved in suspicious banking activity. His violent death brought into the limelight the affinity between certain prominent persons in the professional and criminal classes, namely the "Finance Mafia" and the "Political Mafia." The slow realization that there was organized crime in full bloom on the block sparked the beginning of mafia association investigations of clan activity in the northern provinces.

     In 1983, the Catania, Sicily, clan was discovered in control of the casino at San Remo on the Italian Riviera near the French border. The gambling house was operating under the protection of certain tainted politicians, in particular Socialist party members, who took their slice of the monthly skim. That same year it became known that the southern boys were in communion with the local crooks. The Milan boss Epaminonda, who headed a homegrown den of thieves, was now breaking bread with the mafiosi in town. Epaminonda had graduated to the big time, becoming a camorrista true and proper. He went from gaming to trafficking in cocaine.

     Busted in 1994, Epaminonda was not apparently well instructed in the ancient principles of omertà. He quickly turned state’s evidence, becoming the first pentito (literally, a penitent person; a "rat") of the North. His singing shocked the body politic because his confessions illuminated that to which the authorities turned a blind eye: the mafia could successfully transplant itself in other regions of Italy despite protestations to the contrary.

     The year 1983 was a turning point with the discovery of the so-called colletti bianchi (white-collar or alta mafia). On 14 February forty men were accused (among them three legitimate businessmen) of laundering denaro sporco, dirty money, through the Milan banking system. There were additional indictments later that year. The Italian criminal justice system once again had trouble making airtight cases against the defendants. Only a few of the Sicilians were found guilty of "delinquent association of the mafia type."

     While the Sicilian clans continued to penetrate the legitimate economy with their white-collar schemes, the justly feared ‘Ndrangheta brought North their tried–and-true methods. Investigations in 1991 revealed the full force of ‘Ndrangheta infiltration. The clans had succeeded in bringing under their jurisdiction sizable chunks of territory. Complete quarters of metro Milan fell under the dominion of the Calabrians, who specialized in their traditional crimes—theft and kidnapping for ransom.

     The inevitable result of ‘Ndrangheta encroachment on rival clans was open warfare, at one point earning Italy’s most important city the dubious honor of the murder capital of the nation. A shaky peace was achieved when the mafia luminaries had a "sit-down" and agreed to join forces in the illegal importation of narcotics and to cooperate in the new business of arms trafficking.

     In 1990, the "Duomo Connection" (named after the famous Milan cathedral) burst upon the scene. In May of that year the product of an investigation and a prime mobster arrest (another pentito) confirmed an alliance between members of the Lombardy political class and organized crime.

     The carabinieri unveiled a drug trafficking route organized by a Sicilian-Calabrian combine. This led to disclosure of collusion between mafiosi and city administration officials to fix the lottery. Accused were the mayor and another socialist, the latter condemned for "abuse of office."

     The presence of the mafia in Veneto was officially recognized in the early 1980s. Before that the crime problem was restricted to local gangs. The rapid growth of the so-called mala del Brenta, or mafia del Brenta, and the discovery of arms and narcotics trafficking and money laundering, opened the eyes of the authorities and shocked public opinion. Felice Maniero, a homegrown Venetian capo, along with southern boys took control of the territory, imposing their own laws.

     During the period of massive dominance the mala del Brenta, composed initially of forty men and eventually of about 400, counting members and supporters, integrated components of local elements and picciotti of the traditional clans. The successes of the mafia del Brenta were largely due to the adoption of the camorrista model, including elimination of persons who worked against its interests. The imprisonment of Felice Maniero and many of his henchmen did little to impede the organization. Maniero continued to direct the band from his maximum-security cell with the assistance of his lieutenants, who were latitanti, fugitives from justice.

     Because of Verona’s strategic location between northern Europe and the Mediterranean, the city became the articulation point in the drug traffic, earning the city the nickname of "Bankok d’Italia." Verona was the crossroads for the movement of the European narcotraffic and ultimately not limited to drugs. This complex undertaking was planned by forming a syndicate of cooperating mafias, including Italian, Turkish and criminal associations from the Middle East. The police operation called "Arena" (named after the famous central piazza in Verona), in 1994, was successful in weakening the routes of international trafficking through North Italy.

     Organized crime signaled its presence in the region of Tuscany by progressively penetrating the productive fabric of the society. To reach its goal, the crime wave did not always resort to time-honored techniques like intimidation and extortion but sought various forms of business-like infiltration to siphon off illicit gains that were then recycled into the Tuscan economy.

     During the 1980s "Men of Honor" united various local clans with the promise of easy money. This development was aided by the presence of Sicilian capos, sent to the region for soggiorno obbligato to remove them from their traditional territories. Bringing their expertise in the underworld with them, within a few years the capos helped make Tuscany one of the principle transit points for tobacco and drug contraband.

     During the seventies and eighties criminals devoted themselves to the time-honored practice of kidnapping. Abduction for ransom has had a long history in Italy, especially among the Calabrians and on the island of Sardinia. Fugitives from the same crime in their native island followed the migratory movement of Sardinian workers to central Italy in the 1950s.

     Adding to the difficulties in the 1980s was the rapid growth of the local drug market, which up to that time was not consider an Italian problem. Drug use among Italian youth increased exponentially with the increase in urbanization and the weakening of the strong family bonds.

     Local bands learned much from the Sicilian model to the point of structuring their criminal cultures after the traditional Sicilian cosche, or "families." If that was not enough, the authorities became alarmed by the Chinese Triads, which initially infested the confines of the Chinese immigrant colonies, and were now enlarging their sphere of influence as their boldness and knowledge of Italian society came to maturity. Presently, Tuscan organized crime has spread to many towns and cities, characterized by both interclan conflict and interclan cooperation, and spurred on by the more enticing opportunities in the general economy.

     Italy’s secret service director declared, in May 2005, that the Chinese presence is increasing in the prosperous Italian regions of Lombardy, Emilia Romagna, Tuscany and Lazio. Seen as "an invisible threat," the new Chinese mafia, possibly autonomous from the feared Triads, has its roots firmly planted in Italy, and that communications with camorristi have been noted. Chinese gangsters, the director observed, "are redrawing Italy’s criminal map."

     Ignoring growing evidence that the old mafias have been replaced with a far greater threat, political authorities in the North continued, into the 1990s, to declare that the "southern sickness" could not transplant itself in their home ground, believing that the North would never tolerate an alien criminal life style that was considered a uniquely southern phenomenon, arising out of a history of socioeconomic and political conditions not found in the North.

     Despite vigorous crackdowns on organized crime, with thousands arrested and hundreds imprisoned over the years, the mafias of the North remain potent threats to the social order. And they become more potent by forming powerful confederations in major trafficking operations, which yield the major sources of revenues that are then invested in a variety of legal or quasi-legal ventures, further adding to their fortunes.

     A review of the history of organized crime in northern Italy demonstrates once again that by "mafia" is meant not a single organization, which clings to past traditions, but rather a system of deeply rooted alliances, a network of criminal syndicates, with close ties to the political power system. It is a vast criminal conspiracy that does not exist in a social vacuum, but rather adjusts to changing times. For such corruption to thrive, good people must remain silent.


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