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Italian mafia groups are cashing in on COVID-19 by exploiting the social and economic crisis

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Italian mafia groups are cashing in on COVID-19 by exploiting the social and economic crisis
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The social and economic crisis left in the wake of the ongoing Covid-19 health pandemic is being capitalised on in Italy by a mafia group called Camorra.

One million people have been pushed into poverty in the country as a result of it, while another 8 million are temporarily unemployed.

The Camorra has seen it as an opportunity to offer those in need 'help' when they could not get state support.

For this week's Unreported Europe, Euronews went to Scampia, one of the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods in Naples, to find out more.

Local resident Marco, whose name we have changed, managed to go back to work after the lockdown.

However, he and his family are not declaring the work they are doing in Scampia - which is rife with organised crime.

"We are five people and we live with almost nothing. Two hundred euros, two fifty. We come here twice a week trying to earn something," he said.

Previously, Marco worked as a blacksmith with his father until 1996. Since then, he has done all sorts of work but has never declared it.

"It’s like defeat, honestly. Underground work is not good, but one has to do it in order to survive," he explained.

Marco asked for council housing in 2012, but has not received it. He moved into a flat in one of the so-called Velei's ten years ago. The housing estates have become an emblem of lawlessness - tolerated but abandoned by the State.

"Fortunately, I am able to save some money here. I’m not proud of it, but I pay no rent, no electricity. We squat in this place. This is the only way we can get by. If we had to rely on the State, we would have starved to death. They don’t come here to see what’s good and what's bad. They abandoned us, that’s it," he said.

People like Marco have become easy prey for the mafia groups, as national anti-mafia prosecutor, Federico Cafiero De Raho, explained: "Poverty is the first area of intervention for the various Italian mafia groups, both for recruitment and to gain social power.

"There are young people who felt that the support offered by the Camorra was the only way to meet the basic survival needs for their families," he said.

Whilst the Italian government has been criticised for its lack of social support, its law enforcement has been strong for years. Post-lockdown, the police expected an increase of criminal activity and have been on alert, as Alfredo Fabbrocini, head of mobile policing in Naples explained.

"We have a flexible strategy. It changes at the same pace organised crime patterns change but we also try to anticipate their moves. We try to understand from the street how the Camorra is adapting its activity and try to stop it.

"The Camorra has not gained strength from the lockdown. It tries to diversify its criminal activity as it needs to earn money. It’s not stronger, it’s just hungrier," he added.

It is estimated that Italian Mafia groups earn over 30 billion euros each year, just through drug trafficking. The Camorra needs to find financial channels to hide its money and the easiest way is through businesses, so the groups lend money to those struggling, even when their illicit loans can’t be paid back.

"When the money cannot be returned, the Camorra takes advantage of that. Because of the money the Camorra can acquire management of the business. From that moment on, the Camorra will use that company as a conduit to launder its own illicit money," Alfredo Fabbrocini said.

Extortion has also resumed on top of loan-sharking, with Camorra collecting protection money, known as pizzo, as soon as the lockdown was lifted.

"There is even more anger, even more tension. The pandemic has sunk those who were already going through a crisis. In this period, when extortionists appear on construction sites to ask for the protection money, many colleagues are saying no," Rosario D'Angelo, co-founder of the anti-racketeering association Fai, said.

Rosario is also a former victim of racketeering. Today with his association, he helps other entrepreneurs to speak out. He says very few dare to challenge the Camorra. It was not easy for him either.

"Until 1996-97 my dad paid thousands of euros to the racketeers, but he did not say anything at home. When I took over the business, I discovered what was going on. For the first few years I paid out of fear. Then, in 2005 we decided to set up an association and I filed my first complaint. I made 18 complaints leading to six arrests on six different occasions and at six different worksites in Naples," he said.

Law enforcement agencies expect record extortion levels at the end of August, a traditional deadline for the Camorra to collect. Usury might rise by 30% this year because of the pandemic, according to the local anti-usury office of one of the leading workers’ unions.

Responding to that, the anti-racketeering association SOS Impresa has brought together business associations, law enforcement and government institutions to help coordinate against the Camorra.

President of SOS Impresa, Luigi Cuomo, talked to Euronews about it.

"Today we are in a phase in which the criminal phenomenon of usury is growing, but it is growing silently, because now victims need those who will become their loan-sharks. They are the ones creating this flawed relationship. In one year’s time we’ll know how much this phenomenon, this deadly embrace, is developing at this precise moment," he said.

Today, there is social, economic and political support for the people who reject usury and extortion. There is money available, as well as policies in place and associations to help them. However, many have paid with their lives for this to happen.

Mimma Noviello is one of Domenico Noviello’s four children. He was a local entrepreneur killed in 2008 by one of the Camorra clans, the Casalesi, after he refused to pay the pizzo protection money.

"He gathered the family and we talked all together. He basically asked us for permission to say no. He felt that if he had bowed his head, he would also have left this burden to us, his children," Mimma Noviello, daughter of the Camorra victim, told Euronews.

Domenico and his family had informed the police and their extortionists were caught and imprisoned. He was killed seven years later - shot 13 times.

"I realised only later that his killing was a warning. But it was an extreme one. They killed one to show everybody. They managed to scare other business people. They killed him, do you realise that? There was no retaliation on his children. They killed him. It was very hard for us.

"At the time I immediately supported my father's decision and I would do it again. Since then, I’ve understood even more the value of saying I don't pay the pizzo, I will never pay it, not me, not you. Never," she added.

Criminology expert Paolo Miggiano, who became a family friend, told Domenico’s story and legacy in the book The Other Casalese, that has just been published:

"The situation is certainly different today. Law enforcement agencies and the courts have worked with great commitment to dismantle criminal groups, especially here in Campania. It would have been better, though, to respond on two fronts - the force of the State - police and justice - and at the same time economic and social aid for the development of the region. I might have missed it but I haven't seen this happen," Paolo Miggiano said.

Meanwhile, experts fear that Southern Italy faces a long and painful recovery as a result of Covid-19 and unlike the North, there is much more social inequality and it Is not being addressed.

The city councilor in charge of juvenile affairs talked to Euronews about it at a voluntary association venue supporting families and children in need.

"This place where we are today gets no Government money. If it did, three times as many children would be here today. This is what I want from the Government. I believe we must not only make sure that the economy and trade are relaunched, but also that the social side and community links are good. This starts from childhood, which is always ignored," Alessandra Clemente, head of juvenile policies at Naples City Hall told Euronews.