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EU countries increasingly seek to reclaim land from the mafia. Here's what can be done with it

The La Poesia restaurant in Paris uses products sourced from land seized from organised crime groups.
The La Poesia restaurant in Paris uses products sourced from land seized from organised crime groups. Copyright Peter Yeung
Copyright Peter Yeung
By Peter Yeung
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Italy was the first to pass a law to allow the reallocation of land for social purposes. Since then, several other countries have followed suit.

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La Poesia looks much like a normal Italian trattoria. Bottles of Sicilian red wine line the rustic brick walls, tables are set with olive oil from Puglia, and gourmet classics like pasta all'amatriciana are served up in ceramics made in the Amalfi Coast.

But while the dishes at this Parisian restaurant taste just like you would expect, the ingredients used to make them have an unusual origin: much of the produce was grown on land in Italy seized from the mafia.

“We want this to be more than a restaurant,” says Baptiste Gaud, manager of La Poesia, which has also hosted music concerts, film screenings, and political talks since it opened in November 2022. “It is a gastronomic, ethical and cultural place.”

La Poesia, which sources much of its food and drinks from the Italian nonprofit Libera Terra (Free Land), is part of a burgeoning movement across Europe to reclaim and reuse land and goods once possessed by organised crime groups.

While governments worldwide have long enacted policies allowing the confiscation of criminal assets, only movable goods like cars and jewellery could be sold by the state, whereas land, difficult to legally reassign, has often been left unused. 

But in 1996, Italy passed a pioneering law to allow the reallocation of land for social purposes.

“Governments were focused on selling confiscated goods,” says Tatiana Giannone, a specialist in confiscated assets for Libera, a civil society coalition that campaigned for the law. “But increasingly there is a move to reuse land and property, and to put it to use in the public good. Italy has really been the pioneer on this.”

Addiction treatment centre, nautical school ...

According to a report published in March by Libera, more than 19,000 properties have been confiscated from groups like the Sicilian Mafia, the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta and the Neapolitan Camorra to date, and there are 991 nonprofits running social reuse projects across the country. In Castel Volturno, near Naples, a cooperative is making mozzarella; in Genoa, a nonprofit runs a bicycle repair shop, and in Rome, there’s a jazz music venue, among many other examples.

But increasingly other European countries have begun to implement social reuse of confiscated property. As many as 19 nations have to some degree, including Spain, Belgium, Bulgaria, Romania and the Netherlands, according to a report by CHANCE, a European civil society network. “Social and public reuse of confiscated assets is one of the most important political and social innovations of recent years,” it concluded.

Near Alicante, in Spain, a villa confiscated from a drug trafficker has become an addiction treatment centre. In the Dutch city of Rotterdam, a boat once used to transport drugs is now a nautical school. In France, an apartment in Paris seized from an infamous gambler is now managed by a charity for victims of trafficking. And in Romania, four properties provide temporary shelter for vulnerable people.

At the European level, the work was started in 2013 when the European Parliament called on member states to consider “confiscation models” for assets derived from criminal activities and encouraged “the use of criminal assets for social purposes.” Then in May 2022, the European Commission presented a proposal for a new directive requiring member states to “consider the use of confiscated properties for public or social purposes.”

Advocates argue that the social reuse of confiscated goods not only makes use of land that would otherwise lie unused, but that it effectively engages communities against organised crime, making the anti-mafia efforts more resilient in the long term.

“Social reuse puts citizens at the heart of the fight against criminality,” says Fabrice Rizzoli, president of Crim’HALT, a French anti-mafia nonprofit that played a key role in the French government passing a law in 2021 for social reuse. “Before only the state had the right. But this changes our mentality. It’s up to us, the citizens.”

'Still so far to go'

Yet progress has been slow. According to Europol, the EU's agency for law enforcement cooperation**,** there are more than 5,000 organised crime groups operating across the bloc. Their illegal activities generate an estimated €110 billion a year. However, it found in 2021 only about 2% of these proceeds are frozen and 1.1% are confiscated.

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“Things have moved fantastically,” says Anna Sergi, an expert in anti-mafia efforts in Europe and professor of criminology at the University of Essex. “But there is still so far to go. It can take years for an asset to be put to reuse. We need agencies to be set up to run and facilitate this process.”

Part of the issue has been the increasingly cross-border nature of organised crime in Europe, making it more difficult for authorities to prosecute. Some 7 out of 10 of criminal organisations in Europe operate in multiple states. But progress on that front was made in 2020, when legislation from the European Commission came into force allowing EU countries to mutually recognise confiscation orders.

“That was a success,” adds Sergi. “In the EU, you have borderless crime. It comes with the territory. So we need to have a fully European investigative model.”

But for now, projects like La Poesia are helping, one forkful of spaghetti at a time, to take power away from criminal groups across Europe and put it back in the hands of the people. 

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“The reaction has been so positive,” says Gaud. “Our customers love the idea when we explain our story and they are curious to know more.”

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