The title ‘Don’t mention the Mafia!’ takes inspiration from the episode in Fawlty Towers when Basil admonishes his staff to not mention the war to his German guests. For those not brought up on UK comedy from the 1970’s, my point is that this topic raises such a set of sensibilities such that foreigners touch upon it at their own risk – particularly the issue of mafia presence in the north! In any case, you might well ask why raise the subject at all since it’s unlikely any of this impinges on any of our lives (at least not directly) and certainly does not compromise the natural beauty of our area and the manifestly innocent enjoyment of it by visitors and residents alike. However I do hope to show that, at least once in a while, we should consider this awkward topic.
The main evidence of a mafia presence in Lombardy comes from three investigations initiated by the DDA (Direzione Distrettuale Antimafia) under the Procura of Milan and led by the indefatigable antimafia magistrate Ilda Boccassini.
Ilda Boccassini has perhaps the broadest experience within the Italian judicial system in investigating corruption and mafia activities. She worked in Milan on Mani Pulite in the 90s, transferred to Caltanisetta to investigate the Falcone-Borsellino assassinations, returned to Milan to quash the rebirth of the Red Brigades and concurrently to identify the presence of the mafia in Lombardy. More recently she has been leading the investigations into the alleged crimes of ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi.
The facts arising from the three DDA investigations (named Infinito, Metastasi and Insubria) do confirm the presence of the Mafia in the north involving primarily the Calabrian form of organised crime known as the ‘ndrangheta. The ‘Infinito’ inquiry was launched in 2003. It led to the arrest of 200 people in Milan and Calabria with both trials and investigations still ongoing. The ‘Metastasi’ investigation focused on the presence of the mafia in Lecco and the activities of old-style mafia boss Franco Covo Trovato.
The ‘Insubria’ inquiry was initiated in 2012 and focused on ‘ndrangheta activity in three local councils, including two within the province of Como. These are Fino Mornasco and Cermenate, located halfway between Como and Milan. 35 arrests were made and prison sentences totalling 162 years have been handed out to ex-town councillors and Calabrian or local business men. Fino Mornasco was described by magistrates in 2014 as ‘one of the most shining examples of a mafia controlled local council in Northern Italy’.
Should we be concerned by this? Or to be blunt, do we as foreign residents or visitors need to know about it? In one sense, no – because the activities of organised crime are almost invisible to the great majority living here and totally so to those visiting temporarily. Yet there are victims, with 400 incidents of intimidation in the Province of Como initiated by organised crime between 2008 and 2014 according to data gathered by the DDA. Additionally the long term effects of corruption debilitate the local economy with damage to both the environment and the fabric of towns and cities. This is why once in a while, and maybe particularly on the days set aside to remember and honour the victims of the Mafia, even we foreigners should be excused the use of the M word – always in the spirit of sympathy for the victims and to give moral support for those investigating and bringing mafia criminals to justice.
21st March, the first day of spring, has now been designated an anniversary day for remembering the innocent victims of the Mafia. Here in Como, the pupils from the Liceo Artistico Melotti from Lomazzo – a town close to both Fino Mornasco and Cermenate – staged an exhibition of art in the courtyard of Como’s Town Hall, Palazzo Cernezzi, as part of a school project entitled ‘Against the Mafia’. Their project was part of a series of activities organised by the ‘Movimento delle Agende Rosse’. The exhibition has done a tour of town councils in the Province of Como and will end up at the house of Paolo Borsellino’s son on the anniversary of his father’s assassination in Palermo on the 19th July 1992. The artwork by the students illustrates many aspects of the character and impact of organised crime and stands as a visual testimony to why we should publicise and challenge its presence. Certainly the assassinations of magistrates Falcone and Borsellino in 1992 were met with mass revulsion and popular resistance to what were audacious challenges to state authority. Since then, the mafia has avoided such provocative violent acts and, for those seeking to operate in the north, have followed a low key strategy of gaining control in certain industrial sectors through the corruption of small town officials, hence their presence in Fino Mornasco.
The subject of the Metastasi investigation was the old-style ‘ndrangheta boss, Franco Covo Trovato, Calabrian in origin but resident in Lecco, Como’s lakeside sister city. He was arrested in September 1992 hiding out in his town centre headquarters – the Wall Street Pizzeria in Via Belfiore. He owned and used the pizzeria as his centre of operations from where he organised his empire of drug trafficking and money laundering. He met here with his henchmen giving out orders for the physical intimidation and assassination of his victims. He is now serving three life sentences and his property, including the pizzeria, has been seized by the state. Now, after a prolonged legal battle, the state has finally arranged for the sale of the pizzeria which has just now re-opened as the Pizzeria Fiore with a formal ceremony on 21st March (the day set aside for remembering the innocent victims of the Mafia). The opening ceremony that featured Lombardy Governor Roberto Maroni slicing the pizza, also included students reading out the names of the tens of local victims of Trovato’s criminal regime.
Whilst organised crime is still very involved in drug trafficking, they try to invest its profits into legally established businesses operating primarily in construction and refuse management. They then seek commercial advantage by corrupting those local officials involved in the commissioning of projects or selection of suppliers. Although Milan’s recent Expo 2015 offered plenty of opportunities for this (a number of cases are now going through the courts), the focus has tended to switch to smaller local councils in and around the Milan hinterland – just like our own Fino Mornasco and Cermenate. It seems easier to forge corrupt relationships and more easily influence outcomes within these smaller public entities.
So who are the modern day victims of the mafia, assuming that the Trovato style of ill-disguised bullying has become a thing of the past? The DDA figures of 400 cases of mafia-led intimidation in the Province of Como can be broken down as follows: 270 cases involved malicious fire damage to property, 43 were non-mortal gun attacks, 19 were cases of objects thrown against property, 17 cases of damage to cars, 16 were threats over the phone and one case involved a murdered pet. Most of the victims of these incidents were business owners. 37 were owners of earth-moving companies, 15 were bar or night club owners, 13 were building companies, 12 were owners of service businesses and 5 owned garbage collection businesses. However there were some professional victims as well.
One aspect of the northern-style mafia which cannot be ignored is that some small to medium-sized businesses actively seek out a connection with an ‘ndrangheta family. The reason is that a mafia connection could help when seeking to persuade an unwilling client to pay an outstanding bill. There are unfortunately too many brazen individuals who treat paying a bill as a voluntary activity in the knowledge that to seek redress through the courts could take years and will most likely cost you more than you manage to recover. Thus the attraction of an extra-legal persuasion, or as the Italian expression goes – ‘to have your shoulders covered’. Then there is always the chance that your business may itself profit from whatever projects the mafia manage to win.
The subject of organised crime is a depressing one presenting a shameful side to some parts of the local business culture. However if we avoid the subject we then fail to recognise those who bravely seek to combat it. Truly the efforts of those ‘against the mafia’ shine out against the grey background of the morally compromised. Magistrates such as Ilda Boccassini demonstrate a courage and fortitude beyond my ability to comprehend. The students reading out the list of mafia victims at the rebirth of the Pizzeria Fiore are reclaiming an honest future for this enterprise that will obliterate a landmark of shame. The schoolchildren of the Liceo Artistico in Lomazzo are helping to keep the example of Falcone and Borsellino alive in all our minds, as well as giving us their interpretation of the true present-day nature of this criminal organisation.