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Background - 02.06.2021 - 00:00

From the corona crisis into the mafia crisis?

The Covid pandemic enables the Italian mafia organisation ‘Ndrangheta to establish itself elsewhere, for instance in the Swiss economic system. What are the reasons for and mechanisms of this development? An article by Adina Trinca.

2 June 2021. “It’s in the wake of historical events that the mafia pounces,” explained mafia expert and public prosecutor Francesco Lo Voi on Swiss television channel SRF in April 2020. The mafia is aware of how it can profit from situations of crisis. Ever since its emergence in the 1860s, it has specifically exploited government loopholes and economic bottlenecks. In the early 20th century, the various Italian mafia organisations were also already beginning to expand into other countries and thus also reached Switzerland about 40 years ago.

At present, the ‘Ndrangheta is the strongest and most dangerous mafia worldwide. It successfully operates on all five continents. Its most lucrative activity is the drug trade with Mexican and Colombian drug cartels. According to an analytical report by Europol, however, the mafias’ behaviour abroad differs from that in their homeland since they act in a less conspicuous way and exclusively pursue economic objectives such as money laundering. It is therefore difficult to recognise their presence and to understand, let alone anticipate their intentions and next steps. This is particularly true of countries like Switzerland, which have only had very little experience of organised crime to date. Added to this, the corona pandemic has brought many uncertainties in its wake. This provides the ‘Ndrangheta with extremely favourable framework conditions for putting down stronger roots in Switzerland. What mechanisms are behind these developments?

The emergence of the ‘Ndrangheta in Calabria

Historically speaking, mafia organisations have always exploited government crisis situations in order to consolidate their power over their territories. The ‘Ndrangheta evolved a short time after the establishment of the Italian state in the 1860s. The new country of Italy had institutional weaknesses, particularly in the south, some of which had been caused by the many changes of rulers. In Calabria, the home region of the ‘Ndrangheta, the financial gap between the social classes was enormous. The local mafia organisations conceived of themselves as a kind of “Robin Hood gang” that pursued the motto of “taking from the rich to give to the poor”. They helped the poorer part of the population by blackmailing and robbing the rich. This may well be the etymology of the term ‘Ndrangheta, which derives from the Greek andragathos and means “courage” or “courageous”. Of course the establishment of justice was not the main objective of the group that was emerging at the time. Rather, it wanted to create dependencies and to legitimise itself in society itself, which is what it has meanwhile succeeded in doing.

Today, too, mafia families such as the ‘Ndrangheta in the south of Italy enjoy a higher degree of respect and legitimation than the Italian state itself. This was noticeable during the pandemic. The ‘Ndrangheta pays for the purchases of families who have lost their jobs because of corona and even indemnifies indebted firms. This creates even more financial dependencies for the future, which can be used for blackmail later on.

What does any of this have to do with Switzerland? A great deal, since thanks to its function and reputation as an international financial centre, Switzerland is a profitable target for the ‘Ndrangheta. There are indications that the ‘Ndrangheta established itself here as early as the 1980s. However, the general public only became aware of this when the Federal Office of Police (fedpol) published surveillance material of a ‘Ndrangheta meeting in a restaurant in the Canton of Thurgau. Despite a few setbacks, the ‘Ndrangheta has been able to extend itself in the Swiss economic system since then. This was also made clear by another string of arrests in the Canton of Aargau last summer.

Will the ‘Ndrangheta be able to strike long-term roots in Switzerland?

The honourable society, as the mafia also calls itself, is currently exploiting the prevalent uncertainty in order to further consolidate its power in this country. According to fedpol, the Confederation’s Money Laundering Reporting Office was notified of more than 1,300 cases of suspicious bridging loans in connection with the pandemic. It is probable that a large part of these loans is linked to the ‘Ndrangheta. By supporting firms with liquidity problems, the mafia is able to launder money in order to create dependencies in Switzerland as well. Also, our judicial system is not armed for the fight against organised crime, which was also confirmed by the Italian mafia expert Nicola Gratteri in an interview with SRF. These developments are extremely alarming, as fedpol spokeswoman Kathrin Schmitter reported. An increased mafia presence could have serious consequences for the Swiss economy.

In Italy, the mafia is more than 150 years old. In that country, it had sufficient leeway in the last century to put down strong roots in government and society. According to one of Italy’s best-known mafia experts and journalists, Roberto Saviano, the mafia is also a cultural phenomenon. Many small historical events and peculiarities of Italy’s southern region led to the evolution of the mafia. In Switzerland, the ‘Ndrangheta simply lacks the time – and, in particular, the cultural basis – to strike such strong roots here. As far as we know now, a more profound cultural establishment of the ‘Ndrangheta is rather unlikely. To ensure that this remains the case and to be able to fight the organisation in good time, fedpol and the Office of the Attorney General of Switzerland will have to continue to focus strongly on combatting the problem. This is especially important now since the corona pandemic provides mafia organisations with numerous new “business opportunities”. After all, it is well known that mafia organisations, and the ‘Ndrangheta in particular, are incredibly agile and adaptable. This makes them a danger that has to be taken seriously and deserves distinctly more attention than it is being given today.

Adina Trinca is a second-semester student in the Master’s programme in International Affairs and Governance. This article was produced in connection with a workshop of the supplementary programme in Business Journalism headed by Stefanie Knoll, SRF, and is part of the series on “Money or Happiness”.

Image: Adobe Stock / Oleg

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