How the Mafia infiltrated Italy’s hospitals and laundered the profits globally - part I

Новини за 09.07.2020

The body of his son was barely cold when the ­grieving father was threatened by men from the funeral company. Inside the mortuary of an austere hospital in Lamezia Terme, a city in ­southern Italy, the dead were not left in peace. Each corpse was now a highly prized commodity, worth ­thousands of euros to Europe’s most ­ruthless organised criminals. 

The men from the funeral company somehow knew which patients had passed away even before their own families did. Through intimidation they had gained access to the hospital’s central medical records, allowing them to screen for those sickest and most likely to die. If relatives considered picking a different funeral company to take away their loved one, the men would soon ensure they changed their minds. 

“They are almost beating each other up to compete over sick patients,” one terrified medical worker told a colleague in a conversation secretly recorded by Italian anti-Mafia investigators.

Medical staff were powerless to intervene. “They are acting with an unspeakable ­shamelessness,” the employee said. “When the relatives arrived, they found the undertakers were already there.” 

This public hospital in the region of Calabria had been infiltrated by the ’Ndrangheta, a Mafia that remains little-known outside Italy but which has grown into one of the most dangerous, internationally active and financially sophisticated criminal enterprises in the western world.

Over the past two decades, the leading families of the ’Ndrangheta — pronounced “en-dran-ghet-ah” — have expanded operations far outside their small home region. Today they control a large part of cocaine importation into Europe, as well as arms smuggling, extortion and cross-border money laundering. Several hundred autonomous clans have been transformed into one of Italy’s most successful businesses, with some studies estimating their combined annual turnover to be as high as €44bn — believed by law-enforcement agencies to be more than all the Mexican drug ­cartels combined. 

Yet even among such lucrative criminal activities, the riches on offer from plundering Italy’s public health system stood out as a golden opportunity. By corrupting local officials, organised criminals have been able to make vast profits from contracts given to their own front companies, establishing monopolies on services ranging from delivering patients in faulty ambulances to transporting blood to taking away the dead. 

All these services were billed to the Italian taxpayer through the country’s centrally funded yet regionally administered health service, which distributes an annual budget of billions of euros — an unrivalled prize for criminal gangs. So tight was the clans’ grip that doctors in Lamezia Terme reported having to wait outside a hospital ward for men from the ’Ndrangheta to open the locked door with their keys. 

An investigation by the Financial Times has established how the trail of money from these crimes washed into the financial centres of London and Milan. Over the past five years, profits gained from the misery of patients in Calabrian hospitals were packaged up into debt instruments using the kind of financial engineering typically favoured by hedge funds and investment banks. Hundreds of millions of euros of these bonds, many containing dubious invoices signed off by parts of the health system later found to have been infiltrated by organised crime, were sold to international investors ranging from Italian private banks to a pension fund in South Korea. 

The previously unreported use of capital ­markets by Mafia clans profiting from Calabria’s health crisis shows how far a criminal subculture once derided as mountain-dwelling goat farmers has metastasised into a globalised crime syndicate that is as comfortable operating in the world of high finance as it is extorting local businesses. 

How the ’Ndrangheta emerged as one of the world’s most successful criminal enterprises can only be understood by realising how well-suited its agile and entrepreneurial organisational structure, based on blood ties, is to maintaining a stranglehold on Calabrian public life.

Calabria is not only the poorest region in Italy, but one of the most deprived in the EU. With a population of two million, its gross domestic product per head is €17,200, almost half the European average. A US diplomatic cable in 2008 noted: “If it were not part of Italy, Calabria would be a failed state.” The ’Ndrangheta, it said, “controls vast portions of its territory and economy, and accounts for at least three per cent of Italy’s GDP (probably much more) through drug trafficking, extortion and usury”.

A decade — and three Italian recessions — later the local economy has got worse, with the region consistently ranking in last place nationally in almost every category. Unemployment has increased from 12.9 per cent in 2010 to more than 20 per cent today.

For decades, almost no one in Italy paid any attention to the ’Ndrangheta, whose name originates from the Greek word for “courage”. By the mid-1990s, however, a huge opportunity opened up before them. The Sicilian Cosa Nostra had been devastated by a sustained anti-Mafia campaign by the Italian state. The Calabrians seized on the chance to take over their relationships with Latin-American drug cartels. 

Unlike the Cosa Nostra, the families that make up the ’Ndrangheta are not organised into a ­centralised, top-down structure, but instead operate their own autonomous units, or ’Ndrine, each rooted in the territory it controls. And, unlike the Sicilian Mafia or the Camorra of Naples, membership of the different ’Ndrine is almost entirely organised around blood relationships or by intermarriage between clans. This has made them more resistant than other organised criminal groups to state penetration of their operations. 

Patriarchs control which clan members are inducted into the organisation’s higher levels, with sons frequently taking over should their fathers be imprisoned or killed. In March this year, Rocco Molè, a 25-year-old scion of one of Calabria’s most established crime families, the Molè ’Ndrina of the port of Gioia Tauro, was arrested and charged with importing a shipment of 500kg of cocaine hidden in plastic containers.

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