In coronavirus hit Italy, the mob is already looking to clean up

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - As Italy mourns thousands of coronavirus dead and survivors brace for life in an economic wasteland, one rung of society looks to win big: organised crime.

Over 10,000 people have died in Italy of the flu-like disease, which has forced the country into a lockdown that is devastating the eurozone's third-largest economy.

"The Italian mafia can turn threats into opportunities," top government anti-mafia investigator Giuseppe Governale said.

From the historic Cosa Nostra in Sicily, to the immensely powerful 'Ndrangheta in Calabria and trigger-happy Camorra in Naples, Italy's mafias were "caught on the back foot [by the virus], but are now organising themselves," Mr Governale said.

The Economist Intelligence Unit said on Thursday that it expected Italy's GDP to contract by a colossal 7 per cent for the year. Italian experts say some 65 per cent of Italian small and medium businesses are at risk of bankruptcy.

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Coronavirus around the world

Police inspector Rajesh Babu wearing coronavirus-themed helmet speaks to a family on a motorbike at a checkpoint during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus in Chennai. AFP

A train attendant wearing a protective face mask stands on a train to Wuhan, at the railway station in Beijing, China. EPA

Migrant workers hang on to a door of their moving bus as they return to their villages, during a 21-day nationwide lockdown to limit the spreading of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Ghaziabad, on the outskirts of New Delhi. REUTERS

Migrant workers walk towards a bus station along a highway with their families as they return to their villages, during a 21-day nationwide lockdown to limit the spreading of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Ghaziabad, on the outskirts of New Delhi. REUTERS

Medical personnel and hosts cheer from the windows of the Honegger nursing home where 35 people have died so far from coronavirus in Albino, Italy. AFP

Workers in protective gear wait for passengers arriving at the railway station in Wuhan, China's central Hubei province after travel restrictions into the city were eased following two months of lockdown. AFP

Lithuanian groom Dainius and his bride Ramune pose for the photographer, wearing protective masks against the new coronavirus after their wedding ceremony in Vilnius, Lithuania. AFP

A woman helps a child with a mask after members of NGO "Team Humanity" gave out handmade protective face masks to migrants and refugees in the camp of Moria in the island of Lesbos as as the country is under lockdown. AFP

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Police officers patrol the Botafogo beach following the closure of the beaches, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. REUTERS

The police musical band performs for the people on a street, as the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak continues, in Guatemala City, Guatemala. REUTERS

Rev. Luke Ssemakula (L) gives a blessing after hearing a parishioner's confession in the parking lot of St. Augustine Catholic Church during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, in Pleasanton, California, USA. EPA

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That is music to the ears of the country's mobs, who use extortion and usury to feast on ailing businesses.

"Just look at the portfolio of the mafias, to see how much they can earn from this pandemic," Italian anti-mafia author Roberto Saviano said in an interview in the Repubblica daily this week.

"Where have they invested [over] the last few decades? Multi-service companies [canteens, cleaning, disinfection], waste recycling, transportation, funeral homes, oil and food distribution. That's how they'll make money.

"The mafias know what you have, and will need, and they give it, and will give it, on their own terms."

Mr Saviano pointed to the last big epidemic in Italy, the 1884 Cholera outbreak in Naples, which killed more than half of the city's inhabitants.

The government paid out vast sums for a clean-up – which went straight into the pockets of the Camorra.

The mafia "is already carefully planning ahead to when the economy will start to be rebuilt," said Mr Governale, who heads up Italy's anti-mafia investigation directorate (DIA).

"There will be a lot of money going around."

The 62-year old Sicilian said his team was preparing a plan to combat mafia infiltration.

"They will be looking for loopholes in the system. We'll have to keep our eyes open for... suspicious operations, the creation of new companies, dummy corporations."

Giuseppe Pignatone, a former mafia-hunter in Reggio Calabria, said the epidemic would "inevitably make the judiciary's job more difficult over the coming weeks and years".

The trials of hundreds of defendants have ground to a halt.

The redirection of police resources over the crisis could also contribute to the mafia blossoming, as officers "already weighed down by new roles may have to face public order problems," he said.

According to the Stampa daily, Italy's secret service has warned the government of potential riots in southern Italy - fomented by organised crime groups - should the virus epicentre move from north to south.

Mobsters were believed by some crime experts to have orchestrated revolts in jails across the country early on in the epidemic, with prisoners fearful of catching the disease in overcrowded facilities demanding early release.

"Very worryingly, some with lighter sentences are being allowed out," said Nicola Gratteri, a leading prosecutor in the 'Ndrangheta stronghold of Calabria.

Rights group Antigone said over 2,500 prisoners had been released since February 29 to ease overcrowding.

"People linked to the 'Ndrangheta have already been released and put under house arrest," he said.

"That presents a real danger".

Updated: March 29, 2020 04:52 PM

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