Milan | “You pay or we open you in half like a gate.” Of these threats, Gabriele Menotti Lippolis finds it difficult to speak. Like many Italian business leaders, he was the victim of criminals, often mafia, an increased risk with the pandemic.
Testifying is not easy, he told AFP. But “I do it because I think entrepreneurs should file a complaint when it happens, both for the good of businesses and territories. We must not accept violence or threats, but make it understood that the State is the stronger. It is only together that we will beat the mafias ”.
Mr. Lippolis, 43 years old, runs an events company and is also present in tourism, with restaurants and one of the largest “beach clubs” in Puglia (south).
He was the victim of extortion attempts twice, in 2013 and 2017.
“Someone approached me and asked me for an amount to pay. I didn’t say “no” right away, so that I could be at the police station half an hour later to file a complaint. The security forces arrested the person who threatened me and the authorities were always by my side. It was important because these are very difficult times. I thought of my family, of my collaborators ”, because“ the threats were clear ”.
These extortion attempts continue, as evidenced by the revolt of traders in Palermo, Sicily, against the “pizzo” taken by the local mafia, which led to 20 arrests last week.
But authorities fear that with the coronavirus epidemic, the pressure on businesses will increase.
“Containment has put many companies in difficulty and sometimes even on their knees. The Mafiosi are trying to take advantage of this to infiltrate. One of their strategies is to lend money; when it is not returned, they appropriate the business, ”underlines Enzo Ciconte, author of numerous books on the Mafia.
Often the rates offered to entrepreneurs on the verge of bankruptcy – who fail to obtain the necessary bank loans – are exorbitant, sometimes over 500%. The pressure to reimburse gradually intensifies, with phone calls and visits.
Once the entrepreneur is cornered, “the Mafiosi can eventually leave him in place but the gains go into their pockets. It’s a good technique because it makes police investigations more complicated, ”explains Enzo Ciconte.
Originally from southern Italy, the mafias are now present everywhere, including in the rich and industrial north.
“In Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna and Piedmont, it is the men of the ‘Ndrangheta (the powerful Calabrian mafia) who are the strongest, having settled there from the 1950s. In Veneto, we find the ‘Ndrangheta and the Camorra (the Neapolitan mafia). In Lazio (region of Rome) there are the Camorrists and the ‘Ndrangheta. In contrast, the men of the Sicilian mafia have lost influence and are now few in number. After the attacks which caused the death of (judges) Falcone and Borsellino, they had to undergo the reaction of the authorities ”, notes Mr. Ciconte.
Infiltrating a business can be a good way to launder the huge sums of dirty money that come from drugs or prostitution.
But also to recover even more, including by creating companies themselves: with the billions of euros that will be released thanks to the European recovery plan, the threat is increasing.
“The history of organized crime has taught us that whenever there is a large flow of money, there is a risk of infiltration. We are sure that there will be attempts and we are implementing all preventive measures to avoid them, ”Naples prefect Marco Valentini told AFP.
Among the indicators closely watched by the investigators: “the composition of the board of directors (and its evolution), kinship relations with members of organized crime, the suspicious transfer of holdings or headquarters”, explains he.
Like his counterparts, this year he is making massive use of “anti-mafia bans”, administrative measures allowing companies to be excluded from contracts with the public administration (services, works, supply of goods).
These bans reduce the attractiveness of these companies.
According to figures in mid-October communicated to AFP by the Interior Ministry, the Italian prefects have taken more than 1,600 “anti-mafia bans” since the start of the year. An increase estimated at 25% compared to 2019 by the daily “La Repubblica”.
Two regions of the South, Campania and Calabria, alone bring together half, but the North is also concerned: more than 200 in Emilia-Romagna for example.
“The sectors most affected are catering (restaurants, pizzerias, bars), construction and health”, underlines the prefect Valentini.
“Some companies are vulnerable and it is very important not only that the state supports them, but that a network is created so that they do not turn to (criminal networks). Entrepreneurs approached by suspicious people must also dare to denounce them, ”he emphasizes.
“The entrepreneur was historically proud and had difficulty in confiding in the event of problems. But this is changing, ”underlines Mr. Lippolis.
President of the Confindustria organization of young entrepreneurs of Puglia, he refuses to allow the South to be considered a “no man’s-land”, stressing its “enormous potential” for entrepreneurs investing there.
Denunciations seem to be more numerous, as evidenced by Palermo.
“Entrepreneurs understood that the Mafiosi could be defeated and side with the state,” which was not the case before, notes Enzo Ciconte.
If this specialist has confidence in the ability of the Italian authorities to deal with the Mafia, he says, on the other hand, “very concerned that other European countries are underestimating this risk and do not put in place preventive measures” when planning. relaunch.
“However, if an Italian company infiltrated by the Mafia comes to work in France or Germany, it is the Italian Mafia that comes out strengthened.”