Stoking Unrest and Distributing Groceries: Italy's Mafias Gain Ground in Fight for Loyalty During Pandemic Lockdown

Across the country, Italians sang "Andrà Tutto Bene" ("everything will be alright") from their balconies. A billboard in Naples read: "Together, Without Fear. Coronavirus is a weak enemy if we fight it together." The country came together each night as the death toll was broadcast at 6 p.m. A stimulus package was introduced, and a solidarity fund was advanced to all municipalities.

Italy, which has suffered the highest death toll in the European outbreak of the novel coronavirus, then saw a break in reported cases in late March. It had flattened the curve as its healthcare systems flexed under the influx of COVID-19 patients, as its military buried the dead, and as its citizens strained under lockdown, waiting for the end.

But now the singing has stopped. Calls to domestic abuse hotlines soared. Discontent and discomfort during the ongoing quarantine has now sowed great divisions in communities where food and money are lacking, perhaps more pronounced in the poorer southern regions of the country. The solidarity cheering has since been replaced by the realization that normalcy may not return by summer as hundreds of thousands remain unemployed, and millions who rely on off-the-books contract labor are afflicted in ways yet incalculable.

For nearly two months, 60 million Italians have remained safe guarded in their homes. As the country enters its third month of lockdown, with Italians expected to stay at home through May 3, a far bleaker picture of the country's future is emerging. It is also a warning to other nations who are determining when lockdowns can be safely lifted.

Signs of growing tensions in Italy last week prompted the interior minister, Luciana Lamorgese, to request greater police attention to "riots by groups of extremists." Her warning was aimed at the mafia, which has capitalized on the pandemic by distributing food, clothing, and money to underprivileged families in lockdown and stoking the tensions underscoring the difficulties of keeping a nation at home.

In recent weeks, videos and local news reports have emerged in which known mafia affiliates have called for parts of Italy's south to rally together. "I appeal to my neighborhood, I need everyone's help, a small sum, to do the shopping for needy children," Giuseppe Cusimano, who distributed food to three neighborhoods in Palermo, wrote on Facebook. Cusimano, who was distributing food in Palermo, has been investigated by authorities for his ties to mobsters, according to La Repubblica. "I don't ask for much, five euros per person. For medicine, diapers, and baby products. Who has a heart contact me in private. At least let's talk well about the neighborhood. The state does not want us to do charity because we are Mafiosi."

"They act with the interest of the organization at heart and never do anything just for benefit of the community," Federico Varese, a professor of criminology at the University of Oxford and a senior research fellow at Nuffield College, told Newsweek."Their gifts are favors to be paid back at some later time."

The state has been slow to act, with taxes for small business suspended rather than forgiven, and those who are employed in contract or freelance labor are not entitled to social benefits. Those who are have found themselves delayed by lethargic local and state bureaucracy, despite a €4.3 billion ($4.6 billion) solidarity fund championed by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and an additional €400 million ($435 million) in food stamps to mayors who have protested the funds, calling them insufficient.

"Any provision that enables people to be free and autonomous helps in the long run also the fight against mafias, who recruit among those in need," Varese said, noting that handing out food itself is not illegal. "The fight against the mafia to be effective must also include social policies that drain away the support Mafias might have in the community. Such policies must come from the government."

Though the country's southern region was not as hard hit by the number of coronavirus cases as the country's north, the south has fallen into worse economic stagnation, a recession it has struggle to overcome since the global financial crises in 2007, according to the most recent figures from CGIA Mestre, a Venice-based small business association. The association reported 76,000 shops operating in Sicily in 2009. By 2019 that number had dropped to 69,000. Now, thousands more have closed for good.

Across Calabria, Sicily, and Puglia, unemployment is growing. In Palermo, 50,000 residents are without income. One resident of Palermo posted a video to social media in which he sits by his daughter who is eating a slice of bread with Nutella. He addresses the mayor, Leoluca Orlando. "If my daughter cannot eat a piece of bread we will go to assault the supermarkets," the man says.

The warnings of unrest extend beyond organized crime and the working class wanting to go back to work, to those who, according to Orlando, rely on petty crime to survive. He has since asked the federal government to establish a basic income because he fears "criminal groups could promote violent acts."

One such group on Facebook, "National Revolution," formed on March 25, has since ballooned to 2,600 members and encouraged its members to loot local grocery markets.

"The people [behind this group] are those who, before the lockdown, made a living from house robberies and shop thefts," an unnamed source from the Sicily unit of Digos, Italy's anti-terrorism police squad, told The Guardian. (Contacted by Newsweek, Digos and several local anti-mafia prosecutors refused to comment.) "But with some of these criminal activities being on standby due to the lockdown, the only shops open to rob are supermarkets and chemists. These are people who, due to rampant poverty in the south, usually survive from criminal activities, but who are now not doing so well." Not long after, a group of roughly 15 people stormed a Lidl grocery store in the city, filling up their carts and refusing to pay. Nearby, small business owners have been pressured to give up free food and supplies.

Federico Cafiero De Raho, the national anti-mafia prosecutor, cautioned that "social consensus is a part of [the mafia's] expansion plan." De Raho, in an interview with Reuters, said that Camorra clans were distributing food to cash-strapped families under quarantine and offering loans whose payments may one day only be paid through working for the mafia. "The Camorra knows this is the right time to invest," he said.

Diego Gambetta, the author of several books on organized crime, including The Sicilian Mafia, told Newsweek that the publicized "helping of the weak" is meant to boost the reputation of criminal enterprises as "bona fide protectors."

"Handouts show that in times of need they assist those who have supported them in the past as well be instrumental in opening 'lines of credit' for future services," Gambetta said and cautioned against jumping to conclusions over whether these are indiscriminate acts of generosity for the needy, or if the mafia is providing support to an established base.

"The grand gestures and the mediatic echo they achieve might tip the balance of reputation in favor of these groups, making the state look inept and uncaring, and encouraging local people to rely on local patronage," he said. "But the situation related to the pandemic is far too turbulent at the moment to make predictions."

Yet in recent weeks there have also been reports of mafia charity in Brazil, South Africa and Japan, not uncommon in times of strife.

"One dollar spent now in donations brings about greater loyalty and gratitude than a dollar spent in peaceful times," Gambetta said.