The new mafias
Latin America / Fight against corruption

The new mafias

23 May 2020

The operational nature of the new mafias is liquid, to use the famous definition of contemporary society by the German sociologist Zygmunt Baumann, who divided post-modern society into solid and liquid. In fact, my intention is to describe the operational characteristics of modern organised and economic crime by means of a metaphorical example. Like a liquid it passes silently through bureaucratic mechanisms, corrupting them in order to reach its goal of total domination.

I decided to take the bar examination to become a judge after reading an article published by a newspaper on 31 May 1992. This was eight days after the Capaci massacre, and in the article the judge Giovanni Falcone clearly outlined the history of the ‘Cosa Nostra’ in the post-war period. He denounced the underestimation that had long characterised law enforcement institutions’ approach to the Mafia problem.

Modern organised crime operates by using corruption as its preferred tool. It infiltrates the public administration and the economy by non-violent methods that also extend to commercial activities (legal or illegal, laundering the enormous amounts of money produced by its primary criminal activities).

Corruption, money laundering and illicit companies allow the mafias to handle entire economic cycles over vast territories.

“Organised crime has stable resources”

Today’s criminal groups have stable resources, they offer illegal – and also legal – goods and services, based on market demands, and use sophisticated mechanisms to manage the economy and guarantee order and protection, especially economic and social protection. They manifest themselves through a collective identity focused on the pursuit of profit, rather than on the control of the territory through violence or threats.

The Mafia assumes the entrepreneurial role and the enormous increase in its assets leads it to use the help of brokers, of partners who are part of the public administration.

Contemporary criminal networks draw on globalisation, new technologies and cyberspace; they tend to accumulate huge financial assets and are capable of influencing decision processes. The mafias end up representing a danger to the very freedom of the market and the foundations of the Rule of Law.

Cultural acceptance of corruption

More generally, the ultimate goal of this qualitative leap in organised crime is to create the social basis for the collective cultural acceptance of corruption as a necessary evil.

This move away from violence and threats as the main modus operandi of these criminal organisations does not make them any less dangerous. It exponentially amplifies their operational potential and increases their threat to modern society (through the identifiable and invisible gravitational pull they exert).

Corruption and laundering schemes are recurrent and have surprising similarities across the planet.

Liquid corruption and infiltration

Using a geometric analogy, organised crime and criminal networks stand at the top of a triangle with the public administration on one apex and the economy on the other. On the two sides we can see, on the one hand, corruption as a way to infiltrate the administration of public affairs and on the other, money laundering and illegal companies as an instrument in the operation of the markets.

Liquid corruption is a metaphor reminiscent of the concept of infiltration. Infiltration is a physical phenomenon that describes the penetration of a liquid through all the interstices of a solid. In the metaphor, the liquid is the Mafia and the solid is our society. The more cohesive the society, the less infiltration is possible. When society shows cracks, crime gets in, taking advantage of man’s weaknesses.

Stages of corruption

In the typical model of corruption, the first step on a negative scale is petty corruption: the occasional favour. In this case it is easy to distinguish between corrupter and corrupted.

But the mafias need stable terms of reference and are looking for people they can trust among the different subjective figures that make up the organisational complex of a public administration.

Although these are small cases, this form of operation is expensive if it is repeated countless times. Furthermore, it places criminal organisations at an exponential risk of reporting, increasing the number of possible “unreliable” competitors.

This gave rise to the second step in infiltration, which corresponds to the so-called “payroll” or the on-going sale of a stable function.

Public officials make their position available not for a single act, not in the care of the collective interest, but to ensure the clan’s illicit objectives are achieved.

Even this second type of corruption has, over time, become economically costly and dangerous from the point of view of trust.  Public officials remain outside the organisation, and also, due to the recurring diversion of administrative activities, they could be a dangerous source of information for the judicial police and the judiciary.

Hence the increasingly widespread option of infiltrating gang members into the public administration. They are at the same time members of the Mafia-type criminal association and public officials incorporated into the administration, and therefore beyond suspicion.

This third step for the mafias (and organised crime groups in general) in entering the public administration has proven to be a success. Infiltration has occurred at increasingly higher levels, reaching the highest echelons of local and regional authorities

Corruption: a global phenomenon

This phenomenon of liquid corruption constitutes a worldwide constant and when it affects the highest levels of government it creates an extreme situation and gives rise to so-called “liquid corruption”, Captured States.

Even in these cases, the functioning of criminal networks and corruption play a crucial role, which is widely shared internationally.

However, in these scenarios, where one individual acts as an infiltrator, as an intruder in the association and at the same time as a public official, the current typical definition of corruption seems inadequate.

Corruption and COVID-19

The awareness of the central nature of the proposed question, its relevance and urgency, makes itself felt even more at a time like the present. The economy in crisis due to the pandemic and the socio-economic environment are exposed to the interests and to the danger that they will be “taken advantage” of by organised crime, as indicated by the Italian National Anti-Mafia and Antiterrorism Solicitor, Federico Cafiero de Raho.

The warning about the dangers of infiltration by organised crime, international networks and large-scale corruption in the economy and especially in the health sector, has been widely taken on board around the globe by the main international organisations.

Emblematic of this is the phenomenon of the revival of the mafias, which are enjoying social approval for the charitable activities they have launched. Precisely because the state of crisis causes the impoverishment of people as they are unable to undertake productive activities, the release onto the market of large amounts of money makes organised crime active and increasingly dangerous in managing these activities. These assigned monetary flows are usually opportune, and poorly controlled.

There is no intimidation and violence in this operational form. Would it even be possible to consider the events described as non-Mafia phenomena?

Social education against corruption

I conclude with one last consideration: the regulatory framework must necessarily be adapted to the new appearance of the Mafia. The need to fight together against the mafias and corruption must also be understood.

Faced with such socio-criminal phenomena, it is not possible to think of reacting only by repressing criminal conduct: integrity and transparency are not imposed from above.

It is not the number of compliances and standards that ensure the result. Cultural change is essential.  It is also necessary to advance at the level of social education, of the distribution of options, of participatory democracy. In short, the rule of law in its highest conception.

The double use of a legally-oriented economic environment in an increasingly multilevel legal system adapted to modern criminality and the call for the active participation and collaborative vigilance of civil society together represent the true and only weapon lethal to contemporary silent mafias. These are no less dangerous than the violent mafias that have been operating for thirty years.

Giovanni Tartaglia Polcini Magistrate and Coordinator of the Correctional Systems Component of EL PAcCTO

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