Analysis - Mafia ties grow in north Italy despite arrests
ROME (Reuters) - The Italian government may crow about its recent high-profile mafia arrests, but experts on organised crime say the successes belie increasing mob infiltration in the country's northern financial heartland.
This month's arrest of Antonio Iovine, a boss of the Camorra group based around Naples, was celebrated as a "major blow to organised crime" by Interior Minister Roberto Maroni, who said only two of Italy's 30 most wanted mobsters remain at large.
Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who faces a confidence vote in December which could lead to early elections, also used the arrest to trumpet an anti-mafia drive which Maroni said had led to 6,754 arrests.
Arrests of ringleaders are a step forward, though emerging signs of the growing power of clans in less traditional spheres of influence has fuelled debate about how effective the government's anti-mafia strategy really is.
"The fight against the mafia has been quite a serious one and the government has achieved some success, mostly in the area of arresting some of the bosses," said Anna Bull, professor of Italian history and politics at Bath University in England.
"But there is another element of organised crime in Italy, which is the financial element," she said.
Mafia groups have traditionally been rooted in the poorer south of Italy, where the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, the 'Ndrangheta in Calabria and the Camorra in Campania have dug their tentacles deep into all levels of society.
But a report by anti-mafia investigative authority DIA published online this week describes how criminal syndicates are increasingly linked with companies and local authorities in Italy's northern regions such as Lombardy, Italy's economic hub.
"The Calabrian criminal model is asserting itself also in the richest and most developed regions in the north of the country, where it has significant opportunities for insertion," DIA said in the report.
"Methods of infiltration have moved towards sophisticated systems of intrusion in the political and local administration sphere," it added.
Similar comments by Roberto Saviano, author of the best-seller "Gomorrah," a powerful expose of the Camorra, have sparked a public spat with Maroni, a senior member of the Northern League party, Berlusconi's coalition partners.
In a television programme watched by more than 9 million Italians this month, Saviano, who has been forced to live under police protection because of death threats, said 'Ndrangheta members regularly deal with members of the Northern League.
Maroni, whose party has long derided the corruption and crime in the south which it contrasts to the more prosperous and law abiding north, reacted furiously, calling Saviano's accusations against the party "an infamy."
Combined annual turnover of Italy's mafia is estimated at 135 billion euros (£118.4 billion), according to business association SOS Impresa.
Experts say infiltration in the north has long been overlooked because it is seen as a southern problem.
"The mafia have been in the north for a long time, their influence growing silently," said Lorenzio Frigerio, Lombardy representative for anti-mafia organisation Libera. "They have always sought out ties to power, regardless of political party."
A mass swoop in July underscored the extent of the problem with police arresting hundreds of people connected to the 'Ndrangheta after a wide-ranging probe into crimes linked to business and finance in northern Italy.
Lombardy is now the fourth main region of Italy for mafia property confiscations, and the third region for confiscations of companies from criminal syndicates, according to Libera.
Clans' links to northern banks and firms have helped them to expand into profitable sectors and recycle profits made from criminal activities such as trafficking drugs.
"These criminal organisations have successfully managed to establish contacts with legal bodies such as banks because they need to launder money," said Bull.
Reports of suspect transactions, which could be part of money laundering operations, grew by about 32 percent in the first-half of 2010 compared to the previous half-year, DIA said.
Almost half of those transactions were reported in northern regions, with most cases found in credit institutions, financial intermediaries and public administration, according to the report.
The financial crisis has not helped, encouraging vulnerable businesses to turn to the mafia while leading to cuts in spending on police and security, and campaigners say a solution to the problem will require more than just high-profile arrests.
"To really win the battle against the mafia, we need to work on prevention, to make sure there are no longer the social, economic and political conditions in place that allow the mafia to exert its power in our country," said Libera's Frigerio.
(Editing by Ron Askew)
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