Head of Anti Mafia force (DIA), Carla Durante, left, is...

Head of Anti Mafia force (DIA), Carla Durante, left, is silhouetted has she talks with her team in the wire-tape room of the DIA headquarters in Lecce, Italy, Tuesday, May 21, 2024. Credit: AP/Alessandra Tarantino

ROME — Last month, an Italian administrative court confirmed the dissolution of the city administration of the Puglia city of Neviano, after an investigation determined that local officials were being unduly influenced by the mafia.

The decision barely made news in Italy, where city hall administrations, town councils and local public health agencies are regularly dissolved because of mafia infiltration or collusion, and independent commissioners appointed to take over.

While the popular image of the Italian mob was made famous by Don Corleone and the gangland shootouts of “The Godfather,” the reality of organized crime in Italy today is far more nuanced and eats away at the heart of its democracy: local governance.

From the awarding of big public works contracts to small-town decisions about who manages landfills, parking lots and beach concessions, local governments are particularly vulnerable to mafia influence and corruption, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, an interagency organization.

Puglia, which will host this week’s Group of Seven summit, ranks fourth among Italian regions in the number of local administrations that have been dissolved because of mafia infiltration, with 26 decrees issued since 1991, out of a national total of 326, according to Avviso Pubblico, an Italian association that tracks the decrees.

That fourth-place ranking also corresponds to the fourth-place status of its local mafia, the Sacra Corona Unita, on the hierarchy of Italy's mafia clans.

The SCU is the youngest and smallest of the organized crime groups in the country, after the ‘ndrangheta in Calabria, the Camorra in Campania and Cosa Nostra in Sicily. And it is the only one whose origins are really known: it was founded in prison in the early 1980s by Pino Rogoli as an autonomous Puglia-based alternative to other mobs.

An aerial view of Masseria La Tenente confiscated from a...

An aerial view of Masseria La Tenente confiscated from a mafioso in 2014 who was killed named Lucio Vetrugno known as "Lucio the Tiger" – he kept a tiger on the property. the government gave it to Caritas to be transformed into a community center in Copertino, near Lecce, Italy, Tuesday, May 21, 2024. Credit: AP/Alessandra Tarantino

While initially focusing on the trafficking of cigarettes and other contraband with Balkan countries, the SCU’s clan-based organization morphed into drug trafficking and extortion.

In the 2000s, it began a new phase “of getting rooted in the territory, the so-called cover-up and camouflage phase," said Marilù Mastrogiovanni, an investigative journalist and journalism professor at the University of Bari.

That phase, which is bearing fruits for clans today, involved avoiding calamitous acts of violence "so that everyone, from ordinary citizens to law enforcement, would forget about it,” she said.

Now, the focus is on laundering drug profits through legitimate front companies, many catering to Puglia’s booming tourism industry, while infiltrating the local public administration to steer public contracts its way, said Carla Durante, head of the Lecce office of Italy’s Anti-Mafia Investigative Directorate.

A scene of "Your Honor, on the side of the...

A scene of "Your Honor, on the side of the guilty", the latest work by Judge Maria Francesca Mariano staged at the Apollo Theatre in Lecce, Italy, Monday, May 20, 2024. Mariano is living under 24 hour police escort after receiving death threats. In July 2023 Mariano issued the arrest warrants for 22 members of the Lamendola Clan accused of mafia association, drug trafficking, attempted homicide, possession of illegal weapons. Credit: AP/Alessandra Tarantino

Europol, the European police force, says 60% of the organized crime groups it tracks in Europe engage in some sort of corruption, from petty bribery of public officials to multi-million euro corruption schemes.

“Corruption erodes the rule of law, weakens institutions of states and hinders economic development,” Europol said in its latest report, “Serious and Organized Crime Threat Assessment.”

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