Italian police arrest a mafia crime boss. Crime experts say the mafia is perfectly placed to take advantage of the new poor created by the coronavirus. Credit: AFP.

“If you are hungry, you are looking for bread, it does not matter which oven it is baked from and who is distributing it.” — Roberto Saviano

The mafia loves a crisis.

The bigger the better, for Italy’s infamous jackals.

While Covid-19 wreaks havoc on Italy, killing thousands, overwhelming the medical system and devastating small business, the vaunted mafia — from the historic Cosa Nostra in Sicily, to the immensely powerful ‘Ndrangheta in Calabria and trigger-happy Camorra in Naples — are eager to turn threats into opportunities.

Police in Italy are looking the other way, and that’s not a good thing.

The crisis situation has shifted law enforcement’s focus to enforcing lockdown measures, Fox News reports.

And though the lockdown has cut into their traditional sources – prostitution, drug trafficking and extortion – mafia groups have begun taking control of struggling businesses and individuals desperate for some cash.

The Economist Intelligence Unit said it expected Italy’s GDP to contract by a colossal 7% for the year. Italian experts say some 65% of Italian small and medium businesses are at risk of bankruptcy, AFP reported.

That is music to the ears of the country’s mobs, who deal in extortion and usuary.

“The mafia offers a loan to a business owner who needs money. He knows who he is dealing with but thinks he can manage the situation. He is mistaken,” Maurizio De Lucia, Messina’s chief prosecutor, told Politico.

By infiltrating legitimate businesses, mafia groups have indirect access to the business owner’s relationship with the banks and his books, De Lucia said.

“Just look at the portfolio of the mafias, to see how much they can earn from this pandemic,” Roberto Saviano, author of “Gomorra,” a bestseller on the Naples-based Camorra mafia, told the Repubblica.

“Where have they invested the last few decades? Multi-service companies (canteens, cleaning, disinfection), waste recycling, transportation, funeral homes, oil and food distribution. That’s how they’ll make money.

“The mafias know what you have, and will need, and they give it, and will give it, on their own terms.”

Saviano pointed to the last big epidemic in Italy, the 1884 Cholera outbreak in Naples, which killed more than half of the city’s inhabitants, AFP reported.

The government paid out vast sums for a clean-up — which went straight into the pockets of the Camorra.

“The pandemic is the ideal place for mafias and the reason is simple,” Saviano told VOA News. “If you are hungry, you are looking for bread, it does not matter which oven it is baked from and who is distributing it.”

The mafia “is already carefully planning ahead to when the economy will start to be rebuilt,” said General Giuseppe Governale, who heads up Italy’s anti-mafia investigation directorate (DIA).

“The virus has demonstrated that it doesn’t respect frontiers, and the mafia has demonstrated that it doesn’t either. It is like water, it moves wherever there is a gap.”

And officials say this trend is likely to set the stage for a spike in overall criminal activity well beyond the pandemic — and not just in Italy, Fox News reported.

“There is no [EU] country that is exempt from this problem,” Sabrina Pignedoli, an MEP from Italy’s 5Star Movement, told Politico.

The ’Ndrangheta in particular has exported this know-how to other European countries, particularly in Eastern Europe, according to Pignedoli.

With a huge part of the southern population working in the so-called “black economy” off the books, a whole segment of people lost jobs for which they cannot legally claim unemployment benefits, CNN reported.

Those who do have legitimate employment have been given a path to ask for the suspension of some bills, but black economy workers — of whom there are an estimated 3.7 million, according to ISTAT — have no such outlet for relief.

In addition to the undocumented workers, soup kitchen volunteers in Rome, Palermo, Naples and Bari tell CNN they are seeing petty criminals, from car thieves to cat burglars, joining sex workers queuing for food, unable to afford a daily meal.

This segment of society, for which there is no public accounting, are the most desperate and the most likely to reach breaking point first.

One law enforcement official in Palermo donated his entire monthly salary, around US$2,100, to buy groceries for everyone at a grocery store he was in last week, Palermo police confirmed to CNN.

Police in the southern province of Puglia say that a food delivery truck was hijacked on the main highway near the port town of Bari last week, police confirmed to CNN.

The driver was unharmed, but when the truck was found, every single item was gone.

Many grocery stores now have security guards out front when new merchandise is unloaded to stop people from running up to grab basic supplies.

“We need to act fast, more than fast,” Palermo Mayor Leoluca Orlando told reporters. “Distress could turn into violence.” 

“The situation is very heavy. Because behind the threats of unrest echoed via social networks is a den of mafia jackals ready to exploit the desperation of the new poor from coronavirus,” Orlando said.

“We cannot underestimate the risk of an alliance cemented by despair. In the North the risk is speculative, but here, where there is greater poverty, the danger is that desperate subjects may fall into the hands of criminals, mafia members.”