Dozens of members of the Sicilian mafia were arrested across Italy this week as authorities fear organized crime may be using the pandemic to increase its power. Credit: Handout.

Sicily’s mafia was dealt a setback in its bid to exploit the economic downturn caused by the pandemic.

Hundreds of officers swarmed the Sicilian capital of Palermo early on Tuesday morning in a mega-raid carried out by The Guardia di Finanza, which is in charge of financial crimes and regularly tasked with bringing down organized crime figures, SkyNews reported.

They detained 91 suspects in multiple raids across Sicily and parts of northern Italy for a string of offences including money laundering, drug trafficking, extortion and sports fixing.

Investigators claim they were trying to use money obtained through these illegal means to buy up hotels, restaurants, pharmacies and other firms so they could exert more power, the report said.

One suspect was heard saying “Look, we pay cash” in an intercepted phone call, Palermo chief prosecutor Lo Voi claimed.

Officers from the Financial Guard also seized €15 million (US$16.2 million) in suspected ill-gained assets, including 13 race horses, the report said.

Amongst those arrested were members of the Acquasanta, Arenella, Ferrante, and Fontana families, reported.

Ordering the arrests, Palermo magistrate Piergiorgio Morosini said the lockdown “has caused a liquidity crisis that will be hard to reverse” for many businesses — a situation that organized crime would be eager to exploit, the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera reported.

Prosecutors, including those investigating Italy’s most dominant crime syndicate, the Calabria-based ‘Ndrangheta, have warned the mafia could also recruit those left jobless in the lockdown, the report said.

Italy was the first European country to be hit hard by coronavirus, with 219,814 confirmed cases nationwide and 30,739 deaths.

Mafia bosses have sought to take over businesses across Italy for years, the report said.

Italian crime syndicates have been known to go on property-buying sprees since the 1990s to try to make “clean” money from dirty profits.

One of the men arrested was Daniele Santoianni, a former contestant on the Italian iteration of the popular reality show Big Brother, reported.

He had been appointed the legal spokesman for a company called Mok Caffe, which claimed to be a coffee importer but is believed to be a front for organized crime.

With unemployment climbing, people in Sicily have reported receiving much needed funds, essential supplies, and groceries from local mafia members, reported.

The practice of appearing to step in with help where state institutions are lacking has long been a tactic of maintaining control and gathering tacit public approval throughout the Cosa Nostra’s centuries-long history.