Reporter 457, 23 October 2000

The crimes they are a-changin' as Europe creates new opportunities

Organised crime is not ‘somebody else’s problem’, says Felia Allum of the European politics group in the Institute for Politics and International Studies.

First, the phenomenon is far from irrelevant to British public life, as the death toll of 58 in the ‘people smuggling’ tragedy at Dover illustrated. Secondly, its nature makes it a perfectly proper research subject for political scientists, Dr Allum maintains.

Italian lessons: Dr Felia Allum believes all of Europe needs to be alert to the threat of cross-border criminal enterprise

After all, an organised crime group is in many ways a ‘political’ formation – it has structures of leadership and authority, interests to pursue either against or within the State, its own internal power struggles – and its own sanctions for those who transgress.

In some states, like Italy, the underworld has at times infiltrated the highest echelons of politics, posing a direct challenge to the democratic system.

Author of a forthcoming book on the role of the Camorra underworld in public life in Naples, Dr Allum points out that the influence of big-time crime is by no means confined to the murkier fringes of Southern Italian politics. Changes in the European economy and political structures have created new market conditions to which crime is fast adapting.

Room with a view: organised crime makes its mark on the suburbs of Naples. Photograph: Riccardo Siano, La Repubblica

"The fall of the Iron Curtain and the subsequent conflicts in Eastern Europe opened up a lot of opportunities for smugglers of arms, drugs and people," said Dr Allum.

"There was a time when particular forms of gangsterism would be specific to regions or countries, like the Sicilian Cosa Nostra or the Marseillais demi-monde. We are now seeing the emergence of transnational gangs of Italians, Albanians and Turks, with East European organised crime laundering its money in the West, South European gangsters doing business in the East, and Asian and Caribbean crime syndicates making their presence felt in Europe.

"European integration, and the Schengen Agreement’s relaxation of border controls, changed the whole picture. Organised crime has been quicker to respond to the changes of the past 15 years than the politicians and law enforcement agencies."

Her particular interest in Neapolitan crime developed when she visited the Campania region in the 1980s and noticed ‘something in the air’ which people generally didn’t discuss.

That changed with the crisis which swept through the Italian political system through the following decade.

Mean streets: Camorra gunmen have just settled another routine difference of opinion on business matters. Photograph: Riccardo Siano, La Repubblica

The confessions of supergrasses, or pentiti, from the 1984 case of Tommasso Buscetta to his Neapolitan counterpart, Pasquale Galasso, in 1993 brought to the surface realities which many had only guessed at, about the intimate ties between major-league gangsters and parts of the political establishment.

"In the early post-war years, money and power were not the central driving forces of Camorra crime. There were cultural aspects to it, even questions of survival – people stealing chickens or cows to feed their families.

"By the 1980s, under the tutelage of the Sicilian Mafia and fuelled by drugs money, there were strong links between crime, ‘legitimate’ business and politics. The Camorra was run by wealthy young men, with luxury houses and flash cars, who just wanted to have it all."

Relationships between criminals and politicians underwent a transformation. Originally, they were based on low-level clientelistic exchanges: politicians turned a blind eye to crime in return for having the vote mobilised and delivered through the extensive family and social networks linked to the underworld.

As the gangsters built their economic clout in the 1970s, they were able to infiltrate parties, purchase the favours of malleable councillors and set the agenda for local and regional government. The distribution of huge construction contracts in the aftermath of Southern Italy’s 1980 earthquake to companies linked to the ‘men of honour’ set a precedent for corrupt dealmaking in many other areas of public spending.

Changes in Italy’s domestic politics in recent years have undermined the gangsters’ clout. But Dr Allum – who next semester launches a new, heavily-subscribed module on organised crime – warns that they are undoubtedly exploring new avenues: "When they are off the front-page news and the TV headlines for a while, it’s usually because they are too busy."

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