AS the spiritual pilgrimage site for the world’s most powerful Mafia bosses, the Shrine of our Lady of Polsi in Calabria’s Aspromonte mountains has long symbolised the lawlessness that still prevails in corners of southern Italy.
Overlooking steep olive groves, the 800-year-old sanctuary has served for more than a century as the venue for the annual general meeting of the ‘Ndrangheta, or Calabrian Mafia, whose global crime empire now eclipses even the Cosa Nostra’s on nearby Sicily.
So when local officials decided to a build an anti-Mafia community centre near the shrine – aimed at promoting a “culture of legality” after a particularly bloody Mob feud – the European Union was keen to help out with funds.
Now, however, the €650,000 “House of Law” has fallen foul of the very problem it was meant to fight. The project is currently under investigation by an anti-Mafia magistrate, following the arrest in July of a suspected ‘Ndrangheta associate accused of secretly bidding for one of the contracts to build it.
The scandal has caused no great surprise in Calabria, where public sector graft is now as lucrative a racket as drug trafficking and extortion, and where two weeks ago the entire council of the debt-ridden provincial capital, Reggio Calabria, was dissolved on suspicion of Mafia infiltration.
What has raised eyebrows, though, is how Brussels has been willing to hand over vast sums to Calabria and other Mafia-plagued regions of Italy over the years, despite the very real risk of taxpayers’ cash ending up in Mob hands.
Since 2007 alone, the EU has authorised some €3 billion to Calabria alone, ostensibly to develop one of Italy’s most backward and isolated areas. Yet hefty slices of that cash are thought to have gone to the Mafia, which is thought to have taken “pizzo”, or Mob tax, on the building of everything from roads to windfarms.
“We have seen this kind of fraud ever since huge amounts of public money started to arrive down here in southern Italy,” local anti-mafia magistrate Roberto Di Palma, who has conducted 25 inquiries into misuse of EU funds, told The Sunday Telegraph.
“The ‘Ndrangheta is like an octopus, and wherever there is money, you will find its tentacles.”
The scandal comes as the European Commission pushes for a 6.8 per cent increase in spending, much of it for job-creating infrastructure projects in south and east Europe. As part of the new campaign to repatriate powers from Brussels, Eurosceptic Tory MPs are demanding that the Prime Minister, David Cameron, claw back some of the £5 billion that Britain contributes annually to these EU “structural funds”. EU leaders are due to agree a new framework for the next seven years of the budget at a summit next month.
Although less well-known than the Cosa Nostra or the Naples-based Camorra, the ‘Ndrangheta, whose name derives from an ancient Greek term for “defiance and valiance”, has become the most feared of all Italy’s three main mobs in the last decade.
According to a 2008 report by Italy’s parliamentary anti-mafia commission, the ‘Ndrangheta wields considerable influence in the vast Calabrian container port of Gioia Tauro – itself the recipient of a €40 million EU development grant in the 1990s – helping it to become one of the major importers of drugs into Europe, with direct links to Colombian and Mexican cartels. But while contraband is the ‘Ndrangheta’s main business, corruption is thought to account for more than one euro in 10 of its estimated €44 billion annual income.
The extent of its grip on public life has now been laid bare in Reggio Calabria, a balmy seaside city where, according to a local joke, the weather is the only thing cannot be bribed. In an unprecedented move, the Italian interior ministry has suspended all 30 city councillors amid fears of “mafia contagion”, and despatched three commissioners from Rome to take over.
It followed the arrest of three councillors and the boss of a local rubbish company who was suspected of colluding with ‘Ndrangheta bosses to inflate the cost of public works contracts. Dozens of Calabrian town councils are already under similar “direct rule”, but this was first time it had happened to an entire provincial administration.
Last week, the Art Nouveau-decorated city hall in Reggio Calabria was largely deserted, with none of the suspended councillors available for comment. However, in a brief interview as he strode down one of the empty corridors, one of the three new commissioners made no bones of the challenge ahead.
“It is going to be a real struggle to save this administration, and we won’t see results four or six months,” said a tired-looking Guiseppe Castado. “But it is not an impossible task, and with the help of everyone in this building and the people of Calabria, we can do it.”
Such help is unlikely to be coming from the village of San Luca, several miles walk down a cactus-flanked mountain path from the Shrine of our Lady of Polsi.
For if the tentacles of the ‘Ndrangheta stretch across Calabria and the world, this is where head is. As the home of one of its most powerful clans, the Strangio-Nirta and the Pelle-Vottari-Romeo, San Luca is the ‘Ndrangheta’s answer to Corleone, the Sicilian village made famous by the Godfather movies.
A winding maze of sloping alleyways, the village feels outwardly normal, save for a few bullet-ridden wheelie bins that locals use for target practice, and watchful glances from the moped-riding “sentinelle” youths, who act as look-outs. But only last summer, a new generation of Ndrangheta “foot soldiers” were invested here at a lavish dinner hosted by local clan bosses, whose murderous feuds have filled the local cemetery.
They have also occasionally spilled into the wider world, including the gunning down of six clan members outside a pizzeria in Duisburg in Germany in 2007, one of the worst ever Mob killings on non-Italian soil.
It was in the wake of the Duisburg massacre, which thrust the ‘Ndrangheta into the international spotlight for the first time, that the Italian authorities decided to build the House of Law near the Lady of Polsi shrine. Legitimate pilgrims had been scared away from visiting it, and the mayor of San Luca had hoped it would improve his fiefdom’s image.
“San Luca has no more Mafia than anywhere else, and besides, even Jesus dined with thieves,” said Sebastiano Giorgi,, speaking on the steps of the village church. “But we all get tarred with the same brush, just like you English with your football hooligans.”
Today, though, the House of Law is still a building site – as, critics say, are all too many other public projects in Italy, which has received roughly €60 billion in EU development funds since 2000. Mr di Palma, the magistrate, has come across corruption of EU funds everywhere – including some of the buildings at the port at Gioia Tauro.
“On paper the EU gives lots of money, but sometimes these projects never get off the ground,” said Mr di Palma, who works from a high-security court where magistrates have armed bodyguards.
“Say you have a project like a dam, which costs €100 million, for which both the EU and the national government contribute €50 million each. The problem is that the money goes straight to the firm doing the work.
“Then, once the work begins, the firm will suddenly disappear, stealing the cash and leaving just a few pillars built in the soil.”
Many of those pillars are for flyovers on the 300-mile A3 coastal motorway from Reggio Calabria to Naples, which has had €10 billion of EU funding in the last decade alone, and which is the subject of Mr di Palma’s biggest fraud probe. Begun exactly 50 years ago, it was originally conceived as Italy’s main north-south arterial route, ending the isolation that has allowed regions like Calabria to linger as crime-ridden backwaters.
But as might be expected with any route linking two Mafia capitals, at least a dozen Mob clans muscled in on the construction work, according to Italian prosecutors.
“When any construction firm wanted to work on the A3, the first person they went to see was not the local mayor but the local ‘Ndrangheta boss,” said Paolo Toscano, editor of Calabria’s Gazetta del Sud, who has received death threats for his coverage of ‘Ndrangheta activities. “They would pay that boss three per cent commission so that their construction sites weren’t destroyed.”
The chaos caused by the Mob infiltration of the A3 project can be seen just from driving the 40-mile stretch from Reggio Calabria to Gioia Tauro. What should be Italy’s answer to Britain’s M1 is a satnav-defeating obstacle course of construction sites and blind corners, which dwindles to single lanes in many stretches. Some of the ongoing projects bear signs dating back to 1992, yet many are devoid of workmen.
In the town of Bagnara, over which the A3 soars along a 380 metre high viaduct that not yet finished, the road has become a standing joke among locals like Gregorio Campira. He has collected photos of the viaduct at different stages of construction over the years, some of which are in black and white and date back to 1973. “It’s like watching a movie, day after day, but a very slow one,” he said. “Will it ever be built? I doubt it.”
In July, following Mr di Palma’s probes into the A3, the European Union reclaimed some €383 million of its funding budget from Rome, declaring the project ridden with ghost-works and kickbacks. The payout was hugely embarrassing to the Italian government, which is attempting an image of financial probity amid ongoing talk that it may have to request a financial bail-out from Brussels. However, critics say the EU itself must to more to ensure that it monitors where its own cash is going.
“The fact that this money has been recovered by the EU is good news,” said Vincenzo Scarpetta, of the Open Europe think-tank. “But it also shows how vulnerable EU subsidies are to fraud and mismanagement, and the need for vigilance on future grants.”
On which note, Brussels officials may like to know that Mr Giorgi, the mayor of San Luca, is planning to lobby both Italian and EU officials for a series of new schemes, including a cultural centre to promote a new “positive” image. This comes despite a local court opening a fresh graft inquiry only last week on a project to build a new highway leading to the village. In present-day Calabria, it seems, all roads lead in some way or other to San Luca.