Mafia clans jailed in landmark maxi-trial after pocketing millions in EU farm funds – POLITICO
ROME — Dozens of Sicilian mafiosi and their white-collar accomplices have been jailed in a historic trial that showed how the mob defrauded the EU of millions of euros.
The year-and-a-half maxi-trial of 101 defendants in a bunker-style courthouse in Messina, Sicily, ended early Tuesday, with 91 of the defendants sentenced to 660 years in prison for crimes including fraud, misrepresentation, extortion, establishment of false businesses for illegal purposes and drug trafficking. Two of the gang leaders will go to prison for 30 years and 23 years. The verdicts and sentences took over an hour to read.
The lawsuit revealed for the first time a scheme of scams that drained at least €5 million of EU agricultural funds into the coffers of two Mafia clans based in the Nebrodi Mountains and their associates, including accountants, politicians and government employees.
“The trial showed that there is a modern mafia that has moved from extortion and drugs to more sophisticated forms of income, using fraud to obtain public funds for the development of Sicily,” said the prosecutor Maurizio De Lucia to POLITICO.
Italy has a long history of fighting corruption and the lawsuit could raise concerns over the 191.5 billion euros Italy is set to receive as part of the EU’s post-pandemic economic recovery fund. But successful prosecutions could also highlight the country’s ability to crack down on crime.
In 2020, after a four-year investigation, around 1,000 police raided the homes of dozens of suspected mob members – with nicknames like Blondie, Banger and Vito Corleone (after Marlon Brando’s character in “The Godfather “).
The two clans fought a turf war in the 1980s and 1990s, which left over 40 people dead. But then they put their differences aside in their joint effort to defraud the EU.
Bribing local officials, they identified land where EU funds had not yet been claimed and appropriated it by threatening landowners or creating fake rental contracts in the name of straw men, DeLucia said.
Often they did not bother to cultivate the land and even asked for funding on land not used for farms or land they did not control, including a plot belonging to the Catholic Church and a another used by the US Navy to host satellite communications.
Authorities became aware that mafia clans were siphoning off EU grants around 2012, when Giuseppe Antoci, former president of the Nebrodi region, tightened background checks on applicants for the funds. These controls are now part of national law.
This repression put Antoci in danger; he was the target of an assassination attempt in 2016, the most publicized attack on an institutional figure since the 1990s. He now lives in armed guard 24 hours a day, but he was at the courthouse to see reading the verdicts.
“This territory was called ‘the land of dead souls’ because it was so overpowered by the crowds,” he told POLITICO. “The clans used to be at war in the past, but lately they didn’t need to kill each other anymore. because the money came from the EU. They divided the land, humiliated the people. These are the small farmers who paid the price No one could stand up to them or they would be corrected, as they say, using the traditional mafia methods of extortion and intimidation.
“More than 600 years in prison is a very strong signal. This territory is now liberated and can teach the country something,” he said.
The investigation and trial have encouraged prosecutors in other regions and countries to conduct their own investigations, according to De Lucia.
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