Listen to this article
Giuseppe Antoci had been warned more than once. “You will end with your throat cut,” read one note, composed entirely of individual letters clipped from newspapers in ransom-note style.
In May 2016, they came. Antoci, then president of the Nebrodi National Park, a protected area in Sicily’s north-east, was returning home from a meeting accompanied by his police escort. As his armour-plated Lancia Thesis rounded a bend in the Miraglia forest, he saw the mountain road was strewn with rocks, forcing the driver to stop.
First, two hitmen fired at the vehicle’s wheels to immobilise it. Then a shootout ensued. The would-be assassins eventually fled but Antoci recalls his terror that night: “The police tried to move me to another car but, in my fear, I didn’t recognise them. I thought I was being kidnapped. I thought of my family and prayed they were safe.”
Antoci believes the attempted hit was ordered by the Sicilian Mafia in retaliation for new regulations blocking millions of euros in EU subsidies on farmland from reaching it. It was the most serious Mafia attack on a state representative since the high-profile assassinations of several Italian prosecutors in the 1990s.
Siphoning off farm subsidies does not carry the same dubious “glamour” as the racketeering or drug running usually associated with the Mafia. But it has become a highly lucrative income stream for Italy’s organised-crime syndicates. Their forays into farming do not end there: in recent years, they have infiltrated the entire food chain, according to a Rome-based think-tank, the Observatory of Crime in Agriculture and the Food Chain.
Taking advantage of the decade-long economic crisis in Italy, the Mafia has bought up cheap farmland, livestock, markets and restaurants, laundering its money through what is one of the country’s leading industries. The value of the so-called agromafia business has almost doubled from €12.5bn in 2011 to more than €22bn in 2018 (growing at an average of 10 per cent a year), according to the Observatory.
It now accounts for 15 per cent of total estimated Mafia turnover. “The reliability of the business in the crisis brought about the interest of the Mafia,” says Stefano Masini, a law professor at the Observatory. “It’s profitable and not dangerous like the drug market. They are now inserted in the industry from field to fork.”
From the terroirs of Chianti to the ancient olive groves of Puglia, Italy’s Mafia organisations have put down roots throughout the food and agriculture sector, from production to packaging, transport and distribution. Police data indicate that all of Italy’s major crime syndicates — the Neapolitan Camorra, the Sicilian Cosa Nostra and the ’Ndrangheta from the region of Calabria — invest in farming.
According to Professor Umberto Santino, a Mafia historian from Palermo, the Mob’s interests in the agricultural industry now extend to “human trafficking, money laundering, extortion, loan sharking, illegal breeding, backstreet butchering and baking and the burial of toxic waste on farmland. It’s an integrated cycle, a full package of systematic interactions.”
In a globalised industry, the Mafia’s reach extends beyond Italy’s borders, affecting the path of food to dinner tables around the world. Often the methods remain old-school: bribery, intimidation, counterfeiting and extortion. But the cartels have also developed white-collar expertise in infiltrating the local councils and committees that award tenders and subsidies.
Under the scheme uncovered by Antoci, Mafiosi and their affiliates leased hundreds of thousands of hectares of public land in the Nebrodi Park from the state, using intimidation to scare away rival bids. When Antoci took over in 2013 he found 80 per cent of the park’s leases were under Mafia control, including a lease to Gaetano Riina, brother of Salvatore “Toto” Riina, also known as “The Beast”, the Sicilian Mafia chief who died last year while serving life imprisonment.
According to Antoci, it was rare that this land was actually farmed. A Mafia family could claim about €1m a year in EU subsidies on 1,000 hectares, while leasing it for as little as €37,000. “With profit margins as high as 2,000 per cent, with no risk, why sell drugs or carry out robberies when you can just wait for the cheque to arrive in the post?” he says by telephone from his home in the coastal village of Santo Stefano di Camastra, where he lives under armed guard.
The 50-year-old might not seem like a typical crime-fighting hero; small in stature, and a wearer of frameless glasses, he was the regional director of a bank before he entered politics in 2013.
Yet Antoci not only identified the Mafia’s scheme but devised the solution: new rules forcing even the smallest leaseholders to pass police checks, enforced retrospectively, with numerous confiscations of land. “When you take money out of their pockets, that’s when the Mafia retaliate,” he says.
Antoci’s would-be killers have not been brought to justice and the case was shelved in September. He was removed as president of the park in a political overhaul by Sicily’s new governor earlier this year. “Many in prison will drink a toast,” Antoci said at the time. But his measures have now been rolled out across Italy. In 2016, he was given a knighthood with the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic, the highest-ranking honour in Italy, for “courageous determination in the defence of the law and against the phenomenon of the Mafia”.
Yet he says he underestimated the effect this work would have on him and his family. “I will never be the same person after that night.” With soldiers carrying machine guns on the street below, his three daughters don’t want to invite friends round any more. “This is not a life for them. I just did my duty, but in a normal country you wouldn’t have to risk your life doing so.”
Mafia syndicates in Italy have an estimated annual turnover of €150bn, according to a report by the anti-Mafia parliamentary committee in 2017. That is €40bn more than Italy’s biggest holding company Exor, which includes Fiat Chrysler and Ferrari. Their influence in the country remains vast; four in 10 Italians surveyed in October by Libera Terra, a co-operative consortium, said that where they live the Mafia “is a worrying phenomenon and its presence socially dangerous”.
In 1991 the prosecutor Giovanni Falcone, who was later murdered by the Sicilian Mafia, set up the Anti-Mafia Investigative Directorate (DIA), an FBI-style multi-force agency. Today it is led by General Giuseppe Governale, an upright, mustachioed Sicilian who has had a long career fighting organised crime. At the modern, cruise-ship-shaped DIA offices on the edge of Rome, Governale, 59, narrates, with considerable relish, the history of the Mafia in Sicily.
In one way or another, he says, criminal organisations have always had their hands in the soil of southern Italy. “Until the 20th century there was a system of vassals and feudal lords, with Mafia middlemen managing the farms on behalf of the landowners.” Mafia clans have long been linked to sheep rustling and both Toto Riina and Bernardo “The Tractor” Provenzano, his successor as capo di tutti capi, started out as almost illiterate peasant farmers, leaving school before they finished primary education.
In the 1980s, continues Governale, the heroin business moved the Mafia’s focus to the cities. “But it is the ties to the land that bind the members of the Mafia syndicates together, even when they have spread their tentacles as far as the US, Canada and Australia. They have an extraordinary quasi-religious sense of belonging,” he says. “If they were simple organised-crime organisations, we would have beaten them.” The Italian word for Mafia clan is cosca, meaning artichoke heart, he explains. “Because the Mafia is like an artichoke. All leaves link to the heart.”
If the Mafia’s rural roots make the food industry a natural territory, the creep of crime syndicates’ influence into our supermarket trolleys and lunch boxes has been accelerated by the financial crisis. The credit crunch forced companies to turn to the cash-rich Mafia for help. “Italy is the third-biggest agricultural power in Europe,” says Professor Santino, “but the sector is vulnerable because it is very fragmented and a lot of companies are in financial difficulty. The Mafia have behind them all their illicit earnings, they lower the cost of production and they can absorb the effects of the crisis.”
I visit Santino and his wife Anna, also a Mafia scholar, in downtown Palermo, where, 40 years ago, they transformed their own home into Italy’s first anti-Mafia study centre “because people still said that the Mafia didn’t exist”. It is named after their friend Giuseppe Impastato, the nephew of a Mafia boss who was killed for anti-Mafia activism. Their home is a library, stacked floor-to-ceiling with newspapers, files, photos and original court documents. Contained in 35 blue leather-bound folders are the sentences handed out at the so-called maxi-trial in 1987 in which more than 300 Mafiosi were convicted.
Santino links the “marked increase in the exploitation of Italy’s lands” by the Mafia to lower earnings from its drugs business and a drop in public money for procurement of government works contracts. He adds that the infiltration of the food trade also reflects the organisation’s growing propensity to enter legitimate businesses, assuming the form of entrepreneurs.
“The Mafia has always been successful at exploiting the country’s vulnerability because of this capacity to adapt,” he says. They stand for local office and send their children to law school in the US. “They have become bourgeois.”
For Roberto Moncalvo, head of Italy’s largest agriculture industry association, Coldiretti: “The main reason for the increase in Mafia in the industry is the potential for large revenues.” As consumers have become more interested in the origins of our food, parts of agriculture have become exceptionally lucrative. With margins as high as 700 per cent, profits from olive oil, for example, can be higher than those from cocaine — and with far less risk.
Expansion into agribusiness is useful for another reason, says Moncalvo, because “it provides a means to launder profits from more traditional businesses such as drug trafficking”. The Calabrian ’Ndrangheta Mafia, which controls an estimated 80 per cent of Europe’s cocaine trade, has so much cash that its leaders are prepared to accept losses of up to 50 per cent by investing in the agriculture business in order to clean their money, Governale says. Italy’s number-one Mafia fugitive, Matteo Messina Denaro, who has been on the run for 25 years, is believed to have invested extensively in olives.
Palermo’s wholesale market opens at 3am and by sunrise the noise reaches a crescendo, with market stallholders coming close to blows about the price of yesterday’s kiwis, while porters expertly stack crates of melons and prickly pears. A long queue forms at a three-wheeler van selling slices of thick Sicilian pizza bread.
In August, police raided the market. Investigators said there was an “invisible control room” setting the price of the goods, transport, porterage, parking, transport and packing material. One porter, who asked to remain anonymous, said that until the raid, the Mafia was in charge. “They would come to our stall once a week and ask for money. The people here knew who they were and so they paid. But a stall nearby didn’t pay so they set it on fire and our stall burnt down anyway.”
In recent years, a growing number of Italy’s produce markets have fallen under the control of the criminal underworld. Police believe they have even formed cross-regional alliances to carve up the spoils, with the Neapolitan and Sicilian Mafias agreeing a 2016 deal to impose their own businesses as suppliers, and transporters to and from, the biggest central Italy wholesale markets.
For the consumer, counterfeiting is the main danger. “The falsification of food products is now the second-most profitable enterprise in the EU after drug trafficking,” says Europol’s Chris Vansteenkiste. “Food is where the profit is. Women buy a handbag every few months but you have to eat every day.”
Counterfeited organic food is the most profitable area. In one operation, Italian gangs were found importing wheat from Romania and labelling it as organic, which commands a price three to four times higher. Knock-offs of prestigious Italian products such as mozzarella di bufala campana and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese have increasingly entered the market.
The DIA oversees operations against the agromafia conducted by all of Italy’s different police and law-enforcement forces. Specialist police tasters work to uncover adulterated foods, especially olive oil. Their taste buds are considered so precise that the findings are even admissible in Italian courts.
Records reveal a mind-boggling — and nausea-inducing — range of food fraud. Mozzarella has been found whitened with detergent, olive oil mixed with cheap imported north African oil, bread made with asbestos or sawdust and cheap wine repackaged as Tuscany’s Brunello di Montalcino.
In February last year, 42 members of the Piromalli clan in Calabria were arrested and 40 farms seized in connection with the export of counterfeit oil to the US, sold as extra virgin, which retails for at least €7 a litre. A number of those arrested are now in prison awaiting trial. According to police, about 50 per cent of all extra-virgin olive oil sold in Italy is adulterated with cheap, poor-quality oil. Globally the proportion is even higher.
When food is counterfeited, says Roberto Moncalvo, the consumer is “not just being defrauded, there is a risk to their health”. The undermining of the country’s most prestigious cultural export also strikes at the heart of Italy’s identity, he adds. “It is a problem of reputation. Italy is known the world over for good food.”
The Mafia’s infiltration of the food chain seems depressingly comprehensive, but there are pockets of resistance. In some areas, farmers have banded together in consortiums. In Calabria, one of the poorest regions in Europe, activist Vincenzo Linarello founded Goel, an association of 30 organic Mafia-free farms, in 2003. Its produce sells at a premium but many of its members have since been targeted by the local ’Ndrangheta.
“The Mafia want to discourage us, to stop us from showing that you can be free and disobedient,” says Linarello. “They want to send a message that in Calabria nothing is possible without the ’Ndrangheta.” He explains how the Mob tends to approach farmers: “They will ask you in exchange for a small favour, to employ someone, to buy your new tractor from so and so. In this way, little by little you lose control of your land and then you give up.”
In an idyllic location on the Ionian coast, a farm, A Lanterna, produces chillies, olives and lemons. The business has suffered seven arson attacks in seven years, one of which caused €200,000 of damage. The constant aggressions leave you “beaten down”, says owner Annalisa Fiorenza. “You begin to think, ‘Is it worth it?’ ”
The 39-year-old, who grew up in the next village and is a lawyer for the ministry of agriculture, bought the farm as a passion project with friends in 2003, when she found out it was abandoned. Attacks are never preceded by any message or demand, she says. “No one tells you who they are or what they want. They want you to seek out protection, to choose to submit.”
Since joining the Goel co-operative in 2012, Fiorenza has learnt to defend herself, using the attacks to create publicity and collect funds to restore the damage. “Then we throw a huge party to show that it’s useless to attack us,” she says. “If you strike one, you strike all. The fact that we are in it together gives us more strength.”
For anti-Mafia campaigners, a 1996 law stipulating that land and assets confiscated from the Mafia must be repurposed as community projects has been a key victory. Since then, 11,000 properties have been confiscated from the Mafia, about one-third of them farms.
In Corleone, ground zero for the Cosa Nostra and the source of the name for The Godfather’s Don Vito, Salvatore Riina’s old house is now the base for a 150-hectare organic tomato and legume farm employing former drug addicts, people with learning and behavioural problems and refugees. Through the Campi della Legalita programme, the co-operative hosts sixth-formers who volunteer for two weeks on the farm.
Its founder, Calogero Parisi, has flowing black hair and a cigarette almost permanently attached to his bottom lip. He tells me he was drawn into activism in the 1990s after taking part in the anti-Mafia caravan, a convoy of trucks that tours Sicily every summer. The Riina family farm that the co-operative took over in 2001 has faced many attacks from the Mob.
Land represents the power of the person, Parisi explains. “You can say ‘All this land is mine,’ ” he says. He recalls how first their vines were burnt, then a field of lentils. “Then,” he chuckles, as if talking about a mischievous child, “we planted a wood, but they sent their sheep to graze there all the time so the plants never grew.”
The original owner of the land was Riina’s nephew, Giovanni Grizzaffi. He was released from prison last year after more than 20 years and Parisi says it is awkward, to say the least, to see him around town. “Let’s say we are not on speaking terms.”
In April, two of the co-operative’s tractors, two trailers and a truck worth €70,000 were stolen, forcing Parisi to obtain a loan that will take five years to pay off. Since then he has been thinking more seriously about giving up. “We have to work so hard with an organic farm and we make so many sacrifices. We even sowed crops on Christmas Day. Sometimes you wonder if it is worth it.”
The final link of the food chain is restaurants and eateries, which provide the principal channel for money laundering. An estimated 5,000 restaurants in Italy are in the hands of the Mob, according to the Observatory. In Rome and Milan, clans are estimated to own one in five.
In Palermo, a group of graduates who wanted to open a pub were shocked to learn they would be expected to pay protection money, or pizzo. In defiance they founded Addiopizzo (goodbye pizzo), an organisation that supports businesses resisting extortion threats. Activist Daniele Marannano says: “We flyered a whole neighbourhood with leaflets saying ‘A people that pays pizzo is a people without dignity.’ ”
The softly spoken Marannano, 33, remembers the day in 1992 when prosecutor Paolo Borsellino was murdered by a car bomb in Palermo. “I was eight years old and coming back from the beach with my father. We saw my cousin in the street and he threw himself across the car to tell us. I will never forget it. I think, for those of us who lived through this at that age, it had more impact.”
At Addiopizzo’s headquarters, Marannano points to a map delineating the borders of Mafia families’ territory in the city. Many businesses who pay are not driven by fear but by habit and convenience, he says. “If I am a butcher and another butcher opens in my area with competitive prices, that’s annoying to me. If I’ve paid my pizzo, the Mafia will go to them and explain, ‘Amico, this is the price.’ ”
Natale Giunta, a well-known chef in Palermo, received such a visit when he opened a new restaurant in 2012. “There were three of them, including one person I knew, who made the introductions,” he recalls. “They said I had not asked permission and demanded €2,000 a month, plus double at Christmas and Easter.” Giunta refused to pay. But after the visit, he received bullets in the post. Then one of his catering vans was set on fire, causing €100,000 worth of damage. Giunta now has police protection.
Marannano says that when Addiopizzo started in 2004, those who dared to report extortion to the police could be counted on one hand: “Now I can say that people have a choice.” The bravery of those who resist, and the existence of grass-roots anti-Mafia movements that would have been unthinkable a generation ago, is heartening.
On its own, though, it is unlikely to force the clans to loosen their grip on the land. Aside from a special law brought in to protect Italian olive oil in 2013, current legislation against agricultural crimes is extraordinarily lenient, creating little risk for perpetrators.
A new law that would create several new crimes has been proposed by Elena Fattori, a Five Star Movement MP. It would seek to punish “public-health catastrophes”, the poisoning or contaminating of food or water, and “agropiracy”, the sale of counterfeit food. “In Italy, we have a lot of checks on food but no consequences,” says Fattori. “The risk is too low: the perpetrators just pay a fine and carry on. To protect public health and [protect] against the destruction of honest work we need to do much more.” The time frame for such a law is unclear: Fattori’s proposal is not part of Five Star’s agreed government programme with its rightwing coalition partners the League.
Beyond legislation, consumers can try to buy products with a transparent, ethical provenance. But Governale at the DIA believes the long-term solution is better governance. In deprived areas where the state doesn’t guarantee basic rights or services — from hospital beds, to transport for farm workers — people are more likely to turn to Mob bosses than to institutions for loans or protection, he says. “At the end, the population become almost supportive of those that suffocate them . . .
“Since 1992, on the investigative level, we [law and order] have been at the cutting edge. But to win definitively, it’s not enough to investigate, we need to improve the level of society.” Otherwise, the Mafia becomes insidious in every sector. “In agriculture, its grip is parasitical,” he says. “The Mafia is fundamentally a weed and you need strong weed killer to kill it.”
Hannah Roberts is a journalist based in Rome
Get alerts on Next Act when a new story is published