Mafia controls fifth of Italian cafes

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The Independent Online
IT IS a statistic many Italians will find hard to digest but one in every five of their restaurants is controlled by organised crime, according to Italy's main business association, Confcommercio.

While the humble pizzeria is the most popular Mafia investment choice, Confcommercio says they have also taken control of gourmet establishments.

The Mafia's appetite for front businesses, which allow it to put dirty cash into circulation, emerged at a seminar that brought together money laundering experts from Italy and the United States.

Statistics show that Italy's four crime syndicates control around 15 per cent of hotels and 18 per cent of bars and ice-cream parlours, with the Cosa Nostra of Sicily in top place.

While the shadow of the Mob hovers over many business sectors, the record goes to cement businesses, about 70 per cent of which are controlled by the Mafia. Each of the organised crime groups controls about a fifth of the bank deposits, properties, gold and antiques markets, travel agencies, car workshops, old people's homes, shops, bars and restaurants.

Little is known of where the money comes from. Organised crime collects about $20bn (pounds 12.5bn) annually in Italy through protection rackets and loan-sharking. Some $14bncomes from the drugs trade, $11.7bn from illegal gambling and $7.9bn from prostitution.

Experts on organised crime warn that the Mafia's stronghold over certain businesses poses a threat to the rest of the economy; businesses whose main function is simply to turn over cash are likely to slash prices and put legal competitors out of business. Organised crime groups are also exploiting the latest technology.

The possibility of transferring vast sums across the globe in seconds by electronic wizardry means the takings from drugs, prostitution, arms dealing and toxic waste trafficking can be turned pearly white without leaving a trace.

Participants at Money Laundering 2000 in Rome yesterday also heard that in the criminal underworld, gold ingots are replacing cash as the basis of international deals. Crime syndicates are also making increasing use of stock markets, using white collar accomplices with financial nouse to invest their millions. Delegates heard warnings that while the birth of the euro will limit the chance for laundering through currency transactions the pressure of preparing for the single currency means banks may let their guard down.

The speaker of the Italian parliament, Luciano Violante, a former head of the anti-Mafia Commission, called on Western countries to take tough, concerted action against states offering financial sanctuary to the Mafia. He proposed an embargo against paradisi fiscali or tax havens, such as the Cayman Islands and the Bahamas. Italy's anti-mafia prosecutor, Pier Luigi Vigna, said the spread of money laundering not only risked crippling free competition but endangered democracy itself.