Mafia's dirty money linked to clean energy

After decades of drug-running, extortion and prostitution, the Mafia appears to have found a rather more ecological way of laundering their money: green power.

And if the assets of the Italian police's latest target are any indication, the Mafia is embracing the renewable energy business with an enthusiasm that would make Al Gore look like a dilettante. The surprising revelation of organised crime's new green streak came as Italian police said yesterday they had made the largest recorded seizure of mob assets – worth €1.5bn (£1.25bn) – from the Mafia-linked Sicilian businessman Vito Nicastri, who had vast holdings in alternative energy concerns, including wind farms.

Organised crime in Italy has previously been notorious for trading in environmental destruction – principally earning billions of euros by illegally dumping toxic waste. But most of the newly seized assets are in the form of land, property and bank accounts in Sicily, the home of Cosa Nostra, and in the neighbouring region of Calabria, the base of the rival 'Ndrangheta crime syndicate.

Police said the operation was based on a 2,400-page investigative report and followed 54-year-old Mr Nicastri's arrest last year. He has since been released without charge, and has denied wrongdoing. But General Antonio Girone, the head of the national anti-Mafia agency DIA, said that Mr Nicastri, known as "lord of the winds", was linked to Matteo Messina Denaro, the fugitive believed to be the Sicilian Mafia's "boss of bosses".

Senator Costantino Garraffa, of the parliamentary anti-Mafia committee, said the Mafia was trying to break into the "new economy" of alternative energy as it sought to launder money earned from crime. The seizure of Mr Nicastri's assets "confirms the interest that organised crime has in renewable energy, which several annual reports on environmental issues have already stressed," added Beppe Ruggiero, an official with the anti-Mafia association Libera.

Generous subsidies have led to rapid growth in wind power in Italy in recent years. Mr Ruggiero said: "It is very important for this sector to stay far from Mafia activities." However, he stressed the need for renewable energy to develop in Italy's poorer South. "Investment in renewable energy should not be discouraged," he said, adding that the nuclear alternative would be "a losing choice".

Recent estimates suggest the total annual turnover of Italy's main organised crime groups is around €100bn (£83bn), or 7 per cent of GDP. Officials, including the Bank of Italy governor, Mario Draghi, have argued that organised crime has perpetuated poverty in the south of the country.

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