Roberto Saviano, the renowned chronicler of the Italian Mob, has accused a key party in Silvio Berlusconi's governing coalition of holding links to the Mafia.
Mr Saviano – famed for Gomorrah, an exposé of the Neapolitan Mafia – made the incendiary claims in a live TV interview on Monday night. His allegations about organised crime's infiltration of the xenophobic right-wing Northern League party highlight fears over the rising influence of the southern 'Ndrangheta crime syndicate.
"In the north, as in the south, 'Ndrangheta seeks out political power and in the north it tries to court the League," he said, adding that it also aimed to infiltrate business. He pointed to the case of a Northern League councillor who had been in contact with known 'Ndrangheta members, in apparent reference to Lombardy League member Angelo Coccia, who was filmed in the presence of mobster Pino Neri.
Airing such politically embarrassing facts to an audience of nine million people – with the coalition government crumbling, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's poll ratings at a new low, and a general election perhaps weeks away – provoked a furious response from senior Northern League figures.
League heavyweight and Interior Minister Roberto Maroni accused the journalist of "slander fuelled by evident prejudice against the League". "In the name of the millions of League members who feel indignant at the grave insinuations by Saviano, I hope that I will be given the same stage to repudiate these disgraceful accusations," he said.
Corriere della Sera noted that "the election campaign has already started. Maroni knows what the consequences might be of alerting people to links between the League and 'Ndrangheta. Especially in the north."
Mr Maroni said he would appeal to President Giorgio Napolitano if he was not granted what he considered an adequate right of reply on the show Vieni via con me (Come away with me). He said that his government had fought hard against organised crime, citing a string of recent operations and arrests against 'Ndrangheta, the Camorra and the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, which are thought to have put the mobsters on the back foot.
Mr Saviano replied that he was "amazed and alarmed" by the minister's criticism. When Mr Maroni added that he'd "like a face-to-face with him to see if he has the courage to say those things looking me in the eye", Mr Saviano retorted that the lawyer of jailed Camorra boss Francesco "Sandokan" Schiavone had once said something similar to him. Mr Maroni said he was "astounded" at these remarks and hinted at legal action.
There is some history between the minister and the writer, who is under 24-hour armed guard after earning the wrath of Naples mobsters. Mr Saviano said last year that he feared he would have to flee Italy to escape from the Mob. His comments drew a phlegmatic response from Mr Maroni, who suggested that the writer should stay and deal with the mobsters.
Meanwhile, a report to the Italian parliament by an anti-Mafia committee (Dia) has concluded that "established 'Ndrangheta families present in Lombardy [the rich industrial region surrounding Milan] influence the economic, social and political life of the region".
In the south of the country, police announced that they had captured one of the Camorra's top fugitive bosses. Antonio Iovine has been on the run for 14 years and was sentenced in absentia to life imprisonment for murder. Both Mr Maroni and Mr Saviano expressed their pleasure at the news.Reuse content