Mafia trawls Venice's dark lagoon

Italy's jewel has become a haven for organised crime, writes Andrew Gumbel

The deputy mayor of Venice, Gianfranco Bettin, hopped across the lagoon one evening last month to have dinner with his parents in the industrial suburb of Marghera. The meal finished early, and shortly after 8.30pm he got in his car to drive home. Suddenly, a young thug jumped up from the back seat, grabbed him by the neck and put a pistol to his temple. "Drive," he ordered in a thick southern Italian accent.

Mr Bettin drove to a remote wasteland, where he was ordered to stop and throw the car keys out of the window. A large black car pulled up behind. "Mr Mayor," said the young thug, tightening his grip around Mr Bettin's neck and cocking his pistol, "you should mind your own business."

With that, he pulled the trigger. For a second Mr Bettin thought he was dead, but in fact all he heard was a light click. He was terrified, but still alive. The thug snarled: "Next time the gun will be loaded." Then he got out of the car.

It could have been a scene from an American gangster movie. In Venice, it seemed utterly out of place. This is the miraculous lagoon city, the ultimate symbol of civilisation, a tourist mecca and capital of one of Italy's most prosperous regions; in Venice people aren't supposed to do things like that. And yet, as much of Italy has been shocked to learn, they do.

La Serenissima may be a jewel of western civilisation, but in the past few years it has also become an outpost of frenetic, and lucrative, Mafia activity. Money-laundering, drugs trafficking and illegal arms dealing are booming in the Venice region, and with them extortion, armed robbery, kidnapping and murder. Many rackets are in the hands of local gangs, but as prosecutors and politicians such as Deputy Mayor Bettin have discovered, the traditional Mafias of Sicily, Calabria and Naples are muscling in, too.

In the weeks leading up to his mock execution, Mr Bettin had been hot on the heels of a Neapolitan Mafia convict called Crescenzo Napolitano, who had taken full advantage of being assigned to live in Marghera - a sort of internal exile ordered by the courts - by plugging into the Venetian organised crime circuit and terrorising the community. The Sicilians are active in laundering money via casinos both in the Venice area and across the border in Slovenia. The Calabrians have established a network of hotels, restaurants and other tourist money-spinners - again, in the interests of recycling the illegal gains of drugs, arms and other major international rackets.

Take a gondola ride in Venice and you may be contributing directly to a Mafia money-laundering operation. Take up the gondolier's recommendation of a cosy restaurant and you may be helping the criminals further. Go to the municipal casino on the Grand Canal, and the chances are that your cashier will be a placeman for the Mob. It's not that the authorities are refusing to do anything about this; they are unable to keep up with it. No sooner is one batch of crooked casino cashiers arrested than another takes its place. Hotels and pizzerias, according to a report by the anti- Mafia investigator Giovanni Verdicchio, change owners "at an alarmingly high rate".

There are two reasons why the Venice region has become so attractive to organised crime. The first is the economic boom which began in the 1960s and has turned the area into one of the richest in Europe. Not only can the Mob count on a cut of the construction industry, muscle in on tourism, establish a lucrative prostitution racket and sell drugs to the children of the affluent middle classes, but it can also use the region's businesses and financial institutions to launder its gains from international narcotics and arms trade. According to General Verdicchio, the Mafia runs some 8,500 finance companies in the region, 500 in Venice.

The second reason is the lifting of the Iron Curtain and the opening of vast new criminal markets in eastern Europe. Yugoslavia is a stone's throw away. In a recent trial, it emerged Italian arms traders were phoning up the Slovenian police and arranging deliveries of arms by boat across the Adriatic with the same ease as ordering take-out pizza.

For years, the leader of the region's gangland activities was a charismatic rogue called Felice Maniero who was considered a folk hero for his audacious and unorthodox armed robberies. Nicknamed Angel Face for his boyish features, he once walked out of customs at Venice airport with 170 kg of gold. On another occasion, he persuaded the manager of the Hotel des Bains on the Lido to hand over pounds 2m worth of jewellery and cash belonging to the hotel guests.

His magic touch extended to jailbreaks - including one from a high security prison in Padua where he bribed the guards into looking the other way as a group of friends dressed up as carabinieri drove through the main gates to pick him up. And yet Maniero was a nasty piece of work, a self-confessed multiple murderer responsible for setting up the network of organised crime in the north-east and forging links with the southern Mafia bosses.

In 1992, the authorities set up a regional branch of their special anti- Mafia investigative force and two years later, Maniero and 101 others were sentenced to long jail terms. The collapse of Maniero's empire has left a vacuum at the top of the Venetian Mafia, but has not brought the criminal activity to an end. "The boss, his generals and colonels may have been neutralised but the rest are still hard at work," Gianfranco Bettin warned in the wake of his brush with death.

The mock execution shows that a power struggle for the Venetian rackets is in full swing, the results of which are likely to be dangerous and unpredictable. The attack on Mr Bettin could be just the beginning.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Ed Miliband received a warm welcome in Chester
election 2015
Life and Style
Apple CEO Tim Cook announces the Apple Watch during an Apple special even
fashionIs the iWatch for you? Well, it depends if you want for the fitness tech, or the style
Astronauts could be kept asleep for days or even weeks
scienceScientists are looking for a way to keep astronauts in a sleeplike state for days or weeks
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own