, DESIO, Nov 28 – The big mafia busts of recent years have generally been in impoverished regions of southern Italy — the heartland of the Camorra, \’Ndrangheta and Cosa Nostra criminal groups.
But observers say the real problem is in wealthy northern regions where the mafia has taken hold of political and economic elites in the search for lucrative public contracts and respectable businesses to launder money.
Desio, a sleepy industrial town of 40,000 people some 30 kilometres (19 miles) north of Milan, is a case in point.
The \’Ndrangheta, although based in the southern Calabria region and specialised in cocaine trafficking, has also been very active in Desio.
"It\’s not infiltration that we should be talking about, it\’s settlement" of the \’Ndrangheta in Desio that has taken place, Lucrezia Ricchiuti, a local official from the centre-left opposition Democratic Party, told AFP.
The \’Ndrangheta owns "companies and has political links," she said.
"There are a lot of companies that pay protection money but no-one complains. It\’s omerta," the mafia code of silence, she added.
Several people were arrested in Desio in July as part of a bigger operation against the \’Ndrangheta that saw more than 300 arrests across the country.
Prosecutors investigating the \’Ndrangheta\’s involvement in Desio said mafiosi could "count on important officials" in local government.
The inquiry found contacts between the \’Ndrangheta and local representatives of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi\’s ruling People of Freedom party.
Political life in the town has been paralysed for months now since the populist Northern League party quit the coalition the local government there, calling for new local elections in order to "clean up Desio."
The town\’s mayor, Giampiero Mariani, declined to respond to questions from AFP, except to denounce "a media attack" on his town.
"The presence of the mafia in the North has been a reality for years. It\’s here that they do their best business," said Alberto Nobili, a prosecutor in Milan who has specialised in investigating organised crime.
The head of the \’Ndrangheta in northern Italy at one point became so powerful that he even tried to break away from the base in southern Italy in 2008. The boss of the organisation had him assassinated.
The issue of the mafia\’s presence in northern Italy has returned to national attention in recent days because of comments made by Roberto Saviano, author of the book "Gomorrah" about the Camorra crime group in and around Naples.
Saviano said on a live television show that the \’Ndrangheta had been in contact with the Northern League party, the junior partner in Italy\’s ruling coalition and the party of Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni.
Nobili explained that the mafia political contacts were not ideological.
"The mafioso is not right-wing or left-wing and is trying only to get close to people in power" in order to "access public contracts," Nobili said.
The \’Ndrangheta launders dirty money through legal activities such as construction — with mafiosi opting for sober business attire.
"The first mafiosi were unpolished but now their children have gone to the Bocconi," a prestigious university in Milan that helps train business elites, said Paolo Biondani, an investigative reporter at the L\’Espresso weekly.
But Nobili added an important distinction — that however respectable they may seem: "A mafia businessman is still a mafioso in his modus operandi."
Mariagrazia Trotti has experienced this first hand.
The head of an anti-racket association in Vigevano south of Milan, she was once the victim of extortion when she owned a jewellery shop.
"To take control, they use loans and once the person can\’t pay it back, they force them to give up the company and keep it as a shell company," Trotti said.
The situation has worsened during the economic crisis, she said, with a growing number of entrepreneurs forced to accept loans from the mafia.