[I have written this brief piece to help me with the many interviews I have done in this period/ I am happy to share it now on my webpage]
On April 4, the brother of a mafia boss in the Zen neighbourhood of Palermo was spotted giving away food parcels to whoever wanted them. When the news broke out, the man—who himself has a criminal record for drugs trafficking—claimed that he was doing charitable work, and lashed out at the reporter. This is not the first time the mafia has assisted the public in times of need, and it is not a practice confined to Italy only. Such episodes are a reminder that some organized crime groups seek a precious, intangible currency during a crisis, namely legitimacy and popular support. Democratic institutions need to come to the rescue of ordinary people quickly and effectively, otherwise unsavoury actors might step in.
At times of emergency and economic downturns, traditional mafias have reduced extortionary demands, offered loans and opened soup kitchens. When the Great Depression hit the US in 1929, Lucky Luciano suspended the collection of the ‘mob tax’ from the workshops in the garment industry in NYC. His organization also offered loans to small businesses so they could weather the storm, often in exchange for a stake in the firm. This led, ultimately, to the mafia being further entrenched in the legal economy. In November 1930, Al Capone opened a soup kitchen at 935 South State Street, in Chicago. In six weeks, it served 120,000 meals, costing some 12,000$. No questions were asked and nobody was denied food. In Calabria, bosses are careful not to overcharging protection money, so that people will not “rebel”, as I reported in my book Mafias on the Move (2011). The Japanese mafia—the yakuza—has helped during the 1995 Kobe earthquake (when it opened soup kitchens for the displaced before the government acted), the Tohoku earthquake, the 2011 tsunami, and the 2016 Kumamoto earthquake. In 2011, the yakuza sent his own people to help with the clean-up of the Fukushima nuclear plant.
During this pandemic, criminal organizations around the world have paused their turf wars and are offering assistance. In Naples, the Camorra has frozen usury repayments and distributed pasta, sugar and coffee to the needy. Further afield, In El Salvador, two main gangs (the Barrio 18 and the MS-13) signed a truce and now enforce the lockdown. Barrio 18 in Guatemala has paused extortion. In Michoacán, Mexico, cartel members hand out food parcels while waiving their guns, as seen in this video. In another video, the daughter of ‘El Chapo’ Guzman, boss of the Sinaloa cartel, is seen studding toilet papers and food in boxes bearing the imagine of his father. In Brazil, where the federal government of Jair MessiasBolsonaro is still ignoring the health risks of the corona virus, the Red Commando has ordered curfews, spread hygiene information and handed out vital food supplies. A march 23 statement read: “If the government won’t do the right thing, organised crime will.” As reported by the website japanunderground.com, “last month, the Inagawa-kai [yakuza group] collected more than 30,000 masks and other necessary goods nationwide and sent them to charities in China.” In addition, they also offered to clean the Diamond Princess, but the government politely declined the offer.
Why should we be worried? Gangsters are also people and might genuinely feel for the plights of their communities. After all, they live there, and are at risk of catching the virus like all of us: indeed, at least three members of the Inagawa-kai yakuza group have tested positive to covid-19. Yet gangsters are special people. As judge Giovanni Falcone said, “Everything is a message, everything is full of meaning in the world of Cosa Nostra.” Mafiosi act with the interest of the organization at heart. Their gifts are favours to be paid back at a later time, rather than an act of charity or the right of a law-abiding citizen. Payback currency includes aiding and abetting a fugitive, hiding a gun, or letting the organization use a garage for storage. Handouts serve to reaffirm the mafia’s influence over the community. Ultimately traditional mafias and some gangs in Latin America are engaged in criminal governance of communities, which are often marginalized and ignored by the central government. Bolsonaro’s neglect of the health of Brazilians increases the legitimacy of gangsters, as noted by Chicago political scientist Benjamin Lessing.
As much as curbing mafias’ money making schemes, authorities should also fights gangs’ attempts at gaining legitimacy. Cheap and easy-to-obtain loans to businesses are welcome, since they will allow them to avoid borrowing money from organized crime. It is also most important to ensure that people do not starve. In many parts of the world, workers are employed informally and cannot show a paper trail of previous earnings. Food and basic necessities should be given to people freely. While the police cannot prevent individuals with a criminal record and ulterior motives to hand out food, we must ensure that legitimate institutions and bona fide charities are there to offer a helping hand, with no strings attached.
Federico Varese is Professor of Criminology at Oxford University and author of Mafia Life: Love, Death, and Money at the Heart of Organized Crime.
12 April 2020