By Maarten Anthonissen
Posted on February 20, 2007
Italian Organized Crime is far from dead. Cosa Nostra from Sicily, and the Camorra from Naples have a wide range of influence outside Italy. Both organizations have branches in a dozen European countries. Of course Belgium is one of those countries.
Belgium is one of the most important operating areas for criminal organizations in Western Europe. There are several reasons for this, the most important being: Belgium’s geographical position, right in the center of Western Europe, with European powers Germany and France as neighbors, and along the most used waterway in the world: The Channel, which connects Belgium with Great Britain. Also important are the world’s largest ports, one in Belgium (Antwerp) the other nearby in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. Take this into account and it is safe to say that Cosa Nostra has a wide field of operations. Besides that Belgium, mainly Brussels, plays an important role in the world of politics. Belgium is one of the original EU nations, and a lot of European international businesses and institutions have their headquarters there. Belgium also has a history of corruption, mainly because several institutions worked against each other (this happened especially during the 1990s.) All of these reasons make the presence of organized crime a logical result.
But why did the Mafia arrive so early in Belgium? The reason for their early arrival lies in the fact that large groups of Italian immigrants traveled to Belgium to work in the colemines, or steel and weapon industry. Especially in the regions of Charleroi, Luik, and Limburg Italian immigrants have had a presence since the 1950s. Most of the Italian immigrants came from the poor regions in Italy, mainly the South of Sicily. And this happens to be the region where the Mafia originated, and where they have built a social, cultural, and economic network. It is only logical that these large groups of South Italians and Sicilians took with them some of the customs of the “old country”, and used them in their new homeland. Through their family bonds they kept connected to Italy. That is how the Mafia set up shop in Belgium.
But what are the operation terrains of the Italian Mafia in modern day Europe, and specificly Belgium? Just like some of their competitors, the Italians, when outside their home country mainly commit white collar crimes. Numbers prove the Italian Mafia is still an important organization. According to unofficial estimates of several crime watchers Cosa Nostra and the Camorra make 20 billion euros a year in Europe.
And these are the figures according to a report by the Commission of Parlement regarding Search Methods, from 1995:
Eight billion euro a year is made from the drugtrade, the smuggling of cigarettes, and selling fake goods, 2,8 billion is made from economic white collar crimes, 176 million from prostitution, 1,5 billion from arms dealing, and 351 million from extortion and loansharking. This means they make about 13 billion a year. Recent estimates by independent research centers show these figures are not exagerated, on the contrary!
In the meantime authorities have commenced their attack on the Italian crime organizations. They’ve had several successes the past years, also in Belgium. However in several regions in Belgium the Italians maintain a presence. Cosa Nostra in the regions of Luik, and Limburg. The Camorra has a presence in Charleroi.
Brussels is another important locations for the Italian OC groups, this has to do with, as I wrote earlier, the fact that many international institutions have their headquarters there. Thus it is the ideal place for white collar crime. Everybody knows the Italian Mafia always has had front men in Italian politics (local and national.) But outside Italy, the Mafia has pawns in the highest regions as well. One of the most famous examples is that of European Parliament member Antonio Quantraro.
On March 29, 1993 on the evening before a meeting of the European Parliament, Quantraro, an Italian Christian-Democrat, had dinner with the former Minister of Foreign Trade Latanzio. This meeting occurred in a well known Mafia restaurant in Brussels (the owner is rumored to be a top figure of Cosa Nostra in Western Europe.) Several other Mafia connected people allegedly joined the table. The topic of conversation was how to divide the subsidies meant for tobacco and potatoes. At that moment there were already rumors that Quantraro had tampered with the numbers to get this law through European Parliament.
One day after this meeting Quantraro falls from a window of his office in the European Parliament building on the corner of Rue Belliard. How this happened has never been proven, was he murdered of did he simply fall? Not much later a rival parliament member accused Quantraro of funneling money. And apparently those accusations weren’t without proof. When people started comparing Quantraro’s modest career and pay check to his villa and bank account, they knew something was wrong. But at that moment the link with the Mafia was only sporadically brought up. A large official investigation has uncovered nothing, and the involvement of the Mafia in this case can not be proven. It is assumed that Lattanzio had ties to Cosa Nostra. Famous Mafia judge Falcone pointed that out to the European Commission.
What seems clear is that several businesses in which Cosa Nostra and the Camorra have interests in, have profited enormously from this law, and the subsidies which flowed from it. At that point the fraud in the Agriculture section was estimated to be 18 billion, most of which went to Italy. The total fraud was estimated to be 300 billion lire, but experts say the figure should be much higher.
Did the Mafia pay Quantraro to change numbers and manipulate the European Parliament? Did they murder him afterwards because he became too greedy, or were they worried he would become a witness for law enforcement? Or was he simply the scape goat they needed at that moment? Did they leak the facts and manipulate them to their advantage? All of these things were considered, but the truth will probably not come out.
Falcone’s warning wasn’t really taken serious. But a report was still published, in which the focus was put on the European character of Italian organized crime. The report states that the grip of the criminal organizations on the drugtrade is increasing. It also states they form a very real threat within the European institutions. The disappearing of the border controls in Europe in 1993 didn’t make a difference to the Mafia. It has organised factions in Germany, France, England, The Netherlands, and Belgium, who still maintain contact with their bosses in Italy. The Italian Mafiosi did not see the use of wars. They much rather formed pacts and made agreements with other crime groups. In Belgium the Italians worked closely with Jewish and Russian crime groups. There have been more internal wars in Italy than wars with foreign groups in other European countries.
Cosa Nostra even had their own representative in European Parliament, the Sicilian Salvo Lima. Allegedly he was the direct link between Cosa Nostra and former Prime Minister of Italy Giulio Andreotti. Andreotti was convicted in November 2002 for the murder of journalist Mino Pecorelli in 1979. Salvo Lima was himself murdered on March 12, 1992 in Palermo, after making some weird decisions and comments. The murder was probably a warning for Andreotti that the Mafia would not hesitate to kill DC politicians as himself if they did not follow orders. Another reason could be that Lima and Andreotti didn’t succeed in getting several Mafia bosses freed from prison. The list of unsavory people Andreotti had ties to is endless. Even today Cosa Nostra and the Camorra have some people in the European Parliament, but mainly in the Forza Italy party.
The position of the Italian organized crime groups in Belgium will not change in the coming years. The crime sectors in which they are active will continue to grow. Add to that the fact that financial fraud and producing fake goods are extremely difficult to eradicate. It is impossible to name all the activities of the Italian gangsters. Views on the scope of their operations vary as well. And is it really a highly structured Mafia syndicate with a clear hierarchy? One thing is for sure, the Italian organized crime groups have existed for over 100 years with a lot of success. And eventhough the competition on the crime market of Europe, it seems their position is only becoming more secure.
By Maarten Anthonissen