Rome, a Criminal World-in-Between

An unprecedented probe shows that the città eterna has been shadow-governed for years by a clique of neofascists and mafiosi, and that it may not be willing to understand why.

Tens of politicians, public officials and businessmen have been arrested, or are being investigated, including the ex mayor. Wire-taps show that Rome caput mundi has been in the hands of a demi-monde that made “more money on migrants and gypsies than on drugs”. A neofascist nucleous with solid connections with organized crime was able to connect the underworld and the overworld. How could they act with impunity for so long if so many whispered this story?


The probe is called mondo di mezzo, as the Carabinieri eavesdropped on a conversation in which the boss explained that the cupola acted as a world in-between (a citation from Tolkien). The boss is Massimo Carminati, a well-known one-eyed neofascist with a militant past, now known as ‘er cecato’ (vernacular for ‘the blind one’), with a militant past during the '70s-’80s. The mondo di mezzo is a zipper between the Rome of power and the Rome of crime, the endless grey zone connecting the Street to the Palace. The organization’s core reminisces legends about Rome’s ‘black heart’: a bunch of black shirts who could easily cover the distance between the sophisticated white collars sitting in downtown Palazzi and red-neck violence enacted in some peri-urban backyards or garages. Carminati’s cv includes the terrorist NAR (Nuclei Armati Rivoluzionari); later he became the favourite of one of the bosses of the Banda della Magliana, a violent criminal syndicate that controlled Rome during the ‘80s. He developed a certain familiarity with bosses of Napoli’s camorra, ‘ndrine from Calabria’s ‘ndrangheta and cosche from Sicily’s cosa nostra. Still, he can hardly be seen as organic to any other organizations than his own system of organized relations, a network where he stands out as the most respected and trusted connector and facilitator.

Like Carminati, other key components of the network have roots in old and new fascist groups, while some important collaborators ended up recycled in institutional right-wing parties, whose triumph was celebrated during the mandate of Gianni Alemanno as mayor (center-right, 2008-2013). Alemanno himself in the early 1980s had troubles with justice (molotov cocktail at the Soviet Union embassy) and he was briefly detained in the same prison as Carminati

Wire-tapping shows that Alemanno’s successor, today’s mayor Ignazio Marino (center-left) has proved far more impervious to the clique: they were intercepted as they lamented that even their men among the center-left milieus would not trust him. Quite tellingly, days before the scandal broke out, Marino was made object of a serious and vociferous campaign on the part of both right-wing and far-right movements and parties, first for some presumed unpaid parking bills of his Fiat Panda, then over unclear episodes regarding citizens’ safety in peripheral areas hosting centers for refugees and asylum seekers. In November a riot (some would say a pogrom) flared up around one of these structures in the neighbourhood of Tor Sapienza. While mainstream Italian media were ready to declare that impoverished and angered Italians were spontaneously turning on migrants, subsequent investigative reports connected to the probe have shed light on the way in which men linked to the mondo di mezzo were manipulating the situation, blowing on the emergency to gain more terrain for remunerative business.

Not far from the terrain covered by the investigation one finds faccendieri (the term businessman hardly compares) such as Gennaro Mokbel (aka ‘Gennarino l’Egiziano’), a broker in love with figurative arts (among various valuable paintings, a portrait of Adolf Hitler and a big marble head of Mussolini). Mokbel got condemned for a 2 euro million fraud (the so called affaire Fastweb-Telecom-Sparkle). That neofascist commandos were back in arms in Rome became clear earlier this year, when Silvio Fanella, considered the man who administered Mokbel’s treasury after the fraud was assaulted in his home during a fake inspection of the Guardia di Finanza: the assailants were trying to kidnap him, and his reaction triggered a shoot-out during which he was killed. A wounded member of the commando was found agonizing along the staircase, and – surprise surprise – he turned out to be another militant in the neofascist constellation. Fanella was known for moving millions as diamonds between Amsterdam and Hong Kong, and observers believe that the commando was trying to extort from the man information about where the money was hidden (part was found by the police following the homicide). The common neofascist militancy or leanings served as a basis of trust. Carminati himself was recorded by the carabinieri as he expressed regret for failing to secure a common tomb for all the fascist camerati who ‘died in action’ during the Italian anni di piombo.

The mondo di mezzo launched a mafia enterprise that would aim far from Rome’s degraded outskirts historically depredated by the palazzinari (derogative for real estate builders) to the downtown public palaces, from the Municipality to the Regional government, and possibly into central government offices. The group extended its tentacles in several sectors, and had established significant alliances with various criminal rings and families. Interviewed shortly before the existence of such a cupola was revealed by Rome’s prosecutor, Italy’s National Anti-mafia Prosecutor Franco Roberti commented that ‘all mafia organizations have been rooted in Rome for at least 30 years. It’s not a matter of mere external infiltrations. They have strong interests, and they have specific referents: bosses, accomplices, recyclers’.

If this conclusion is highly plausible, then it is a fact that the mondo di mezzo stands out for being one step ahead: it is an original and autochthonous organization, whose strength lies probably in its capacity of working out arrangements. A certain mythological aura of black legends about its leaders is probably not alien to the explanation. In Rome north, in the street where night-life is more vibrant, everyone would know names, but nobody would like to comment in front of cameras, even after the arrests, only to admit that it’s dangerous to talk publicly about the ‘true masters of Rome’. To demonstrate that it’s more about organized crime than about crime itself, bar and restaurants owners would admit to calling ‘certain trusted people to sort out problems’ whenever, for example, they were targeted by robbery or theft. For his part, Carminati is venerated in Rome’s criminal underground as a survivor who never cracked and was always acquitted by the state, a circumstance that many would read as a sign of enjoying protection: he certainly did not carry the stigmata of the povero cristo. Rome’s suburbia are full of people who would pay respect to his status. When Carminati’s name was catapulted onto the front page of the weekly L’Espresso, where the Sicilian journalist Lirio Abbate exposed him as one of the true ‘four kings of Rome’, he sarcastically commented with his men that it was a good thing that the news was spread, since reputation is important in that type of business, where more fear means more profit.

Beside the ‘black core’, the criminal network extended to any party handling public business. Politicians from right, center and left came to be considered ‘available’ and they were generously helped with donations and promises of support. The location of the treasury of the organization is not clear yet. Part of the money was transferred to Switzerland. Carminati’s fingerprints seem to lead to London, where veterans of Italy’s neofascist groups have resettled and opened business. As for the ex mayor Alemanno, some intercepted chats portray him as panicking and carrying cash to Argentina inside suitcases, but the Procura has not confirmed this circumstance. In the mediatic crossfire detonated after the arrests, many observers have noted how the Alemanno government of Rome is the one that truly opened the doors wide open to crime, allowing the consolidation of symbiosis and distinctive consultation routines. As anti-mafia organizations denounced, in that period even fake NGOs were created to manage the assets that were confiscated to mafiosi by the state.

Italian politics in 2014 has been swept by major corruption scandals (from Venice’s MOSE water barrier mega-system to the building of Milan’s EXPO 2015), which left little doubt about the existence of power systems that use politics to depredate public resources. The opening of Rome’s can of worms raises serious questions as to whether mafia groups operate as service providers for political circles, or if they have come to dictate their own terms to key segments of the political system, as the latter is intent on outsourcing and privatizing. Particularly telling are the modalities of interaction with the world of business – which confirms the organized criminal nature of the organization. Entrepreneurs would turn to the organization asking for protection from crime insecurity, and the organization in exchange would not ask direct payment, but rather propose to partner up, in view of broader benefits and more profit to come. So, the aim is getting to steer private/privatized economic activities that thrive thanks to public tenders and other resources that the organization is able to control by appointing its men in public administrations. The organization was able to impose public managers, such as the head of Rome’s AMA (waste management) – and even to dictate the appointment of their favourite Commissioner on transparency.

This mechanism is not limited to the manipulation of ‘emergencies’, such as assisting the flow of refugees that land in Sicily and are distributed in various centers on the national territory. Carminati was reportedly able to deliver a permission for a building area in 3 days instead of the usual 3 years. Wire-tapping has documented aggressive intimidation of entrepreneurs who would refuse to sell their activity if the latter lies in an interesting area for Rome’s palazzinari.

Judicial documents have revealed that funding destined for immigrants and members of the Roma community was a major source of income. Carminati’s buddy was Salvatore Buzzi, who sat at the head of the “29 June”, the biggest cooperative of Italy’s center south, which runs a budget of 130 million euro in public welfare tenders. He was caught on wire-tap in early 2013 boasting about how much money the mafia made out of rigging contracts and embezzling money intended for refugee and migrant centres than they did from the drug trade.

In presenting the operation, Prosecutor Pignatone underlined how difficult it was to conduct the investigation since 2010, given the defenses the criminals has raised. Bugged conversations show that Carminati himself was well aware of being investigated, and could rely on leaks coming from a number of men in uniform.

Since 2011 data concerning violent crime in Rome show some improvement. This moment would coincide with the consolidation of Carminati’s role at the top of the mafia cupola, as it reflects the adoption of a strategy that seeks to minimize gratuitous brutality and shy away from conspicuous violent acts, thereby avoiding attracting unwanted attentions. Reportedly an important moment for this strategy was Carminati’s meeting with Mokbel. Be that as it may, he proved capable of brokering collaborative and/or non-interference arrangements between different gangs having roots in different parts of the city and in different illicit markets.

Mondo di mezzo is an investigation that is likely to continue to erupt telling truths about the functioning of crime and power mechanisms. It is somehow comforting to know that it was prompted by courageous journalistic investigations. Lamentably, one cannot say the same for the big corruption scandals that have rocked Spanish politics in the past few years, where the media seem to be following judicial investigation, instead of working as watchdogs vis-à-vis public secrets in the name of civil society. On the other hand, the Roman investigation opens a yawning gap on the thickest mystery. How is it possible that for 30 years nobody noticed anything? While taking counter-measures to inhibit investigation, Carminati & co. were far from secret: this is no Provenzano hiding for decades. They would often meet at a gas station in Corso Francia, and sit at bars and restaurants. These are names that were whispered a bit everywhere in Rome. No history or trajectory of an organized crime group is separate from the body politics and its articulations. More than one journalist is wondering whether there is a level two for which the group acted functionally, a possible explanation for resistible rise.


Acknowledgements

News analysis and comment based on excerpt from L’Espresso, la Repubblica, Il Sole 25 Ore, Il Manifesto, il Corriere della Sera. Pictures: Massimo Carminati today; Gianni Alemanno’s past political activism; the Magliana neighbourhood. Frontpage photograph: neofascists under trial in Bari during the 1970s.