Coronavirus in Italy takes its toll on organized crime

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As global leaders scramble to fight the coronavirus, one group in Italy has also been impacted by the pandemic: organized crime.

Italy has been at the forefront of the fight, with nearly 7,000 deaths – higher than the count in China, where the virus began – as of Tuesday.

Italian carabinieri patrol Rome's Colosseum at dusk, Monday, March 23, 2020. 

Italian carabinieri patrol Rome's Colosseum at dusk, Monday, March 23, 2020.  (AP)

The country’s draconian measures to enforce a lockdown and close businesses have cut into the profits of organized crime groups like the Sicilian mafia and the Calabria-based ‘Ndrangheta, which smuggle in drugs and other contraband on cargo vessels.

Though shipments have carried on, these groups have reportedly found it difficult to distribute the drugs once they reach Italy.

“Certain types of drugs are still on the move,” Anna Sergi, a criminologist at Britain’s University of Essex, told the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). “The problem is who is going to pick them up?”

Other crime experts, like Oxford University Professor Federico Varese, have forecasted that organized crime will continue to suffer as Italy’s economy contracts.

“I don’t think they have all that much cash lying around. The longer it lasts, the harder it becomes for them to operate,” he said.

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Still, the situation raises the possibility that these groups could take advantage of the situation, loaning money to small businesses that can’t afford to pay their employees during the lockdown.

“What I’m concerned about is loan sharking,” Sergi said. “You’ll see entrepreneurs in complete distress and they can’t pay employees, so it’s much easier to talk to a loan shark.”

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The Italian government on Tuesday took more stringent measures on those who defy a lockdown order, increasing fines from 206 euros to between 400 and 3,000 euros ($430 to $3,227).