While much of Italy remains under lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, videos have surfaced in recent weeks of known Mafia gangs distributing free food to poor families in quarantine who have run out of cash, and local governments don't like it according to The Guardian (which takes the default position that there's a catch).
In recent weeks, videos have surfaced of known Mafia gangs delivering essential goods to Italians hit hard by the coronavirus emergency across the poorest southern regions of Campania, Calabria, Sicily and Puglia, as tensions rise across the country. -The Guardian
"For over a month, shops, cafés, restaurants and pubs have been closed," said Nicola Gratteri - head of the Catanzaro prosecutor's office and antimafia investigator. "Millions of people work in the grey economy, which means that they haven’t received any income in more than a month and have no idea when they might return to work. The government is issuing so-called shopping vouchers to support people. If the state doesn’t step in soon to help these families, the mafia will provide its services, imposing their control over people’s lives."
There are currently an estimated 3.3 million people in Italy who work off the books - over 1 million of which are located in the country's southern region, according to Venice-based small business association, GCIA Mestre.
And while videos of Italians singing and playing music from their balconies went viral on social media in the early stages of the pandemic, weeks later there is no more singing as social unrest mounts.
"Now people are more afraid – not so much of the virus, but of poverty. Many are out of work and hungry. There are now long queues at food banks," said a priest at Caritas Diocesana di Napoli, a church-run charity in Naples .
Tensions are building across the poorest southern regions of Campania, Calabria, Sicily and Puglia as people run out of food and money. There have been reports of small shop owners being pressured to give food for free, while police are patrolling supermarkets in some areas to stop thefts. The self-employed or those working on contracts that do not guarantee social benefits have lost salaries, and many small businesses may never reopen. -The Guardian
"I have a wife and two children and we’re living off our savings. But I don’t know how long they will last. I asked my bank to postpone payment instalments – they said no. This situation is bringing us to our knees," said Sicily waiter Paride Ezzine, who says he's no longer receiving a salary. "Obviously, due to the lockdown, the restaurant closed."
As social unrest has mounted, Italian minister of the interior, Luciana Lamorgese warned that "the mafia could take advantage of the rising poverty, swooping in to recruit people to its organisation."
In response to the Mafia handouts, police in Naples have beefed up their presence in the city's poorest regions where members of the Neapolitan mafia have organized home delivery of food parcels, while Magistrates have begun investigating a group of people who were questioned while delivering food to locals.
When the brother of a Costra Nostra boss was called out for distributing food to the needy in a Palermo neighborhood, he fired back on Facebook - claiming he was only doing charitable work.
"Mafias are not just criminal organisations," said Federico Varese, professor of criminology at the University of Oxford. "They are organisations that aspire to govern territories and markets. Commentators often focus on the financial aspect of mafias but they tend to forget that their strength comes from having a local base from which to operate."
"These handouts by the mafias are not gifts. The mafia does not do anything out of its kind heart. They are favours that everyone will have to pay back in some form or another, by aiding and abetting a fugitive, holding a gun, dealing drugs and the like," Varse continued.
The question of distributing food parcels is a tactic as old as the mafia itself, where in the south of Italy bosses have customarily presented themselves to the people as benefactors and local power brokers, initially without asking for anything in return.
“Mafia bosses consider their cities as their own fiefdom,” Gratteri said. “The bosses know very well that in order to govern, they need to take care of the people in their territory. And they do it by exploiting the situation to their advantage. In the people’s eyes, a boss who knocks on the door offering free food is a hero. And the boss knows that he can then count on the support of these families when necessary, when, for example, the mafia sponsors a politician for election who will further their criminal interests.”
Dozens of investigations in the south have led to the arrests of politicians who have aided and abetted the mafia, and who were elected with the support of local Mafiosi who forced citizens to vote for them in exchange for services, such as a simple food parcel. -The Guardian
Gratteri, the antimafia investigator, used the case of Mexican narco El Chapo as an example of disingenuous altruism. "He trafficked tons of cocaine and commissioned the murder of hundreds of people but in his hometown he was known for his benevolence, because people said that he provided medicines to families or built roads. The same thing happens here."