Italy arrests dozens over Mafia scam of EU farm funds


Rome (AFP)

Italian police said on Wednesday they had dismantled a massive Mafia operation in Sicily which had been defrauding the European Union of millions of euros in funds destined to farmers.

Since 2013, the Tortorici Mafia -- named after a town in the mountainous Nebrodi area in the island's northeast -- had defrauded about 10 million euros ($11 million) from the EU, said prosecutors.

A total of 94 people were arrested in early-morning raids and 151 agricultural businesses tied to Mafia members were seized, authorities said during a press conference in the northeast city of Messina.

Those arrested included the heads of two Mafia families, a notary, entrepreneurs and public administrators tasked with helping farmers access funds.

The clan falsely claimed they owned plots of land that were in reality were owned by the region and local councils, thereby tapping EU funding.

"Instead of being usefully employed for the development of agriculture in this area, (funds) were misappropriated and ended up in the hands of the Mafia," Messina's chief prosecutor, Maurizio de Lucia, said on the sidelines of the press conference.

The swindle presented the Mafia with "low legal risks, in the face of very high profits," prosecutors wrote in a statement.

Key to the scam were employees of a public agency for agricultural payments, which distributes EU funds to farmers, and those working for assistance centres set up to help farmers access available funding.

In a charge sheet, Judge Sergio Matroeni said the swindle relied on the "unprincipled support" of white-collar workers who were able to access public funds and knew how to exploit lax controls.

- 'Particularly active' group -

The once-powerful Sicilian Mafia has largely been surpassed in recent years by the notoriously ruthless 'Ndrangheta organised crime group in Calabria as well as the Naples-based Camorra.

Still, prosecutors said the well-connected clan was a "particularly active" group, heavily involved in drug trafficking and extortion.

Forty-eight of those arrested were sent to jail while the others, including the mayor of Tortorici, were placed under house arrest, authorities said.

Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese said the operation underscored the need for "careful supervision of the distribution of funds to prevent the Mafia from eluding controls and taking advantage of huge European subsidies to the detriment of honest producers and farmers."

In Brussels, European Commission spokesman Daniel Rosario said the agency had "zero tolerance" for misuse of funds.

"First of all, it's for member states to ensure that solid measures are in place to manage these funds and take necessary measures in case of suspicion," Rosario said.

But despite Wednesday's police operation and dozens like it in recent years, liberating Sicily from the Mafia was unlikely to come purely from judicial proceedings, Judge Matroeni wrote.

"The measures do not stop a world reconciled to the Mafia."