Strait of Messina Bridge and the Role of Organized Crime

The Master of every infrastructure, a monument to the waste of resources and land consumption, dream of omnipotence of an inept and parasitical political class. This is the bridge over the Strait of Messina, the “ecological monsters” whose construction should start by the end of next year, and has already broken all the records: It is in fact the most expensive project in the history of public infrastructures, the slowest ever to be conceived, the one requiring the biggest quantity of cement and concrete; finally, it will have the longest single span in the world: 3,360 meters, that is, 1,400 more than the technological Japanese “jewel” Akashi Kaikyo.

In the enchanting scenery of Scylla and Charybdis, the mythological monsters praised by Homer, two towers made of concrete and steel, 382.60 meters high, each formed by two piers over 50 feet in diameter, supported by four steel rods for a total weight of 166,600 tons, should be built. The volume of the foundations will be, in Sicily, of 86,000 cubic meters, while in Calabria of 72,000. In addition to the bridge itself, 40 km of road links and railways (a 2 km viaduct and a 20.6 km tunnel), mega-landfills, quarries, and connecting structures will be built. The project will involve vast territorial areas in the provinces of Messina and Reggio Calabria: The extension of the areas touched by the project amounts to 514,000 square meters, to which should be added the landfill sites, placed up to 50 km from the infrastructure, for a total of 764,500 square meters.

The construction of the bridge and the associated works will involve an overall requirement of materials amounting to 3,540,000 cubic meters and a production of resulting materials from excavations amounting to 6,800,000 cubic meters. Other unsustainable pours of concrete, for a total of 117,000 cubic meters, are scheduled to complete certain infrastructural "services" related to the Bridge (a business center, a shopping center with hotels, restaurants, an amphitheater, a museum in Calabria, a service station in Sicily). The costs estimated by Straits of Messina SpA”, the public holding in charge of the constructions, amount to 8.5 billion euros (at least 10, according to the “No Bridge Network”, a civic association opposing the project ) – a huge project that for over thirty years appealed to the most heinous national and international gangs.

That 40% fee

Parliamentary committees of inquiry, magistrates, police, intelligence agencies, scholars and experts have repeatedly remarked the interests of organized crime in the bridge construction. The first alarm of the investigating bodies dates back to 1998, when the Anti-Mafia Investigation Department (DIA) denounced the "attention" shown by 'Ndrangheta and Cosa Nostra (respectively, the main Calabrian and Sicilian criminal organizations) over the infrastructure construction project. Since then, the theme of criminal infiltration in the project appears constantly in the monthly reports submitted by the Antimafia Investigation Department. The Mafia-Bridge link is also scrutinized by various intelligence agencies. According to the Report on security policies, presented to Parliament by the Secretary of the Presidency of the Council of Ministers at the end of 2002, “Thanks to the strategic capabilities of charismatic leaders, the high skills of camouflage and ability in the management of funds of illicit origin, and the infiltration of companies engaged in the construction of big infrastructures, the 'Ndrangheta has shown growing dynamism in its attempts to contaminate the processes of economic development of the so-called big works. Among other things, it has been detected a convergent interest by the Sicilian mafia families in view of the possible interception of cash flows for the realization of the Messina Strait Bridge".

In July of that year, the magistrate Alberto Cisterna, a prosecutor of the National Anti-Mafia Directorate, dwelt on the risks stemming from the criminal interests for the Bridge. "There are evidences, in terms of investigation, to assert that the 'Ndrangheta is getting ready to take advantage of the deal", declared Cisterna.

"Many Calabrian clans are creating joint ventures, which are likely to play an important role when the general contractor will award the subcontracts. Among these clans, many are those that deal with activities related to the construction industry: Alvaro, Iamonte, Latella, Libri, Molé, Araniti,  Garonfolo, Raso-Gullace-Albanese, Bellocco, Serraino, Rosmini, and, finally, the very powerful Piromalli’s clan. These groups might buy, or enter into a partnership, with established, clean construction companies situated in the center-north, and in the great industrial districts of northern Italy. A behavior fullfilling the needs of a big infrastructure, which will force the gangs to find an agreement in order to profit".

Upon the so-called "criminal impact of the Bridge," exists a study, produced in 2000, kept secret until now, by the Gruppo Abele’s Nomos Center, on behalf of the Ministry of Public Works to evaluate the feasibility of the project. The outcomes of the research were revealed by the sociologist Rocco Sciarrone on the journal “Meridiana”.

Based on the analysis of some large public works carried out in Calabria (the motorway Salerno-Reggio, the port of Gioia Tauro and the center, etc..), the Nomos report highlighted  the remarkable ability of criminal groups to be part of the subcontracts system. Sciarrone claims that, due to the existing relations and to the almost total control of the territory by the 'Ndrangheta, “is fully established the crime risk for the location of the infrastructure in the area, while it is possible to foreshadow a cooperative behavior of the gangs in order to obtain the contracts”. “To that end - adds the scholar - the 'Ndrangheta has adopted, on the model of the organizational structure of the Sicilian Mafia, a unitary and centralized coordinating body apt to settle internal disputes.”

The Nomos report also focuses on the strategies deployed by mafia groups in order to seize the enormous cash flow expected. The first strategy deals directly with the control of territory, and consists of the mechanisms of extortion-protection. The second one, relates to the business activities belonging to the mobsters and their associates, and results in the insertion in the works to be performed”. It was made a rough estimate of the interventions that, due to their own nature, are subjected to a "greater degree of permeability to the action of criminal groups”. According to Nomos, about 40% of the work phases might be subjected to criminal control: "earthworks, transport, supply of aggregates and concrete, where it is easier to gloss anti-mafia legislation and certifications". The more predictable activities "appear, therefore, the payment of the “fee” on the works entrusted by contract or grant, the protection of trade agreements established by third parties, the control and mediation functions with respect to local labor market, and the connection and  mediation with the political and administrative channels".

However, in the construction of railways, roads and access ramps to the bridge, according to prefecture, the risk represented by organized crime is stronger and apparent. These works include significant volumes of excavation and landfill, in addition to the requirements of aggregates for concrete stone. Another sector that is particularly "sensitive" is the one related to the construction of infrastructural services. Mafia could also exert its power by providing services and means needed for the functioning of the construction sites. In addition to the traditional function of guardian of the sites, "the mafia is very likely to enter during installation and organization of construction sites, and, subsequently, also in the management of their supply chains. It is conceivable, therefore, the attempt to control the water and the fuel supply, the maintenance of plant and machineries, and their spare parts supply, the transport of goods and people”. Finally, organized crime may try to play a role - in terms both of trading and speculation - on the land to be expropriated for the construction of the bridge and the connection service. Nevertheless, the Nomos report state that "the advanced degree of technology required for the construction of the bridge can represent a barrier to entry for the mafia-related firms".

The status symbol of the financial mafia

As remarked by Umberto Santino (President of the Documentation Center "Giuseppe Impastato" of Palermo) Nomos’ analysis is, however, "inadequate"  in that "it is inadequate the idea of mafia as something stocked in the role of parasite-predator ". For this scholar, the criminal penetration in the economy is a much more complex and articulated phenomenon; rather than discussing of "entrepreneurial mafia", we should speak of a "financial mafia" that, due to the development of illegal accumulation, is able to “play a leading role between the large business groups”. “Big projects are one of the main grounds in which social blocks develop and the mafia bourgeoisie consolidates itself,” as Umberto Santino put it.[1] “All this happens in a context, as the present one, in which illegality is a resource, its legalization is a program, impunity is a flag and a status symbol. Consent, then, is not something one misses”.

The evolution of the Mafia enterprise and its financial strength date back to the late 1970s when the assault was given to the holdings of large industrial groups (see the Cosa Nostra’s control on the financial holding company "Ferruzzi" or, remaining within the geographic area of the Strait of Messina, the failed attempt by the clan of Africo Nuovo to invest five thousand billions lire to buy the giant "Italstrade Spa" (IRI Group).[2]

 What had happened during the bridge project construction, is even more shocking. A recent judicial inquiry has revealed that criminal organizations were organized to participate not only to the direct realization of the infrastructure and the complementary works, but were also a key element of their co-financing.

The investigation, whose conventional name is “Brooklyn”, based on a number of interceptions, had unveiled the operation conceived by the Rizzuto, a Mafia family of Montreal (Canada), in order to recycle five billion dollars from drug trafficking in the work of the Bridge. According to prosecutors, the boss Vito Rizzuto would have employed a famous Italian-Canadian professional, the engineer Giuseppe Zappia (later convicted) to form a company screen and participate in the spring of 2004, to the preliminary competitive tender for general contractor.[3] Although the company was then excluded because it did not meet the requirements, Mr. Zappia was able to be entrusted by representatives of the national government, the Stretto di Messina Company, and some of the largest construction companies participating in the call, as the operator apt to anticipate the amount of funds that the general contractor must find on the market. However, up to the present moment, no bank and/or financial support is available to provide such funds, due to the unsustainability of the work.

The operation that the Rizzuto clan sought to achieve, however, is not intended as a mere recycling operation. It is indeed strategic for the organized crime to play a role in the project due to huge symbolic value of the bridge; and, therefore, to exploit the useful effects stemming by the political legitimacy in order to “re-build” its image in front of the institutions and the public opinion. The Mafia, in fact, intercepts calls and messages cross from public administration, business groups and government sectors, according to which if the Mafia is able to build the bridge, it should do it (as the Chief Executive Officer of the Stretto di Messina Spa has declared during a television interview in the program Sciuscià). "When I will build the bridge - said during a phone call the businessman Zappia - with the political power that I am going to have in my hand, I’ll let return my friend… (the boss Rizzuto ed)". Fifteen years after the brutal massacres of Capaci and via d'Amelio and State-Anti-State negotiations that paved the way for the so-called Second Republic, characterized by neoliberal and authoritarian features, the big Mafia comes out and claims full sovereignty over the territories. The Bridge represents the very symbol of the contradictions of  glocal” -- the global and local system. Albeit it might appear as a peripheral reality, the area of the strait is indeed a high density criminal area, and, for decades, it has been a laboratory within which a mafia bourgeoisie, vast international drug and weapons traffics developed together with hidden and non-hidden powers. In Messina and Reggio Calabria, in fact, more than anywhere else,  over the years dark plots linking neofascist terrorism, organized crime, deviant Masonic Lodges, institutions (state agencies, law enforcement, judiciary, intelligence agencies and the private military organization Gladio) have developed.

The area of the Strait is a real "free zone" where one can witness the expansion the Godfathers of the bridge, namely an army of "speculators and swindlers, small, medium and large traffickers, Freemasons and secret societies of every sort, conservatives, liberals and even former communists turned into neoliberals, bankers, engineers, publishers, and manufacturers of abominations ".[4]

The criminogenic identity of neoliberism

The years of Berlusconism have been marked by the revival of the big projects, devastating for the territories and the public budget, and by the implementation of a new legislation on public contracts that has heavily affected the tools needed to combat the mafia infiltration. First of all, one should consider the so-called Legge Obbiettivo (“Objective Law”). As noted in a 2006 minority report by the Anti-Mafia Commission, "the fact that a work is recognized as a strategic objective for the Government justifies the failure to apply any other rules that, over the years, has been enacted in order to create a regulatory system that would also function as a tool to prevent the risks of infiltration of organized crime in public procurement”. The general contractor, for example, can choose the sub-contractors, "without any legal constraint of the kinds which have been traditionally  established for guaranteeing the impartial and fair selection of contractors by the Public Administration ...”.[5]

These were highly criminogenic regulations, not repealed by the ephemeral center-left government. The general tendency is therefore to reduce preventive controls, creating a ever more unlimited freedom of action for large and medium-sized businesses.

In recent months, in the name of "economic recovery", the government has drawn up some proposals for the revision and streamlining of procedures for public procurement that will be able only to strengthen the rule of illegality and financial mafia. "We are working on a systematic reduction of the terms of development of some important procedural phases in the big projects, from the approval of projects to the environmental assessments," said the Minister for Infrastructure, Altero Matteoli.[6]

Last but not least, last September came the shocking announcement by Minister Brunetta concerning its intention to repeal the mandatory submission of the anti-mafia certificates by firms competing for public works. The anti-mafia certifications issued by the Prefectures allow to ascertain the presence or absence of grounds for revocation, suspension or prohibition of contracts and licenses for those subjects who wish to establish relations with the government. After the ad personam laws, those for the unjust trial and the gagging of free information, the repeal of the anti-mafia certificate would be the seal of the “white coup” of last twenty years. The Godfathers of the Bridge are certainly grateful.

Paper for the International workshop Formal, Informal and Criminal Economy. A Comparative Outlook on Northern and Southern Europe, organized by Faculty of Political Sciences, Department of Economics, Statistics, Mathematics and Sociology “W. Pareto”, University of Messina (Messina, October 21, 2011). 

Antonio Mazzeo, peace-researcher and journalist, has conducted several studies on the relations between the Messina Bridge and Cosa Nostra, and analyzed the conflicts of interests that have characterized the entire projecting process. He is the author of I padrini del Ponte. Affari di mafia sullo Stretto di Messina (Alegre Edizioni, Roma, 2010) and, with Antonello Mangano, Il mostro sullo Stretto. Sette ottimi motivi per non costruire il Ponte (Edizioni Punto L, Ragusa, 2006). In 2010 he obtained the first Prize “Giorgio Bassani” of Italia Nostra for journalism.

[1] U. Santino, “Il Ponte e le mafie: uno spaccato di capitalismo reale”, in A. Mazzeo, I Padrini del Ponte. Affari di mafia sullo stretto di Messina, Alegre Edizioni, Roma, 2010, pp. 8-10.
[2] E. Ciconte, Estorsioni ed usura a Milano e in Lombardia, Strumenti. Economia Legalità e Criminalità. Studi e Ricerca, n. 2, Edizioni Commercio, Roma, 2000, pp. 150-158.
[3] M. De Bonis, “Un ponte per due mafie”, Limes, 2/2005, Gruppo Editoriale L’Espresso, Roma, pp. 115-120.
[4] Cfr. A. Mazzeo, I Padrini del Ponte, cit.
[5] Commissione Parlamentare d’inchiesta sul fenomeno della criminalità organizzata mafiosa o similare, Relazione finale di minoranza, Relatore on. Giuseppe Lumia, Roma, gennaio 2006.
[6] Il Foglio quotidiano, 3 maggio 2011.


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