ROME — The mafia’s practice of exploiting vulnerable people during times of crisis is a real danger caused by the coronavirus pandemic in Italy, said an expert on organized crime.

In an interview April 27 with L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, Antonio Nicaso, the expert, said that criminal organizations are “raptors” that “have always turned crises into opportunities.”

Organizations like the ‘ndrangheta, the Calabrian mafia, have a history of amassing wealth and power after natural disasters; they were loan sharks following a 1908 earthquake in the southern Italian city of Reggio Calabria, Nicaso said.

More recently, he added, authorities discovered members of the mafia reacting happily to the devastating earthquakes that rocked central Italy in 2016.

“There are recordings of a telephone call in which, a few minutes after a violent quake, two fixers linked to ‘ndrangheta were happy with what had happened, laughing about the ‘business’ and the earnings they would make,” Nicaso said.

“It is clear that, in this situation, we need to keep our eyes open, to map out the areas that are most at risk — those that can most easily end up in the clutches of criminal organizations,” he said.

Small businesses, Nicaso explained, are also at risk if they go into default or are turned away by banks and public assistance. Their only alternative could be turning to the mafia and “accepting the use of dirty money.”

Nicaso told L’Osservatore Romano that Pope Francis’s consistent teachings against corruption are “fundamental” because “we tend to underestimate the role of corruption for the mafia, which is central.”

“Today, criminal organizations seem invisible because they hardly need to shoot (guns) anymore,” he said. “They know they can use violence, but they would rather avoid making noise when possible. They know they have something more effective than weapons: the corruption which allows the mafia to take root, to infiltrate without making noise. And a lot of people consciously turn away or close their eyes.”

Nicaso said he hoped that, in a post-COVID-19 world, people will understand the importance of fighting social inequalities that can be exploited by criminal organizations.

“We can all do something to change the injustices we face today. My hope is that the other call made by Pope Francis in these days will be heard, the one to politicians so that ‘they do not think about the good of their party but about the common good,'” he said. “There is an urgent need to rediscover the common good.”