ROME – An Italian priest and well-known anti-mafia activist has warned that with global attention fixed on managing the coronavirus pandemic, mafias are infiltrating weakened economies and taking advantage of loosened restrictions on the movement of goods.

Father Luigi Ciotti, founder of several anti-mafia groups, including the Libera association, told Crux that “the mafia have always taken advantage of crises and, more generally, the absence of social justice.”

The coronavirus is no exception, Ciotti said. Amid the crisis, “they find today in this economic system a ‘habitat’ more fertile than ever and favorable to their business,” he said, adding that “mafias are lurking or already operating.”

Ciotti, 75, highlighted three specific areas he believes should be monitored carefully for mafia activity during the coronavirus, the first of which is drug trafficking, particularly at a time when “the trafficking of goods is not subject to any restrictions.”

While free trade is good and needed in terms of ensuring basic necessities are available to those who need them, “the mafia can exploit the same channels for illicit trafficking, beginning with that of drugs, which has always been their primary source of income,” Ciotti said.

He also cautioned that mafias are likely to penetrate markets that have “exploded” during the pandemic, such as the request for disinfectants, face masks, medicines and disinfectants. For the mafia, this is a potential source “of new big profits,” he said.

Ciotti also pointed to the risk of usury, meaning the practice of lending money at exorbitantly high interest rates.

These, he said, are tools “increasingly used by the mafias, especially after the financial crisis of 2008, which enriched already extraordinarily wealthy monopolists and brought many clean businesses and entrepreneurs to their knees.”

“The money, which the mafias possess in large quantities, is now used as a key that not only opens almost all doors in a world bent by the logic of profit, but it does so without noise, therefore without raising alarm,” he said.

Reports have already come out about some individuals and businesses in Italy struggling due to COVID-19 who have turned to the mafia for help, most of whom are in the south, which has the highest poverty rates and where the mafia tends to be most active. Stories have already emerged of shop, restaurant and company owners who are taking on loans at highly steep rates to keep their businesses alive amid ongoing lockdowns.

That possibility may have been part of what Pope Francis had in mind when he used his April 23 livestreamed daily Mass during Italy’s coronavirus lockdown to launch an alarm about usury.

“In many places, one of the effects of this pandemic is being felt: Many poor families, many hungry families, are being ‘helped’ by usurers,” the pope said. “This is another pandemic, a social pandemic – families of people who only have day work, or who work off the books, don’t have any work right now and can’t feed their children, and then usurers take the little money they have.”

While shocking, “nothing is new,” Ciotti said, unless “maybe someone thought that hecatomb of the coronavirus would have caused some moral scruples in the bosses.”

Ciotti pointed to various efforts being made by the Catholic Church to fight the mafia, as well as efforts on the part of civil authorities and the police. None of this will work, he said, “if it is not accompanied by a social and cultural regeneration.”

He pointed to several people – priests and public officials – who have been assassinated by the mafia for their opposition to organized crime, including a young magistrate named Rosario Livatino, who was killed in 1990 at 38, and whose cause for canonization is pending.

“This is the Church which counteracts crime and builds justice. A Church which with the decisive and concrete support of Pope Francis I hope will soon become a majority, in the sign of absolute incompatibility between the mafia and the Gospel,” he said.

To combat mafia activity, Ciotti suggested developing policies that put the Italian constitution “into practice.”

“It is the first text against the mafia even if the word mafia never appears in it,” he said, noting that “In the constitution is written everything that must be done in order to create a society of peaceful coexistence based on the fundamental social rights: work, housing, education, healthcare.”

Not only is mafia activity incompatible with the Gospel, he said, but it also contradicts “a society of free and responsible men, a society where democracy is everyone’s commitment, not one excluded, for the common good.”

“The strength of the mafia,” he said, “has always been in the gaps in democracy and in the absence or poverty of social policies.”

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