Monday, March 16, 2009

Credit Crisis Creating Booming Business for Mob Loansharks

When the bills started piling up and the banks wouldn't lend, the white-haired art dealer in the elegant tweed jacket said he drove to the outskirts of Rome and knocked on the rusty steel door of a shipping container.

A beefy man named Mauro answered. He wore blue overalls with two big pockets, one stuffed with checks and the other with cash.

The wad of bills he handed over, the art dealer recalled, reeked of the man's cologne and came at 120 percent annual interest.

As banks stop lending amid the global financial crisis, the likes of Mauro are increasingly becoming the face of Italian finance.

The Mafia and its loansharks, nearly everyone agrees, smell blood in the troubled waters.

"It's a fantastic time for the Mafia. They have the cash," said Antonio Roccuzzo, the author of several books on organized crime. "The Mafia has enormous liquidity. It may be the only Italian 'company' without any cash problem."

At a time when businesses most need loans as they struggle with falling sales, rising debt, and impending bankruptcy, banks have tightened their lending to them.

Italian banks, which for years had been widely criticized for lending sparingly to small and medium-size businesses, now have "absolutely closed the purse strings," said Gian Maria Fara, the president of Eurispes, a private research institute.

That is great news for loan sharks. Confesercenti, the national shopkeepers association, estimates that 180,000 businesses recently have turned to them in desperation.

Although some shady lenders are freelancers turning profits on others' hard luck, very often the neighborhood tough offering fat rolls of cash is connected to the Mafia, the group said.

"Office workers, middle-class people, owners of fruit stands, flower stalls are all becoming their victims. . . . We have never seen this happen," said Lino Busa, a top Confesercenti official. "It is as common as it is hidden."

Many analysts say organized crime is already the biggest business in Italy. Now, Fara said, the untaxed underground economy is growing even larger.

"Certainly I am worried," he said. "The banking system doesn't work, and the private one that is operating is often managed by organized crime."

The consequences for Italy and its 58 million people are huge, Fara said. "Stronger organized crime means a weaker state."

Nino Miceli, an adviser to Confesercenti, said the Mafia's goal is to take over the struggling businesses.

When the loans, typically at interest rates in triple digits, are not repaid, the threats of violence begin, and restaurants, grocery stores, and bars become the property of criminal gangs.

"As we sit here in this cafe," he said over an espresso near the Colosseum, "do we really know who owns it?"

With a burgeoning portfolio of properties and businesses, the Mafia becomes more entrenched in the economy and has more outlets to "clean their money," Miceli said.

Confesercenti estimates in a new report that organized crime syndicates - including Camorra in Naples, Cosa Nostra in Sicily, and 'Ndrangheta in Calabria - collect about 250 million euros, or $315 million, from retailers every day.

Some of that money is the classic "pizzo," or protection money demanded of business owners. Miceli said his auto dealership was burned down when he refused to pay. But the mob's booming business, he and others agreed, is loan-sharking.

In Vigevano, a northern city of 60,000 near Milan, a group called Free Vigevano has helped nearly 100 people who had become entangled with the mob.

One of them, a 40-year-old salesman, said he got his desperately needed $15,000 - but at 30 percent monthly interest.

The salesman said he blames banks for pushing people like him into the arms of the Mafia.

"If they would be a bit more open with their credit, many people wouldn't fall into this trap," he said. "They only give money to those who already have it."

Thanks to Mary Jordan

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