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Mafie & Social Media: interview with Anna Sergi with VIDEO

Anna Sergi is a doctor of sociology with a specialisation in criminology at the university of essex where she is currently a senior postgraduate lecturer in the sociology department. She’s specialised in comparative criminal justice, organised crime and mafias. In 2018, she won the Lifetime Achievement Award at the University of Essex for her research on the Calabrian mafia in Australia and the Italian Chamber of Commerce also awarded her the Young Talented Italians Award. Today we are here to talk to her about one of her most important projects which is ‘Crime‘, a project funded by the uk impact Excelleration accounts, at the university of essex.

“Hello, would you like to tell us how the project idea behind Crime came about?”
“Well, hello everyone. Yes, the Crime project, which is the acronym for country and regional Italian mafia expansion, it’s a project that came out of a conversation I had with people from eurojust and europol in June 2019, specifically with the Italian best of eurojust and with the team working against Italian organised crime. I had just finished some other research on similar topics, I had brought them to them in a way of knowledge and from this talk, let’s say in talking about what I found, what had happened in the various researches also outside Europe, Filippo Spiezia, who is the current Nacional member for eurojust Italy and at the time he was also vice-president of eurojust, showed great interest in trying to do something more systematic for Europe, so with his input we started and I applied for this funding, which we won; It was not a big funding, it included three months/four months full time of a researcher directed by me, who would have to go to The Aia and sit practically inside Eurojust and Europol and talk to the various prosecutors and the investigative teams of Europol under the Directive of Eurojust Italy.
Then there was Coivd, so this was no longer possible, because eurojust obviously prevented all the work on the ground, so the project changed. From being all of Europe, it became part of Europe, so we focused on 6 countries that were the most interesting for eurojust and europol with their list, basically of interest, which included Germany, Switzerland, Holland, Belgium, Spain and Romania. We chose six countries, because actually these countries seemed to us to be already different enough from each other to be able to provide varied data and to reach a saturation of data. The work was all carried out remotely, with the challenges you can imagine, but also, quite simply, with the slowdown; it was supposed to start in April and finish in October; in practice, it started in October and has now finished in May, so it was complicated, and my assistant Alice Rizzuti, who finished her doctorate in the meantime, fortunately managed to stay on the project part-time and therefore to work a bit more diluted. The project had two phases: the first phase was the collection of public data that involved looking at data of the dia, dna and the media, if they were corroborated by other documents on these states and therefore on the mafia presence of any kind and type, obviously Italian, in these states and we will talk maybe later about the difficulty and prejudices that these data have; then, always in this first phase, there has been a discussion with a smattering of these data with experts, almost always academics or investigative journalists who, in those countries, had dealt with a little more in-depth work on the Italian mafias, and this has already been problematic, because there are countries in which there have not been real studies, but maybe journalists, etc., who have been able to study the Italian mafias.
So this was the first, descriptive part for what were our mafias amaps “?”, incomplete. I wasn’t satisfied methodologically, I wasn’t satisfied in any way, so we expanded it even more and thanks also to a series of previous studies that I did of workshops and various things, we were able to talk to the anti-mafia squads within the law enforcement systems of each of these countries, but the local ones, so with the Belgian police, with the Dutch police and their micro Anti-Mafia Squads who corrected us so many redacted, it was very nice, so they gave us a bit of a balance of what the data was; these were conversations, obviously interviews, with a very specific purpose which was to know something about the data we had and let’s say they gave us a little bit more to think about. The second part of the project was that of Cooperation; the part of Cooperation was a bit more critical, because more or less we knew what to expect on the mafias abroad, on the Cooperation instead, there were a bit of interesting surprises and this implied police and judicial cooperation, so europol and eurojust led a bit. In fact, we spoke with the officers of europol and through eurojust we were able to have a bit of a general smattering of judicial cooperation, going up then to Italy again, so we did the opposite. We talked first with the outsiders and then with the Italians. With the Italian ones, we managed to talk to the ?? of State Police in the various countries and with the prosecutors, literally with me, who chased the Italian prosecutors, trying to convince them to talk; it was much more, so with the Italian prosecutors obviously we tried to talk to foreign prosecutors with few results, we succeeded only in two cases because this is also a problem of access, let’s say, to the professions and it is not always so easy.
So the report is 258 pages long, it has become gigantic, in fact, at the beginning, it poses more problems than it solves, that’s for sure, like any research; and it’s a report divided into three parts, as agreed; it has a Mafia Map for each country that precisely describes the data, trying to give it in a neutral way and with all the limitations of the case of which we talk very clearly, then, there is a normative part, so the legislation that can be implemented in these countries for crimes of organized crime, especially participation and / or conspiracy or drug trafficking and money laundering and then, there is the final part that is the purely analytical one that looks at the challenges of collaboration, both police and judicial.

This was the report: basically Each of these countries has at least one interesting ? that could be even more, let’s say you could go digging and then you can find at least another 8 / 10 research projects that could arise with this report; I do not want to do them myself, however, because it was already quite complex. 

Maybe just talking about this, I ask you if you have followed different methods depending on the countries under analysis or the method was different and in that case how did you have to adapt it to the social fabric that you found in the different countries analysed?

The method was the same as the approach, the difference is in who does what in the functions, obviously in a country like Switzerland with 26 cantons and a Federal Police, organised crime is part of the mandate of the Federal Police. If I could make a serious research I would talk to cantons, but I could not do it obviously, so you have to start already with a basic prejudice that is that obviously the Federal Police sees what is sent to it. Different is Belgium, where we had access to the Federal Police, but the Federal Police, aware of their own limits of knowledge on the subject, put us in contact with the local authorities, so for example for Belgium, while for Switzerland we did one meeting (actually we sent questions and we stuck to those) for Belgium we did 6 different meetings with different authorities, because it was necessary for them to talk to various people in various places, so it is always a problem, more than the method of adapting the methodology, to understand who has the information you need and it is not always the same person, because in Italy, we have become accustomed to Anti-mafia prosecutors who know everything about everyone; abroad, the Prosecutor may not know anything at all, therefore, you have to talk to the police, but talking to the police implies a series of other research prejudices and, above all, a difference in what they can tell you, because the police are covered by the secrecy of the investigation. The same thing happened with Germany, of course I had spoken to the BKA, but speaking to the BKA puts you in the position of having to speak to the prosecutor of each Land, because in each Land the prosecutor’s office behaves differently, despite the BKA. So it was difficult not so much to generalise the method, because that was already generalised, but to give substance to the method, because you realise that often, even banally within Europol, what they do within Europol according to the country they come from is not the same thing. Spain has a system very similar to Italy as far as the judicial police is concerned; so in Spain you can talk to the judicial police, because it makes sense, in other countries it doesn’t. In short, there are a thousand differences, so the first thing to do is to understand the system of the other country.

But on this point, I ask you in which countries have you encountered more difficulties.
Well, there were practical difficulties which were, it will seem strange to you, the language; in the sense that I obviously speak Italian, I understand, I speak more or less Spanish, I understand but I haven’t spoken French for 12 years, I don’t speak German and I don’t speak Dutch, neither Dutch nor Belgian; so there were no problems with countries like Belgium and Holland where everyone speaks English, but in Spain, for example, we couldn’t talk to the person we had to talk to, because he only speaks Spanish and my level of Spanish wasn’t good enough and we hadn’t made time to organise. In Romania, the same thing, we spoke to a prosecutor who fortunately spoke English, not very good English, in fact you could see his frustration in wanting to talk to us about certain things. But basically, all the countries have been available; there is a much higher knowledge and willingness to face the phenomenon than one would expect, as well as the obvious difficulties, which are those of a phenomenon that does not recognise borders, not because it is huge, but because it banally does not recognise borders and it is the police states that have to do it; therefore, you find yourself having to manage the same person who goes back and forth from Belgium to Holland to Germany, who meets different jurisdictions that try to chase him and therefore the problem is banally that, but we did not have any problem of ? Switzerland took a lot of time to give us the permission to talk to whoever was in charge, but this is also because I didn’t have the direct connection; where I had the direct connection, obviously it was much easier, so, however, between Europol, Eurojust, the channels were found, then let’s say that the project, presenting itself as a project close to Eurojust Italy, spreading also the names as often happens of Eurojust Italy or Europol, in short, we tend to talk to each other.

“Right at the beginning of this conversation, you spoke a little about these prejudices that exist around the subject of the mafia outside Italy, basically; the prejudice of the mafia in southern Italy. We can only imagine those that we encounter when we go to analyse, as you did, a cross-border perspective. What can you tell us about this, what does the data tell us about this problem?”

The data tells us that a large part of the problem is Italy’s schizophrenia, so it always starts with self-criticism and then turns to criticism. Self-criticism is really hard to do and we never do it; it is a self-criticism that starts from a very simple concept: Italy, and I say this in a nutshell, has to decide if the mafia is its own problem, it is all its own, which is what it seems to be saying when it says: We have the strongest mafia and also the strongest Antimafia, we know how to fight the mafia better than you, you have to do like us; or take the European way and say: all countries have the mafia and since all countries have the mafia, the mafia is not special. Of the two only one, either the mafia is too Italian or the mafia is not only Italian; it can’t be both things, because with both things you end up confusing the foreign countries, for example, if I deal a lot with the ndrangheta, almost entirely, if I have the Italian prosecutor or investigation from Italy who tells me “There is a local of ndrangheta in Switzerland” and Switzerland says “well, where is this local of ndrangheta, how is it located and what does it do? “and then says “I don’t know what it does, I know they’re there but they don’t do anything criminal here, I need something more”. Italy says “no they don’t do anything, maybe they sit at the table and talk about ‘ndrangheta”, but actually talking about ‘ndrangheta stuff is not a crime to talk about hypothetical mafia structures, so Switzerland needs crime, any kind of crime; Italy says it doesn’t need crime and that it still doesn’t understand ‘ndrangheta and Switzerland replies that Italy still doesn’t understand that it needs crime. 

So years and years go by until they arrive at paradoxical situations, whereby in Switzerland they arrest someone for something minimal, which then does not stand up to trial; Italy starts with the mafia aggravating circumstance and this person is not condemned, for example, Operation Elvezia, where the mafia aggravating circumstance fell, the whole system fell; and it is always the same problem: either we focus on mafia-type organise crime, so mafia-type groups that do intimidation, control of the territory, that have political wills, have business interests, that have all the usual things that our mafias also do and therefore they can be Italian, French, German, Albanian, Turkish, of any nationality and therefore it is no longer just Italian, or we continue to say that our mafias are special and therefore you have to look at them. What ends up being a very short story, what you end up doing abroad is, for example: if someone is called Sergi and comes from Platì, I presume that he is ‘ndranghetista and I think that sooner or later he will do something, hopefully; this is a problem, it is a very big problem; because it is a problem of what the studies of organized crime abroad know to be the so-called ethnic trap and to look for the mafia phenomenon, you end up looking for Italians who commit crimes abroad. Therefore, if you are lucky enough to have a Calabrese who traffics in drugs, it is perfect, ‘ndrangheta, because you are not able to dissociate yourself from the discourse of the mafia, which must be Italian and must have certain rules; if Italy, the Public Prosecutor’s Office of Reggio Calabria, Catanzaro or whatever, tells you that the local of ‘ndrangheta must have at least 49 members and then, perhaps, you have 35, what do you do? Not the local ‘ndrangheta? These are things that really happen, in Italy, perhaps you need 49 members, in Switzerland, on the contrary, you don’t; therefore, you get stuck in these prescriptive definitions without going to the heart of the matter, which in my opinion is something else; it’s what the data tells us: while in Italy, Calabria above all, in Sicily, if in the traditional regions the ‘Ndrangheta organization is equal to the Ndrangheta activity, abroad this thing does not exist, because the Ndrangheta organization abroad there is almost never and if there is, it is in Calabria; therefore you have a total Split for which the criminal organization stays at home, the criminal activities if and when exist, are not organized abroad;

Therefore, in order to traffic narcotics, to talk to someone of Dutch, Belgian, French or Albanian origin, who opens the port of Antwerp for me and allows me to pass cocaine, I do not need to be ‘ndrangheta; I need to have the money, the contacts, the mobile telephone number of this person And then, obviously, I can use him in the let’s say “network of ‘ndrangheta” to do other things, but the split is very clear, also in the countries of high rooting like Switzerland and Germany, where there are active cells of ‘ndrangheta: the ‘ndrangheta association, the organization, is different from the crime and this is something that, in Italy, does not even enter into the brain and abroad, it confuses so much, because they go looking for the organization and when they find it, they do not find the crimes and I think: alright, I have 8 premises of ‘ndrangheta, but let’s say they meet for lunch and that’s it. 

But just talking about Germany, since you immediately mentioned it, in the interviews we did with the other experts we called in our Panel, among others, we interviewed Professor Ciconte, who is also from Calabria and he also told us about the phenomenon of the Ndrangheta specifically as you do and he also told us about this strange phenomenon of neo-melodic music in Germany and about everything that happened behind the phenomenon of neo-melodic music in Germany, he even told us about interviews in which these singers together with law enforcement officers and journalists of national fame in Germany talked about the Ndrangheta as if it were folklore basically.

You don’t even need to be in Germany, it more or less happens to me everywhere; I’m doing research now on Canada, I’m writing a paper now and I was told that in the city of ?, Ontario, a city on the border of the Niagara falls, the Ndrangheta is a social club, nice, I missed that. The Ndrangheta Social Club means that old people from Calabria get together at the bar to play bocce or cards and talk about n’drangheta stuff. This was told to me by the Federal Police, they know that this is a problem, but let’s say that the problem is always the same, to tie this conversation, which in itself has nothing problematic, and that I know, maybe the Canadian Police now know what the dowries are, now they know that maybe they did it even 40 years ago, but no one paid attention because it seems like something out of the air, but the basic problem is always that: The Ndrangheta has a strong, very strong cultural component, cultural does not mean that it is fixed or in any way prescriptive also here, the Ndrangheta is a Calabrian phenomenon and as such it twists, distorts the Calabrian culture and becomes culture itself, therefore, it is not surprising,  a bit like the ‘ndrangheta scions who use trap music, for example, to talk about how nice it is to kill pigs with a gun, to say, and even there we see that there are singers in Calabria, there is no need to go to Germany, who make songs of dubious taste about fugitives. I think it’s a bit of an extreme of that distortion and also perhaps an unhealthy attempt for us, understandable from an external point of view, to want in some way to free what for you is an identity; the 85 year old Calabrese who lives in Hamilton and who was ‘ndranghetista’ in those days and who would perhaps tell you that the Ndrangheta of today is ugly and bad, because at the time we were men of honour, the usual talk of the mafia as good people, would perhaps say wait, because actually the ‘ndrangheta is a system of values, it is a system of social aggregation and with this stuff passes also the message of the ‘ndrangheta of the social clubs, of the culture or subculture, it is the defence of certain things that all starts from what in criminology are the various mechanisms of neutralization of the crime; you tell what you tend to want and you make it sound good. 

“I wanted to ask what difference there is between the analysis you’ve been able to make of these countries you’ve told us about and the UK. What are the differences, if any, that brexit may have entailed, and also a social system of preferences that is profoundly different from the Italian one?”

The difference is that between a sky with many stars and more or less cloudy and a black hole. Britain is a black hole, but it is not a black hole for mafias, but a black hole for organised crime in general; this country has a way of collecting data on organised crime, which is absolutely partial because there has been a decision to concentrate investigative efforts in a fragmented way. The UK has 43 police forces in England, one in Scotland but for the last 5 years it was 8 and one in Northern Ireland, these are local; then they have never had a regional police force and since 1998 they have given themselves a form of co-ordination, in 2006 let’s say a national body and this has been international since 2013, it has changed its name and is now starting to function. It focuses mainly on commodity oriented crimes, so drugs, stolen vehicles, etc. So for them it’s not organised crime, it’s organised crimes, they don’t have the capacity to do big trials, so there is no concept of a maxi-trial, it will never exist, actually that only exists for us and for America, that’s another matter and maybe it’s better that way, given the trend; their mental management of organised crime is a crime in concert with others, to do a serious crime together. Already the fact that they contemplate it as a serious crime that implies at least 7 years in prison, gives you a list of Serious Crimes that are above the threshold of seriousness, very often they are not compatible with the mafia system, because arson would never appear, although it is a potentially serious crime but it might not be, extortion does not appear but neither does basic corruption, but neither do many other crimes; so the criminal phenomenon for them, the organised Crime is a Serious organised Crime so crossboarder stuff so drugs, or level frauds that become serious because they are frequent and because they are controlled and amplified. So their organised crime system is totally out of Italian grace and they had very, very serious problems prior to Brexit, absolutely, because we don’t forget that the UK came out of the type 115 of the 150 European international cooperation measures in 2015, so prior to brexit we had already come out of the so-called third pillers of European home affairs and this, which is a problem of receiving rogatory letters, of managing the European arrest warrant, they never actually entered the European investigation warrant, because they came in and they came out because there was Brexit; So there are a number of problems in applying what then creates the knowledge, one thing is not to have the background or the database of the presumed Italian mafiosi, another thing is not to have the database of your own mafiosi, of the local ones, it is a current problem for the birth of a ? which does not have control of the databases of the 43 police forces that remain autonomous. So it is a problem of data, it is a black hole in the sense that if you are lucky enough to have your criminal group born and bred on Merseyside from Liverpool stay there all their life, it is perfect; but if they move on, you are lost. So, it’s a problem of data and knowledge of the territory as well as of organized crime, even more so of the mafia.

“But summing up what you have told us today, what are the most significant data that come out of your research and how this data can give a concrete contribution to both public and private institutions in Italy or even non-profit organisations like ours, which live by design and that, starting from the basis of your research, could carry out a type of project of counter-reporting and contrast, just starting from the information of the Crime report?”

So there are many recommendations that we have made, some much more technical, because obviously related to a European type of design, because this was our mandate, so the idea of focusing on this broken nature of the mafias where the organization was one side and the activities are on the other, but above all the idea a little ‘to abandon the rhetoric of the singular mafia, because abroad, the mafia is not singular, because we have many clans of the ndrangheta which collaborate with many local groups, which collaborate among themselves, Cosa Nostra, ‘ndrangheta, Camorra, there are no identities as we might think, but actually, perhaps the most interesting thing, which is also tied to my previous research, is a discourse of typology of mobility; the mafia mobility is not a special mobility, it is a normal mobility, normal within the economic systems that we have and it is a frequent mobility, but not hyper-mobile; in the sense, they do not all move together all the time, but whoever happens to move, when they happen, tends to move often; what does this mean? It means that abroad, and there was a wonderful case on this, what surprised us most was to see the analysis that the police forces were making of their own historical mafia phenomena; In Belgium, for example, we discovered that in the 2000’s, they made a big Belgian analysis of what were pockets of Cosa Nostra, rooted in their territory, which did relatively advanced things, including Benefit Fraud, they worked there, then they called in sick and took the money of the Belgian Social State and the thing that always emerges and which confirms so much research is that abroad, and with this the analysis starts, let’s say for you as a civil society, the first settlement and the exploitation, the visible and the invisible remains on the receiving communities; the small town (has there been a case recently ?  published an article on Luxembourg, on the Mafia of Luxembourg, they referred to a community rooted on the border between Luxembourg and Belgium, of a country in the province of Reggio Calabria called Mammola , a country among other things where they make a ? Very good, the community of Mammola is very rooted in those places and the community of Mammola not only receives the pressures of the mafiosi, but there is the expectation that they will throw them out and these are enormous expectations on a community of still immigrants to the first, second generation, in a foreign country that must not only understand who the mafiosi are, but must understand how to fight the mafiosi, how to explain to a foreign country that some mafiosi from my country come here to do what they do, so the empowerment is always born on those communities abroad, because those communities are those in which you settle willingly or unwillingly and they are not all colluding of course and they are not all with a gun to the temple, there are those who do not understand, those who do not care, those who say I do not want problems at home; Whatever the reason, that’s the problem, and it’s also an ethnic problem, in the sense that obviously we feed on what is most like us, so obviously I’m going to look for my grandfather’s neighbour from 20 years ago who lives abroad and it’s a problem for the whole Italian community, which risks, as happened in America, as happened in Canada, as happened in Australia, to drive away these micro-communities, we have an absurd case of the Italian community in Australia where they don’t want the Calabrian ones. It’s not going well at all, therefore, there are some very important things to do in terms of legislation; I’m not for 416 bis everywhere because 416 bis is of no use, but obviously understanding where we stand, strengthening Mafia-type Organise Crime and not ‘Mafia Italy’, let’s leave that alone, trying to understand how to actually use the links we already have, there are very powerful instruments at European level and we need to use them, but it’s not happening yet; there is a problem of distinction of transnationality, of operativeness in these mafias let’s say, but there is also a problem of sensitization that I don’t know from whom it has to start, of those who are abroad these realities; this is a bit the core of the issue that at the end of the accounts always come back to pay always the same or even abroad, and it is obviously a pity.