24th Mar 2018


Free movement of organised crime in Europe

  • Mafia is not just an Italian problem. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Many might think of the mafia and its famous crime syndicates - 'Ndrangheta, Camorra, and Cosa Nostra - as a purely Italian problem. But mounting evidence shows that organised crime is more than capable of spreading across the EU.

In the EU’s 28 member states, there are around 5,000 organised crime groups under investigation, as stated in a 2017 Europol report.

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Of course, few of these go as deep as the Italian mafia groups, according to 145 investigations coordinated by Eurojust at the European level between 2012 and 2016. Seven out of ten of these operate in more than one country.

They split an illegal market, including drugs and counterfeiting, which Transcrime estimates to be worth around €110 billion - around one percent of the EU’s overall GDP.

Investigations and reports highlight the importance of Russian-speaking and Turkish mafias; the rise of Albanian clan bosses in marijuana trafficking and other areas; the danger of lesser-known groups at an international level; biker gangs spreading across Northern Europe and Vietnamese clans active mainly in Eastern Europe.

No country can consider itself immune, as our interactive map shows. This even applies to countries with excellent civic traditions and levels of crime that are decidedly under control.

Many criminal organisations pollute the legal economy by laundering their profits, which ultimately affects the economic and social life in parts of a country - just like the Italian mafias, though usually on a smaller scale.

Little EU progress

Yet, the system for fighting organised crime at an EU level seems to be mainly spinning its wheels, despite some small progress being made.

For at least a decade, the European Parliament has approved documents that specifically ask to extend the offence of mafia association to all member states – a law that is known as 416 bis in the Italian penal code.

The parliament also calls to allow unexplained assets to be confiscated, even without a criminal conviction, which is another cutting-edge "innovation" of Italian legislation to combat organised crime.

But these documents, despite being approved by the parliament, have all remained dead in the water due to the opposition of several member states, and despite constant requests from Europol and Eurojust - the EU's police and judicial cooperation agencies.

Mafias and criminal organisations end up "shopping" for jurisdictions, meaning that they take advantage of countries where standards (and investigations) are softer.

Although there are fewer mafia-related murders and serious crimes across Europe than in Italy, the danger that investigators stress is the adverse effect the mafia has on the economy, the market, and free competition.

As observed by Europol in its 2013 report on Italian organised crime, "the overall strategy of Italian Mafias when operating abroad is that of keeping a low profile."

It adds that: “The type of control sought by the Mafias when abroad is purely economic, in the wider sense, not limited to the essential goal of making money, but extended to all aspects of the production and consumption of goods and services, the backbone of any country."

The Italian National Anti-Mafia Directorate wrote in its the 2016 report that we must stop a situation where our "free economy is undermined by the criminal economy."

Criminal groups in Europe

It cannot be assumed that anywhere in Europe is immune from the threat of organised crime. For instance, in 2004, Camorra boss Vincenzo Mazzarella, accused of mafia association and money laundering, was caught by surprise and arrested at Euro Disney, outside of Paris, surrounded by furry cartoon mascots and pastel-coloured hotels.

But this is not a completely new phenomenon. Even in the mid-1980s, the Ndrangheta's Giacomo Lauro was trafficking cocaine in the Netherlands, where he was arrested in 1992.

More recently, however, of the fifty thousand criminal organisations under investigation in Europe, seven out of ten operate in several countries, and almost half (45 percent) in several criminal areas, according to Europol in its “Serious and Organized Crime Threat Assessment” (Socta) 2017 report.

Their members are made up of 180 different nationalities, though 60 percent are native European.

A high-profile case took place not long ago, revealing Italian mafia involvement in the Netherlands - again the 'Ndrangheta - in the flower market, a historic point of national pride.

While Italian organisations can unquestionably be called "mafia associations," which is a label Italian law invented for them, many other organisations operating in the 28 member states have similar traits.

Europol's 2009 report distinguished particularly dangerous groups as those that are "able to interfere in the repression of law enforcement and its processes through corruption."

Mafia lookalikes

While looking through European investigative reports, we see several of these kinds of influential mafia-type groups, which are often able to operate between EU countries.

Biker gangs in Northern Europe, such as the Hells Angels and Bandidos in Finland, have a real ability to intimidate and affect the legitimate economy - like the mafia, they too have both a public and hidden face.

Many investigators, speaking to, mentioned the rise of Albanian clans, who are placing their pawns in several member states to make the jump from marijuana trafficking to cocaine and heroin.

Russian mafias are reported as being active from Eastern Europe to the UK, especially in money laundering. In Estonia, we are waiting to see how the criminal system develops after the 2015 assassination of the top boss of the Obtshak ("Common Fund"), Nikolai Tarankov, who had a history in the Soviet KGB.

Following a double murder in 2010, even Sweden discovered that the Syrian mafia had unexpectedly reached some parts of the country.

However, mafias do not spread at random - they tend to follow specific directions that are informed by opportunities for trafficking and profit.

"To find the mafias in the EU you have to follow the cocaine trail," a senior analyst, from the Italian Anti-mafia Investigative Directorate (DIA), said.

'Follow the cocaine trail'

David Ellero, the Europol director for combating organised crime, elaborated further, saying that: "The main expansion reasons are drug trafficking and laundering."

"One of the first directions is the Iberian Peninsula, which is a drug-trafficking hub. The second direction is Germany-Belgium-Netherlands because of the ports of Rotterdam and Antwerp."

He adds: "The Netherlands, with Schipol Airport, its excellent freeways, and position in the centre of Europe, is logistically perfect for trafficking."

But Italian mafias are not the only ones, Ellero said: "There are several crime groups in the United Kingdom and major problems are emerging with clans of Albanians, Russians, Nigerians, and Turks."

And there are black holes, like in Eastern European countries, where investigators "can't objectively know how Italian mafias are operating, though there are certainly investments there," he said.

This is the origin of the low profile that can fool those who think that signs of a mafia presence in the 2000s were murders and bombs in shops. "The Dutch flower market investigation involved Calabrians who had been there for twenty years and no one had noticed a thing, including the local police."

“Laundering by making local investments follows. Something similar happens in France in the Cote D'Azur," he adds. "And the ports of Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and Antwerp, Belgium, are the main access points for drugs from South America."

There is the law of the market beyond that of crime. Bosses and their white collar criminals make their way to the most convenient locations: "Germany and Switzerland because they are rich; the former Yugoslavia because several checks are skipped partly because of widespread corruption among local law enforcement."

Mafia migration

Researchers Joselle Dagnes, Davide Donatiello, Rocco Sciarrone, and Luca Storti at the department of culture, politics and society at the University of Turin, say that are three basic paths of clan migration.

First is that of fugitives, who generally cannot flee, and therefore need special local "services," as we have seen in France and Germany.

The second route follows the best conditions for trafficking, primarily of drugs, as has happened in Spain and the Netherlands, and in Eastern Europe.

Third, there is the possibility of investment in the legal economy, preferably where there are "business-financial professional competencies, often straddling the legal and illegal."

This is the case in Switzerland, for example, where the courts often find themselves after following a trail of mafia money.

This article is the first of a two-part investigation on mafias in Europe. It is taken from "United Mafias of Europe: what lacks to fight crime in EU", an investigation published by in Italy. The full investigation and interactive maps can be read here.

The second part is about how mafia money pollutes the EU economy.


How the Italian mafia found a Dutch home

One of the biggest mafia trials in Europe in recent years is about to end. Members of the Crupi clan are accused of smuggling vast amounts of cocaine from South America to Italy, using the Netherlands as their main hub.

Italian refugee centre allegedly run by mafia

One of Italy's most powerful mafia syndicates, the 'Ndrangheta, allegedly stole over €32 million from a refugee centre run by a Catholic charity in southern Italy.


The changing face of Europe's mafia

The landscape of European organised crime is “completely changing”, says the director of Europe's leading research institute into organised crime groups.

EU data chiefs rally behind UK over Cambridge Analytica

EU leaders at a Brussels summit demand social networks and digital platforms guarantee transparency and privacy. Their call comes amid growing backlash against Facebook and Cambridge Analytica over voter manipulation.

Germany casts doubt on Austrian intelligence sharing

An Austrian police unit headed by a far-right town councilor and tasked to tackle street crime was sent to raid the offices and homes of people working for Austria's domestic intelligence agency - prompting German counterparts to review cooperation.


EU praises Turkey on migrant deal despite Greek misery

The EU-Turkey deal was agreed two years ago in Brussels. Focus has largely been on reducing migrant flows across the Mediterranean and helping Syrian refugees in Turkey, while the plight of those on the Greek islands are ignored.


Why has central Europe turned so eurosceptic?

Faced with poorer infrastructure, dual food standards and what can seem like hectoring from western Europe it is not surprising some central and eastern European member states are rebelling.

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