«The estimate regarding the “turnover” achieved by the agriculture mafia has reached nearly Euro 21.8 billion, from approximately Euro 16 billion, states official data published in 2016. We are talking about a “guesstimate”, showing a clear 30% increase and this underlines the gravity of the phenomenon.
The organized crime approach in targeting the agriculture sector, has thrown away the ‘military uniform’ in order to adopt “the suit and tie”, thus managing to benefit from the advantages of globalization and of the financial domain. In addition to the laws being inadequate, which fail to be fully applied or hold back practices developed by the agriculture mafia, the capillarity of the various joints within this kind of crime is the factor that creates the attractiveness of this sector.»

The Prosecutor Gian Carlo Caselli, the Scientific Committee President of the Observatory for agro-food crimes, has been working for decades in the field of fighting against organized crime and terrorism.

In this interview he presents the most recent details published in “Rapporto Agromafie”, for the fifth edition of the report, an initiative created by the Eurispes President, Gian Maria Fara, and developed in collaboration with Coldiretti [The Association of Agricultural Entrepreneurs that brings together more than one and a half million members – Ed.].

Massimiliano Cannata: Mr. Prosecutor, illicit affairs in the agro-food sector are in full growth. Which are the most feared aspects?

Gian Carlo Caselli: Firstly the“chameleonic”phenomenon, in other words the ability of mafia branches to transform themselves and which cannot be fought against under the schemes we have followed in recent decades, for that would be counter-productive. Nobody denies the historical origins of a phenomenon pertaining to our southern Italian region, which, over the years, has demonstrated its ability to implant itself in the vital cells of the big cities along the center and northern part of our country. However, at the moment, the most feared phenomenon is “the silent mafia”, that proliferates itself by adopting a modus operandi totally different than all the methods used in the past.

In order to understand the transformation process that we are witnessing at present, we have a look at the cyberlaundering phenomenon, i.e. online laundering of money coming from criminal activities.

Massimiliano Cannata: What does this mean, precisely?

Gian Carlo Caselli: It means that not only does the “new” mafia no longer extort supermarkets or auto dealership owners, on the contrary, they team up or even take over their entire activity, obtaining in this way “clean” channels for money laundering. The new crime knows how to operate with the possibilities offered by the Internet and the digital age, which has come to be a sort of an accelerator. If in the past, the mafia groups would ensure their income using a “gangster” behavior, by imposing a “pizzo” (ransom fee) in exchange for the“protection”offered, today they have become themselves “entrepreneurs” being in the process of completing a “normalization” strategy. A felony which is being carried out using the Internet.

As always, the purpose of money laundering has been to drive away money from their real source through a series of operations intended to prevent the traceability of this income’s origins. With the Internet, the distance between the money launderer and the capital is constantly growing, and the investigations targeting the suspects become more complex.

Massimiliano Cannata: What are the consequences of such a radical mutation?

Gian Carlo Caselli: The consequences are clear: even the concepts of “mafia” and “mobster” have changed, now incorporating new areas that require new legislative frameworks, synchronized with the “new” crime hidden by now behind management boards, holdings, international funds, consulting agencies, as well as behind the formal shield of politics and public institutions, as it is often met.

From Kalashnikov to virtual networks

Massimiliano Cannata: What characterizes the strategy adopted by the criminal organizations in the agro-food sector, organizations that possess extraordinary knowledge in the use of new technologies?

Gian Carlo Caselli: In the agro-food sector, we are witnessing, among other things, the birth of a parallel economy. Regarding the cyber- laundering phenomenon that we talked about already, the activity is being reduced to a single virtual and dematerialized operation where the illicit money laundering phenomenon finds ideal conditions for development. Organized crime has quickly accessed the world of technology, moving from Kalashnikovs to more sophisticated weapons, like the botnets, those networks that can control tens of thousands of computers and which can be used for online attack against companies and organizations.

Massimiliano Cannata: These are delicate techniques that involve the ability of bringing together different profiles and skills. In addition to the change in methods and strategies, are we facing a generation change with a “qualitative leap” of the new organized crime?

Gian Carlo Caselli: We have to emphasize the fact that the Internet and the web allow organized crime in all states to extend its operating territory by providing opportunities and perspectives, not so long ago, hard to be considered. This has resulted in an updated profile and identity of the “old mafia”. Furthermore, it should be stressed that the web is a “free zone” able to offer the guarantee of safety and anonymity, a “grey area” which offers the possibility to commit various types of crimes. Network security, in this new context, retains its natural importance, but becomes an important method when dealing with a criminal strategy which no longer has borders and is becoming increasingly threatening.

Massimiliano Cannata: A crime that stands out by its ability to “commercially” penetrate new markets. Do you think this is something unusual?

Gian Carlo Caselli: In fact, that is exactly what is going on. With an unsuspected marketing talent, the mafia groups have at first transferred their responsibilities: the pyramidal structure of management and the other numerous exploitation schemes and forms.

At present, they affect the market, by establishing the price of crops, by controlling the distribution and sorting systems for entire supermarket chains, they manage the export of the Made in Italy goods – both original and counterfeit products, they create abroad production lines of Italian sounding items and they go up to establishing grocery shop networks.

Network Security a strategic advantage used in incident response

Massimiliano Cannata: Are you referring to what we call the “liquid mafia”?

Gian Carlo Caselli: It is the most appropriate definition that captures the ability of the organized crime to infiltrate everywhere, just like water does. The members of the mob groups adopt more and more diverse schemes, succeeding to benefit from significant capital coming from EU funding. We just have to recall that the Financial Guard, during 2016, has confiscated 137 pieces of land and mapped 29,689 pieces of land which pertain to organized crime groups. Also in 2016, the same institution has seized economic goods worth 150 million euros and confiscated 35 million euros coming from unlawfully public granted funding.

Massimiliano Cannata: The innovations do not stop here. High frequency trading is another keyword that should be taken into account from now on. Can you provide a synthesis regarding this matter?

Gian Carlo Caselli: It is a more and more accessible tool for the organized crime, which allows stock exchange transactions at a very high speed, operated automatically, based on algorithms. These are speculative operations carried out by using significant amounts of money in order to influence share’ prices. We are faced with some hyper-technological devices, able to issue on the market, in a record time, a high flux of orders, sometimes exceeding 5,000 operations per second. A sort of automatic insider trading whose operations are very difficult to be traced by the investigators.

Massimiliano Cannata: How do these criminals operate?

Gian Carlo Caselli: Due to the speed of the high frequency trading, the banks and the financial operators currently act on multiple regulated platforms, such as the stock exchange, but more often, on completely uncontrolled areas, such as the Over the counter (OTC) platforms, which allow purely speculative profits. Thanks to the operations speed, the operators place, modify and cancel millions of orders a day, in order to speculate the minimal differences between the selling and purchasing prices.

Massimiliano Cannata: The speed and the network control are still sources for these illegal actions?

Gian Carlo Caselli: The central point is actually the speed: the algorithms, which become increasingly complex and they can “read” the orders for a given product made by competitors on the different markets. During the extremely short timeframe between the order placing and the order recording in any of the market transactions’ log – i.e. the telematics display containing the sale or purchase bid, the quantities, the price and the operator, mafia groups flood the markets with the same product orders on different other platforms, managing to negotiate the most convenient price for themselves. These thousands of orders aim to determine the increase or decrease of a product cost and once the negotiations are concluded they are being deleted in a few fractions of a second. The speed of these operations is so high that the control bodies of the different states consider that only 10% of the orders placed via high frequency trading reach their true purpose, the rest of 90% are being deleted.

Massimiliano Cannata: What kind of measures can be taken in the fight against these very complex and well-developed phenomena?

Gian Carlo Caselli: The complexity of the criminal phenomena network has reached very high levels. At the moment, we focus our efforts at mapping the level of market penetration of the criminal activities in the agro-food sector. This is in order to get a “Permeability Index”, which can help us better understand the vulnerable areas of our action field and initiate a more effective prevention and protection activity suited to our times. We are facing a transnational problem and the supervision authorities only have national authority which makes none of them have a complete vision on the activities developed by the high frequency trading operators. Obviously, it is time to start implementing investigation, risk and vulnerabilities prevention strategies, via information services having transnational competencies and being in charge with implementing effective cyber-security strategies. Only if we manage to bring together the fight against the mafia, a freedom horizon will open for our country. We are engaged in a game, which we are not allowed to lose.

Massimiliano Cannata | Expert on data protection, member of the CLUSIS Committee
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