Italy and Interpol on Wednesday launched a drive to stop the 'Ndrangheta, the southern Italian mafia, from cashing in on the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.
Eleven countries will coordinate to track down and arrest suspects trying to tap into public money being released to rescue economies hit by effects of the lockdowns.
They will also try to trace attempts by organised crime to infiltrate legitimate businesses.
“COVID-19, which for the whole world represents the most tragic and sudden pandemic of the modern era, could become an extraordinary opportunity for ‘Ndrangheta — and for organised crime in general — to conquer new markets and launder money,” said Italy’s Chief of Police, Prefect Franco Gabrielli.
The I-CAN project was designed to head off that threat, he said.
Police chiefs from all 11 countries met in a video conference Wednesday to begin mapping out the movement of fugitives across their borders, said a statement from Interpol.
The ‘Ndrangheta’s vast reserves of cash mean they can offer help to businesses struggling after the coronavirus lockdowns, giving the criminal group an entry into the legitimate economy, said Interpol.
“The ‘Ndrangheta is an invisible threat and a dangerous criminal business partner,” said Interpol chief Juergen Stock.
“This is how their cycle feeds itself across more than 30 countries. A cycle we must act to stop — now.”
Last month, Italian police announced they had broken up an ‘Ndrangheta operation involving public works tenders valued at over 100 million euros ($110 million), including EU funds.
They identified 63 people in the network, including 11 public officials. They are preparing cases for alleged public tender fraud, abuse of office, and bribery.
The 11 countries taking part in I-CAN are Australia, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, the United States and Uruguay.
The ‘Ndrangheta, centred in Calabria region, has surpassed Sicily’s more famous Cosa Nostra to become Italy’s most powerful mafia group, operating across the world.
A major police sting in December against the group resulted in the arrest of 334 people, including a police colonel and a former MP.
The coronavirus pandemic killed nearly 35,000 in Italy, which is only just emerging from a nationwide lockdown imposed to contain the outbreak.