Police target loansharking as businesses reel from lockdown

June 16, 2020 GMT

ROME (AP) — Police in Rome say they have dismantled a brutal loansharking ring just as many shopkeepers are desperate for liquidity after being closed for weeks during COVID-19 lockdown. In all, 20 alleged mobsters and suspected accomplices were arrested.

The crackdown targeted alleged Casamonica crime clans operating in the outskirts of Rome and in hill towns near the Italian capital.

Some 150 police who fanned out in the raids on Tuesday also seized assets worth 20 million euros ($22.5 million), believed to be revenues from extortion and loan-sharking. Found buried underground was an envelope containing checks written by loan-shark victims as collateral they’d pay back the loans as well as ledgers indicating who owed how much to the suspects, police said.

One of the six women arrested, the companion of an alleged Casamonica crime boss, is suspected of having kept the books, according to police.

“Starting today they can breathe,” Interior Minister Undersecretary Carlo Sibilia said of the alleged loansharking victims.

Sibilia noted that the raids come as “artisans and business owners are paying the effects of the pandemic and struggling to overcome the crisis.”

In one intercepted conversation, an alleged crime clan chieftain threatened that if payments weren’t made, he’d split open the victim’s head and smash the person’s jaw, police said. Such a strategy of intimidation apparently worked: many of those who took out loans “clearly denied their role as victim” and refused to collaborate with investigators, according to police.

A national Italian business lobby, Confcommercio, estimated recently that 60% of restaurants and other businesses were short on liquidity and 30% had lamented extra costs to implement anti-contagion safety measures so they can start serving customers after lockdown. It said that 10% of business owners asserted that they were at risk at the hands of loan-sharks or had experienced attempts by criminals to try to take over their struggling businesses.

Police said some of the intercepted conversations indicated that the Casamonica crime clan was intent on thwarting two crime syndicates rooted in the south — the Naples-based Camorra and the Calabria-based ’ndrangheta — from controlling such illicit activities as extortion in their turf in Rome.

Investigators have said for several years that both the Camorra and the ’ndrangheta have taken over failing businesses in Rome, including restaurants, hotels, cafes and car dealerships, as a way to launder cocaine and other drug revenue.