Mafia hurt by asset seizures but still too strong to beat

Mafia hurt by asset seizures but still too strong to beat
Local Libera leader Ciro Corona, 32, poses near cases of peach in Chiaiano next to Scampia, district of northern Naples, August 21, 2013.

NAPLES, Italy - Syringes litter the floor of an abandoned school in the crime-plagued Scampia district of northern Naples, alongside tin foil used for crack cocaine, a filthy mattress and piles of clothing.

What was once a classroom is smeared with human waste and Coca Cola bottles filled with urine are stacked in one corner, alongside an abandoned children's toy.

For years desperate addicts lived in the school, where the local mafia or Camorra sold hard drugs from a counter.

Now the building is part of a nationwide campaign to use confiscated gang assets to persuade youths from sink estates like Scampia that there is an alternative to drugs and working for the mob.

But while the programme by the organisation Libera has scored some notable successes and saved young lives, it will never be enough on its own to turn the tide against the enormous power of organised crime, which has flourished during Italy's worst post-war recession as the legal economy withered.

Naples magistrate Antonello Ardituro told Reuters the confiscation of assets was a vital weapon, "more important even than the arrest and conviction of bosses," because of its visible impact in challenging mafia power.

But he added: "Naturally this is not a problem that is on the way to being solved. The mafia is very deeply rooted in society through its infiltration of the economy and political institutions."

While thousands of medium and small companies, the heart of the economy, go under in the recession, the mafia's big problem, investigators say, is laundering a sea of cash generated by drugs, extortion, gambling and illegal disposal of toxic waste.

In a credit crunch the mob makes even more money, lending at extortionate rates to desperate small companies which cannot get finance any other way and then taking them over when the owners are unable to keep up the payments.

"The crisis to us means lack of liquidity, which the Camorra and other criminal organisations have in plenty. So it is a great ally for them," said Paolo Romani, director of Avviso Pubblico, a group of anti-mafia local governments.

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