Italian police seize 1.6 bn euros in assets from mafia family

ROME - Italian authorities said Wednesday they had seized assets worth more than 1.6 billion euros ($2.37 billion) from a family of five Sicilian pensioners believed to have links to a prominent mafia clan.

The huge sweep of businesses, property and bank accounts "represents, in total value, one of the biggest seizures ever made", the anti-mafia department (DIA) said.

The haul belonged to Carmelo Virga, 66, his brothers Vincenzo, 78, and 71-year-old Francesco, and their sisters Anna, 76, and Rosa, 68.

The operation in Palermo was aimed at "known entrepreneurs from the Palermo area who belong to the Marineo mafia family, linked to the Corleone clan," the DIA said.

"Complex investigations have uncovered how the Virgas have benefited from the backing of the Cosa Nostra in the bidding for these works and public tenders in the construction sector," the DIA said.

The family "succeeded over time in developing and imposing their group of companies, by using the method known as 'Siino', which consists of organising cartels of entrepreneurs with a view to the 'directed' bidding for public tenders." RaiNews reported that the family were all farm hands in the 1980s before becoming millionaires.

'Pizzo' mafia tax

Italian newspapers reported that the son of Carmelo Virga, Gaetano, has in recent years been a high-profile opponent of the Sicilian mafia's extortion of companies.

With the support of several anti-mafia groups, he strongly criticised the practice and evidence he gave has led to the arrest of several mafia chiefs in the region.

Gaetano Virga has told investigators that one of those mafia dons, Stefano Polizzi, came to the construction site where he worked in Marineo in 2010 to demand payment of the mafia tax known as "pizzo", telling him: "Remember that you have children." Gaetano told investigators that the mafia chief went from his office to that of one of his uncles. But there was an altercation and Polizzi left, with the uncles claiming they had not paid a cent.

Assets seized from the mafia in Italy include farming land, luxury cars and bank accounts, trucks and chains of hotels.

After years of fighting the Cosa Nostra in Sicily, the Camorra in Naples and the 'Ndrangheta in Calabria, the Italian state now controls almost 3,000 companies and 12,000 property assets seized from the mafia.

The national agency that manages seized mafia assets also controls more than two billion euros in bank deposits and other assets.