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Mafia targets Switzerland for business

The Mafia could well increase its criminal activities in Switzerland

Despite the global economic downturn, business is booming for the Italian Mafia, with an estimated annual revenue of around €90 billion (SFr138 billion).

Italian anti-Mafia prosecutor Agostino Abate tells swissinfo that Switzerland has increasingly become a target of criminal organisations.

A report released last year by the Confesercenti – one of Italy's major business associations – asserted that through activities such as extortion, usury, contraband, robberies, gambling and internet piracy, organised-crime syndicates accounted for seven per cent of Italy's gross domestic product.

swissinfo: Why would Switzerland be attractive to the Mafia or organised crime in general?

Agostino Abate: Traditionally Switzerland has always played an important role. First of all it gives organised crime access to contacts in other parts of the world, allowing its members to escape surveillance by the Italian police. And then it can launder, hide and reinvest its money.

Unfortunately Switzerland has become even more attractive over the past few years. Mafia-like groups are now moving in and developing criminal activities. It starts with investments in perfectly legal businesses and slowly develops into activities such as drug trafficking or prostitution for example. This is not guesswork; this is factual information concerning Switzerland.

swissinfo: You mentioned money laundering in Switzerland, but other countries also attract criminal money and internet makes banking much simpler.

A.A.: It's true that Switzerland has become less attractive with the introduction of new anti-laundering regulations and a new federal judicial structure. The country is no longer considered a banking paradise and a guarantee of impunity by organised crime.

Offshore banking and other countries such as Britain and Luxembourg also attract criminal capital, although I won't tell you to what extent. The internet is used mainly for transferring funds.

But at some point, the Mafia's money must physically cross the border, in a suitcase or hidden inside a car. It cannot be avoided. Our anti-laundering expression for this is "the Smurfs are entering the banking den". And Switzerland remains the preferred destination for this type of transfer.

swissinfo: Are you saying Switzerland isn't watching its borders carefully enough?

A.A.: No, I think the Swiss Federal Prosecutor's office in Bern is doing a fine job. But I don't think we can go on believing the Mafia is only interested in hiding its money in cantons Ticino and Zurich.

You have to be aware of the signs showing that the Mafia is moving in to set up shop. In particular when criminals start making contacts with perfectly respectable people before they begin to develop their own activities. These signs must be detected.

swissinfo: Would you have an example of this?

A.A.: After a recent gunfight in the German city of Duisburg, the media said it was a fight between Italian clans that happened to take place abroad. That's just not true. What it showed was that criminal organisations have moved in and are spreading everywhere, even where you don't expect them.

swissinfo: An Italian employers' association, SOS Impresa, recently complained about the amount of money the Mafia and other organisations were handling. Should Switzerland fear this kind of economic clout?

A.A.: You have to be even more wary in economically difficult times. When people need money, have trouble getting credit or the financial markets collapse, the threat represented by the Mafia increases.

Someone with more economic power than others can force otherwise honest people into illegal activities. And once that has happened, there is no turning back.

Switzerland can fight against this, but it can't afford to wait otherwise it will be too late. Fighting organised crime is protecting democracy.

swissinfo-interview: Nicole della Pietra

Agostino Abate

Born in 1957, Agostino Abate has worked as a prosecutor in Varese (northern Italy) since 1992, and has specialised in anti-corruption and mafia cases.

He has worked on a number of occasions with the Swiss Federal Prosecutor's Office, investigating in particular the laundering of funds from drug trafficking.

His anti-corruption activities have also made him a thorn in the side of many business people and politicians in his region (Lombardy). He notably investigated the powerful Lega Nord over its finances in the 1990s.

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