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Scandals tarnish image of Switzerland's sunshine canton

Franco Verda, a top judge, was arrested last year on charges of complicity with an Italian cigarette smuggler

(Keystone Archive)

To many outsiders, Ticino conjures up idyllic pictures of lazing in the sun, palm trees, and sleepy lakeside towns. Scratch the surface, though, and the word corruption features all too frequently in Switzerland's sunshine canton.

As politicians meet in Lugano for their three-week spring session, many will be increasingly aware that Ticino's reputation as a centre of smuggling and money laundering is becoming a talking point not merely in Switzerland, but in European halls of power.

High-profile criminal cases over the past year have served to dent the clichéd vision of Ticino and have tarnished Switzerland's reputation.

In the week before parliamentarians assembled in Ticino, the multi-million dollar European cigarette smuggling industry again hit the headlines when a court in the Italian city of Bari issued arrest warrants for 17 people, including several Swiss in Ticino and canton Vaud.

The alleged ringleader, whose home and business in Ticino were raided, was Franco Della Torre. He received a suspended sentence in the late 1980s for his involvement in a major Ticino-based money laundering racket, the "Pizza Connection".

Cigarette smuggling was at the heart of another case last year, which shook Ticino and strained ties with Italy, and has implications for Switzerland's future relations with the European Union.

A suspected mafia boss, Gerado Cuomo, was arrested and is currently awaiting extradition to Italy. His detention brought down a former top judge in Ticino, Franco Verda, who was arrested last August on charges of complicity. The case also damaged the reputation of Ticino's judicial system.

The issues of smuggling and money laundering lie at the heart of Switzerland's difficult negotiations with the EU on a new set of bilateral accords. Brussels has made it clear that little progress is likely on further agreements without Switzerland doing more to combat cross-border crime.

Another case last year also hit the international headlines, when a Ticino-based company was alleged to have bribed senior Russian officials in return for lucrative contracts to renovate the Kremlin. Those implicated included the former Kremlin property chief, Pavel Borodin, as well as family members of the former president, Boris Yeltsin.

The issue of money laundering has long been to the fore in Ticino, with successive public prosecutors trying to stop the practice.

Apart from several known cases, it is presumed that a considerable amount of Italian mafia money has made its way across the porous border with Ticino, ending up in banks and financial institutions in the canton.

It is not clear how widespread corruption is in Ticino. A fiery, rightwing member of parliament, Flavio Maspoli, took a swing at the entire cantonal government in a newspaper interview in February. "There are no incorruptibles," he said. "The only issue is the price."

While parliamentarians may have other issues on their minds in Lugano, there are those in the Swiss government, anti-corruption activists, and officials in other countries who know that serious issues, lying just below the surface in Ticino, are becoming increasingly important to Switzerland as a whole.

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