This post was contributed by Dr Carol Brennan, Module Convenor for Undergraduate Laws.
The world-wide lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic has brought early signs of new trends in criminal activity which will, no doubt, be a fertile source of criminological research for years to come. Predictably, domestic burglary rates have fallen, while there has been a disturbing rise in complaints of domestic violence; in the UK calls to victims’ helplines have increased by 30%.
Italy has been one of the most hard-hit countries, in terms of deaths but also with the severity of the lockdown strictures has come devastating economic impact. Now, there are numerous reports of the increased activity of organised crime in local communities and economies. Helplines for victims of extortion report that the Costa Nostra in Sicily, the Camorra in Naples and Ndrangheta in Calabria have been very active. Through them, food parcels have been distributed to the needy, loans provided and failing businesses bought, with the desperate hospitality industry thought to be especially vulnerable. Of course what appears to be philanthropy by these organisations is actually a cynical exploitation of the crisis, calculated to buy respectability and credibility, at the same time instilling a network of obligation and control in the community.
Favours will be called in, when financial ‘protection’ and votes in local elections are demanded. Operating outside the banking system, the Mafia has the financial liquidity to facilitate such activity and an attractive lack of bureaucracy which contrasts to those of cumbersome official structures. Organised crime is already embedded in parts of the economy not adversely affected by lockdown such as road haulage, waste disposal and cleaning services, and the drastic levels of unemployment will increase the availability of workers to be newly drafted in as ‘foot soldiers’ in the Europe-wide cocaine trade.
Students may wish to consider different theoretical lenses for viewing this phenomenon. Marxism laid the groundwork for conflict theorists, who saw both the conception of the criminal law and participation in criminal activity as reflective of struggles between groups in society: the haves versus the have-nots; the powerful against the powerless. The political economy of capitalism is essentially crimongenic: it is the economic domination of the oppressed which creates the climate in which organised crime can flourish.
According to Vincenzo Ruggiero different economic and political situations present different opportunities for organised crime to operate. He would recognise that a vacuum in governance (‘the absence of the State’) precipitated by the pandemic could encourage the development of enterprise-type criminality.’ Mafia families could be seen as providing a mirror governance structure, a parallel State, which subverts that of the mainstream through violence and intimidation. The level of infiltration into political and business environments means, however, that it may be difficult to discern the legitimate from the illegitimate; for example with money laundering and tax evasion. Post-modernists such as Foucault would note the networks of power dispersed throughout all levels of society, rather than centralised in the State.
More individually-oriented and situational theories, such as those of sub-culture, control and opportunity may also shed some light on the current situation in Italy. And, of course, never forget that organised crime is a global phenomenon – just like a pandemic.