The takedown went smoothly. Dash cam footage from the Italian Special Operation Squad shows police vehicles cutting off the gray car on a thin ribbon of country road. The car’s one-eyed driver puts his head out the open window and ducks back inside when he sees men with pistols and semiautomatic guns bolting forward. Then Massimo Carminati — an underworld boss so powerful he called himself the “Last King of Rome,” a career criminal who had already lost one eye in a gun battle with police — puts up his hands and surrenders.

The December 2014 arrest was the first step in a massive sting aimed at public corruption in Rome’s municipal machinery. Eventually, 46 criminals, business people and politicians were charged in a scheme to reroute public funds away from civic projects into private pockets, including housing developments meant for recent immigrants fleeing the Middle East.

Extortion, fraud, theft and money-laundering were all among charges leveled against the defendants, who were dubbed the “Mafia Capitale” in the press.

And this week, after a 20-month trial, guilty verdicts were handed to the majority of the individuals involved, Italy’s the Local reports, including the bossman, Carminati.

But the trial was still somewhat of a win for defendants. While Judge Rosanna Ianniello said the accused were guilty of corruption, she did not buy the state’s case that the men were a “mafia association.”

The distinction is key in Italy, where the word “mafia” not only carries heavy cultural baggage but can supersize a punitive outcome. “The sentence is stiff, but the whole trial revolved around the question, ‘Was it mafia or not?’ ” Carminati’s lawyer, Ippolita Naso, told reporters. “Mafia Capitale does not exist.”

Mafia don or not, Carminati had a devastating impact on the municipal coffers of the Italian capital, a city so cash-strapped last year its council voted to pull out of contention for the 2024 Olympic Games. In a sign of the scandal’s civic weight, Rome Mayor Virginia Raggi was in the courtroom Thursday for the verdict.

“We are paying the price every day,” she told reporters later, referring to the fact that her city now struggles to fix roads or repair buses. “We now need to stitch the wound back together by taking the path of legality — no easy task. We need to keep our eyes peeled at all times.”

The situation Raggi is referring to is a political crisis that can be tracked directly to years of unfettered graft and corruption. “It is an extremely difficult situation,” Giovanni Orsina, a contemporary history professor at LUISS University in Rome, explained to the Guardian last year. “The city is on its knees. The public services don’t work — notably rubbish collection and public transport — and the lobbies of those services are so strong that it would take a very powerful political force to fix them.”

Carminati’s colorful bad-man career stretches back decades and has reportedly taken on legendary proportions in the Italian underworld. Born in 1958, he initially operated on the blurred margin between neo-fascist groups and criminal gangs, according to During the 1970s and 1980s he was a member of both Banda della Magliana, a criminal network that controlled activity in Rome, and Armed Revolutionary Nuclei, a right-wing terrorism group tied to a number of bank robberies and murders, including the 1980 bombing of a Bologna train station that resulted in the deaths of 85 people.

Carminati’s street cred soared after he survived — minus an eye — a close-range gunshot to his head from a police officer in 1981; along with his penchant for wiggling free from criminal charges, the wound elevated his untouchable status and landed him a new nickname — “The Pirate.” In 1998, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison for his activities, but he skirted two murder charges on technicalities.

In the scheme that would later derail Rome and become known “Mafia Capitale,” Carminati used bribes and threats to take control of city services and contracts for things such as street maintenance and rubbish removal. According to an earlier report from The Washington Post, officials in Rome’s mayor’s office could be nudged to hand over lucrative contracts with $18,000 payoffs.

But the waves of immigrants arriving in Europe from war-torn Africa and the Middle East also provided a fresh revenue stream. Carminati and his associates embezzled money from the contracts to run housing for refugees, the Telegraph reported. “Do you have any idea how much I make on these immigrants?” Salvatore Buzzi, Carminati’s top lieutenant, was overheard saying on a wiretap. “Drug trafficking is less profitable.”

Buzzi continued: “We closed this year with turnover of 40 million but … our profits all came from the gypsies, on the housing emergency and on the immigrants.”

Following the initial 2014 round-up of Mafia Capitale associates, police reportedly seized $247 million in assets from the suspects, including works by Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol hanging from the walls of Carminati’s home. Besides the arrests, investigators announced they were placing 100 additional businessmen and political figures under investigation.

But was the criminal activity linked to Italy’s infamous crime families? In terms of size, the group was “considered the fifth major organized crime ring in Italy after the Cosa Nostra in Sicily, the ‘Ndrangheta in Calabria, the Camorra in Naples, and the Sacra Corona Unita of Puglia,” according to The Daily Beast. But the outfit lacked the organization of traditional mafia groups, and as the trial commenced, the state struggled to prove a link between the traditional crime families and Carminati.

Even so, throughout the 20-month judicial proceeding, both Carminati and Buzzi were held under the country’s 41-bis prison regime. The regulation allows for the suspension of prison accommodations for special prisoners, mainly mafia members. A prisoner under 41-bis is completely cut off from the outside world — no telephone, no letters with other prisoners, no meetings with third parties, no money or parcels from the outside, and no recreation. Carminati and Buzzi were not even present for their trials, but watched the proceedings on closed-circuit screens from their respective cells.

This week, of the 46 people on trial, five were acquitted. Buzzi was handed a 19-year sentence. Carminati was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Had the court convicted the conspirators on mafia charges, however, the prison terms would have been longer. The prosecutor told Reuters he plans to appeal the court’s decision.

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