Antonia Williams-Annunziata is a freelance journalist based in Rome. She was formerly regional editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon and a reporter for Beirut Today.

In a WhatsApp audio recording, a hoarse voice in a Sicilian accent said: “Cover up — and if we have to respond [to the police], we will smash [them] to smithereens. … They’ll beg for mercy.”

Another replied: “If they send 10 anti-riot police trucks, do you really think they could stop us? Aren’t we all armed with batons and clubs against them?”

The conversation between unnamed small-time Mafia members was shared with reporters by undercover police the last weekend in March in Palermo, Sicily’s capital. The same weekend, marauders raided supermarkets in Palermo and Naples. Police have since been sent as security guards at numerous establishments in both cities.

The case illustrates how, in some of Italy’s most impoverished regions, the coronavirus is not the only thing causing fear. While the outbreak continues to bedevil health in Italy’s north, in the south, its impact is running into a pair of preexisting social conditions: poverty and the influence of organized crime.

In southern regions, crimes such as streetside drug sales and extortion are in decline, police say. But organized crime has quickly turned to coronavirus-related crimes. On April 4, police in Naples closed down a website that was selling counterfeit surgical masks and seized a factory selling counterfeit masks. The same day, in Bari, on the southeast coast of Italy, a gang hijacked a truckload of food.

Worse may be yet to come.

The coronavirus is casting a spotlight on the central government’s role in regions where its control has been lax and challenged by criminal groups. These groups include the Cosa Nostra, also known as the Mafia, in Sicily; the Camorra in Campania and its capital, Naples; and the ‘Ndrangheta in Calabria, at the toe of southern Italy. At a time when nearly all Italians are forced to stay at home, a government failure to support them could open the way for the poor to turn to mafia-style groups for help.

Italy’s organized crime has a long history of seeking advantage from social and economic crises. In Sicily, the Mafia — which allied with American and British forces against Mussolini — expanded its hold on smuggling and extortion after the war, while also cashing in on government-financed reconstruction. And after the German army abandoned Naples in 1943 and Allied forces moved in, smuggling by the Camorra became commonplace as a way to fill gaps in the distribution of food and other goods.

In March, the domestic intelligence agency warned the prime minister about potential riots in southern Italy, fomented by organized-crime groups. Concurrently, the mayor of Palermo, Leoluca Orlando, called the threats of violence a "social emergency.”

One possible source of unrest in this is the legion of illegally employed. According to the National Statistics Institute, out of a labor force of about 25.5 million people in Italy, 3.3 million are “in nero” — “in the black,” or the informal market — where employers underpay workers, and workers avoid taxes and lack social welfare benefits. Under rules of the nationwide lockdown, illegal laborers cannot go outside even under the exception of going to work, because they can’t prove to police that they have a job. For them, the time for balcony singalongs in defiance of the outbreak of the coronavirus has waned, replaced by expressions of frustration.

Italian authorities are also concerned about future criminal exploitation of the crisis in order to take control of needy businesses. Italy, which was heavily in debt before the virus, might not have sufficient funds: Two of the wealthiest countries in the European Union, Germany and the Netherlands, are resisting providing huge amounts of E.U. funds to support hard-hit nations such as Italy, Spain and France.

But organized crime has its own illicit resources — for instance, Calabria’s ‘Ndrangheta makes about $30 billion per year on its cocaine trade — and like a loan shark, may offer money in return for partnerships or outright takeover of businesses, Federico Cafiero De Raho, Italy’s top anti-mafia prosecutor, said in an interview broadcast on state television Sunday.

“The current moment is extremely delicate,” Cafiero De Raho said. “Every time there is an emergency, the mafia looks to infiltrate the economy.”

To avoid this, he said, the government must find way to act quickly to help businesses. In previous emergencies, such as Italy’s periodic earthquakes, businesses have had to go through bureaucratic hoops and delays to get the money. This time, the government must avoid providing an opening for the mafia to arrive with aid first, Cafiero De Raho said.

It’s an urgent warning. Unless authorities take steps to protect the most vulnerable and address the conditions that imperil the south, the mafia will be waiting in the wings, ready to take advantage of this crisis — and the next, and the next.

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