MILAN When Italian construction group Perego was struggling back in 2008, a white knight flush with cash rode to its rescue.
Unfortunately the "knight" was a powerful mafia organization, the 'Ndrangheta, which went on to take control of the family-owned Lombardy business and tried to steer it on an expansion path, Italian justice authorities say.
"Luckily it failed," said Milan judge Giuseppe Gennari. The group has since collapsed and former chairman Ivano Perego is awaiting trial for opening his door to the crime syndicate.
As the Italian economy slips into a recession and its banks answer regulatory pressure by curbing loans, more troubled firms could be tempted to follow in Perego's footsteps.
Former Bank of Italy governor Mario Draghi warned back in March 2011 that the economic crisis of the last three years had made companies more vulnerable to the mafia.
Since then, the situation has only worsened.
Italy has reacted to spiraling costs linked to the euro zone debt crisis with 76 billion euros of belt-tightening measures aimed at balancing the budget in 2013. The economy is set to shrink in 2012.
Facing funding strains, capital shortfalls and rising bad loans, Italian banks have started passing on higher financing costs to customers. Many fear they could turn the taps off altogether.
Italy's mafia organizations, whose revenues from money laundering activities alone are estimated at around 150 billion euros, are delighted to step into the breach.
"In this crisis, those who have liquidity have power," Italy's chief anti-mafia prosecutor Pietro Grasso warned on state television in November.
Italian crime syndicates have moved in recent years out of the southern regions where they originated into the richer north, and their tentacles now reach deep into the world of local businesses and politics.
In particular the 'Ndrangheta, based in Calabria in the foot of Italy's boot, has grown in importance as its role in international drug trafficking has increased.
With the cocaine trade estimated to yield returns of at least 50 times the initial investment, money laundering is one of the its key concerns.
Anti-mafia investigative authority DIA has said that the economic potential of Milan's Lombardy region, which accounts for a fifth of Italy's domestic gross domestic product, made it an obvious target for the 'Ndrangheta.
"They are in a position to help troubled businesses. They have the money to set things right and can help firms win orders, for example by threatening competitors," said judge Gennari.
USURY'S BEST ALLY
"The economic crisis is usury's best ally and it has increased the mafia's share in this business," said Lino Busa, chairman of the anti-racketeering association SOS Impresa.
Bankruptcies among Italian companies rose nearly 10 percent in the first nine months of 2011, according to business information group Cerved, which said they were relatively more frequent in Lombardy than elsewhere.
Rising bad loans on lenders' balance sheets also point to Italian companies struggling to stay afloat. The gross total was 102 billion euros in September with a 40 percent annual increase, Italian banking association ABI said.
The head of Confidi Lombardia said defaults were growing again on loan guarantees provided by the regional cooperative, which helps member firms borrow from banks.
"The past two years have been really bad and defaults are back on the rise. Small businesses are definitely feeling the pinch, credit is no longer cheap and no longer for everyone," said Managing Director Andrea Crovato.
Small Italian companies, the backbone of the economy, are often blind to the dangers hidden behind the mafia's helping hand.
"Sums borrowed hardly ever top 10,000 euros, but a 2,000 euro loan turns into a 25,000 euro debt within six months," said Ilaria Ramoni, a lawyer with anti-mafia association Libera.
"Then the threats start, but many have a hard time realizing that a familiar face who helped in a moment of need is now a torturer."
SOS Impresa's Busa said small businesses were keen to quickly pay back banks when they went into the red on their bank accounts for fear of eventually losing access to credit.
"They don't turn to usurers to fund an investment if a bank says 'no', nobody is that crazy," he said. "But they will turn to them for small sums needed to avoid being flagged as risky clients and denied all credit in the future."
Bank lending to Italian households and firms stalled in October from September, ABI data showed. The average rate on loans to companies of up to 1 million euros was 4.42 percent in October from 4.16 percent in September, the Bank of Italy said.
In an online forum on the website of leading daily Corriere della Sera, business owners complained of being squeezed between bills that clients left unpaid and loan repayments to banks.
"That bank manager who used to wish me 'Happy Birthday' every year now shuns me," small-business owner Matteo wrote in the online forum.
"He'd ask if I wanted money for a new warehouse or to build. Now you don't take my calls and your assistant tells me you're busy or sick and reminds me of my overdraft and my mortgage."
CRIMINAL ROLE IN ECONOMY
A study published by Milan's Bocconi University estimated that criminal economic activity accounted on average for 10.9 percent of Italy's annual gross domestic product in 2005-2008.
Construction, logistics, hospitality, retail and wholesale commerce are traditionally the sectors with stronger mafia infiltrations, said Michele Polo, an economics professor at Bocconi.
These sectors do not require sophisticated business skills and often complement the mafia's illegal businesses. Construction sites can become graves for its enemies, cafes and restaurants meeting places for its members. And trucks are useful if you need to transport drugs.
"The long-distance freight business for example offers great synergies with drug trafficking," Polo said.
Last year a Milan court took temporary control of four Lombardy branches of Dutch freight and delivery group TNT Express that it said had been infiltrated by the 'Ndrangheta.
The court has since restored management to TNT, which TNT head of communication Ersnt Moeksis told Reuters was "a direct consequence of the transparent and positive relation between TNT Express Italy and the judicial administrator."
In November a Milan court convicted 110 people of mafia-related activities following one of the biggest anti-'Ndrangheta operations in recent years, judicial sources said. The suspects had opted for a fast-track trial that may yield a reduced prison term and hearings were not open to the public.
The 'Ndrangheta's presence in the north goes back at least two generations when it moved families up from the south, dividing Milan and its surroundings into areas of influence in the same way they control their home turf, acquiring direct or indirect control of companies and gaining political influence.
"This is not just 'a peripheral off-shoot of the Calabrian crime syndicate'," prosecutors wrote in a court document. "It is an autonomous organization ... with a criminal program."
(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)