World News

Italy smashes mafia racket defrauding EU agriculture funds

PALERMO, Italy (Reuters) - Italian police arrested 94 people in pre-dawn raids on Wednesday as part of an investigation into an alleged Mafia scam that defrauded European Union agriculture funds of millions of euros.

Prosecutors said they believed the fraud was orchestrated by two Mafia clans in eastern Sicily who obtained at least 5.5 million euros (£4.7 million) in EU farm subsidies for land they did not own between 2010 and 2017.

Amongst those arrested were the heads of the two families, a number of public officials who help farmers apply for EU aid, a local mayor and an accountant. Some 150 companies were also seized as part of the investigation.

“The Mafia (there) has such power that they took control of 15 hectares of land through a simple phone call. No threats were necessary,” Judge Sergio Mastroeni wrote in the arrest warrant.

“With the Mafia, you only have to say your name, if necessary mentioning the fact that you just got out of prison.”

However, Mastroeni said the families had managed to obtain the funds thanks to the help of “white-collar workers” who enabled them to negotiate the bureaucratic world of EU funding.

The EU pays out nearly $60 billion a year in subsidies to support farmers around the 28-nation bloc and keep rural communities alive.

Italian Agriculture Minister Teresa Bellanova said the police operation showed the changing face of Sicilian mobsters, traditionally associated with drug trafficking and protection rackets but now looking to profit from EU scams.

“The gravity of what has emerged is enormous,” she said in a statement. “It is also clear how damaging it is to take significant European resources away from good agriculture and quality businesses, which make up the majority (of firms) in eastern Sicily, and direct them towards Mafia gangs.”

(Refiles this story to make headline read “smashes” instead of “smash”.)

Reporting by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Mark Heinrich