9. Webinar

Social Harm of Organized Crime on Communities and Combatting Organized Crime and Corruption

Vienna, Austria—On October 15, 2020, the Coalition of Faith-Based Organizations held a web conference titled “Social Harm of Organized Crime on Communities.” The conference had 82 attendees from 22 countries. UPF is a founding partner and member of the Coalition.

Dr. Michael Platzer (Co-chair, Coalition of Faith-Based Organizations), moderator for the panel, explained that the webinar is a hybrid/in-person format due to Covid-19, and that it is being held as a side event to a major program organized by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Austria. Dr. Platzer pointed out that the pandemic crisis has allowed criminal activity to increase. 

Dr. Karin Bruckmüller (University Professor at the Sigmund Freud University in Vienna) welcomed the participants on behalf of the Faculty of Law at the University. This is a very important topic not only for the communities but for the victims. International criminal law and prevention of human trafficking are major focuses of the university, as well as the prevention of organized crime. Dr. Bruckmüller praised the panel and its efforts to raise awareness of the serious impact of trafficking and organized crime on society. 


Don Luigi Ciotti (Italian priest and activist; Founder of the Libera Association) was the first speaker. Despite the extraordinary struggles of judges and law enforcement professionals against organized crime, political and cultural support, as well as any understanding of the origins of the problem, are often lacking. There is need for a paradigm shift that recognizes how deeply the organized criminal world is intertwined with modern life. Criminal organizations, especially the Sicilian Mafia, often take advantage of religious institutions to win public support and mask their activities. Pope Francis has made rhetorical and material efforts to strip away the Mafia’s ability to take advantage of the Roman Catholic Church, and the Libera Association works worldwide to mobilize religious leaders in opposition of organized crime.

Anna Alvazzi Del Frate (Chair, Alliance of NGOs for Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice) recognized the Libera Association’s work for a transformative approach to organized crime. For example, it has advocated for laws that allow assets seized from criminal organizations to be spent on local social programs. She emphasized the fact that organized crime, through control of illicit markets, mediates a community’s access to goods and services; therefore, it is necessary to account for the economic wellbeing of communities that may have relied on a criminal organization for certain needs. She expressed optimism about the panel’s role in developing a more nuanced and effective approach to organized crime.

Angela Me (Chief Research and Trend Analysis Branch, UN Office on Drugs and Crime) followed with a data-driven presentation. Organized crime causes not only visible harms, such as violence and violation of rights, but also “invisible” harms, such as disrupting economies, skewing wealth distribution, and undermining the rule of law. Organized crime kills a million people per year globally—about the same number as armed conflict. The incidence of this homicide is asymmetric: The majority of victims are young men, but organized crime also strongly correlates with violence against women through human trafficking and domestic abuse at the hands of gang members. 

Brigadier Gerald Tatzgern (Central Office for Human Trafficking and Smuggling Migrants, Federal Criminal Police Office, Vienna) observed that the COVID-19 crisis has made it harder to help victims of human trafficking. Travel restrictions have made it harder for law enforcement to operate in North Africa, and social distancing requirements hamper investigation. In order to compensate for these problems, the Office has acquired technical equipment and built relationships with authorities in North African countries. These adaptations should help law enforcement adjust to the ongoing situation.

Dr. Leo Gabriel (Director, Institute of Intercultural Research and Cooperation, Vienna) followed with his remarks. Organized crime develops within societies that are economically and socially unequal. The refugee crisis is a key source of opportunity among worldwide criminal organizations. The criminalization of refugee communities forces refugees into situations where they can be extorted by criminal organizations. Efforts to integrate refugee communities are much more effective in undermining organized crime than efforts to reject and obstruct refugees. Dr. Gabriel concluded by emphasizing the role that religion has to play in these integration efforts.

Evelyn Probst (Head of the LEFO—Intervention Center for Persons Affected by Trafficking in Women) spoke next. LEFO provides services to women affected by human trafficking and thus she has had much experience with this issue. Poverty and social exclusion based on ethnicity are root causes of human trafficking, and thus solutions must address these issues. In Europe, the failure to recognize domestic work, caretaking, and seasonal work as legitimate occupations can obscure the situation that people who are trafficked are forced into that type of work. Further, it is necessary to break up the “culture of impunity” that shelters many perpetrators of human trafficking from consequences. She also emphasized the role of faith-based organizations in anti-trafficking.

Billy Batware (Program Officer, Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, UN Office on Drugs and Crime) was the final speaker. He presented a new UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) video on the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC). Through UNTOC, states commit to take cooperative measures against organized crime. In 2018, a mechanism for reviewing the Convention’s implementation was adopted, allowing states to better assess their progress against organized crime. UNODC is in the process of building the capacities of government and non-government organizations in member states in order to ensure the effectiveness of this review mechanism.

Q&A followed.

In response to a question about the relationship between human trafficking and pornography, Brigadier Tatzgern made a distinction between the commercial pornography industry, for which there is little evidence of a particularly strong connection to human trafficking, and the black market, which very often exploits trafficking victims. Angela Me pointed to technology as an avenue for recruitment and exploitation. Although trafficking can be the business of organized crime, individual criminals also participate in the practice, making use of resources like the “dark web.” To the notion that migrants have an unrealistic ideal of what Europe is like, Dr. Gabriel pushed back: Migrants know that things can be difficult, but they find themselves in situations where there is no alternative.

Translation Don Ciotti

Libera was present at the Palermo Convention against Transnational Organized Crime. We were there. 

We affirmed that in the fight against crime, corruption and other forms of violence it is critical to include responsible and mindful civil society actors.

Steps forward have been taken, but the way is long and uphill. And above all, we are still lacking many things. I mean that, despite the extraordinary struggles of judges and law enforcement agencies all over the world, very often the support is insufficient at a political and cultural level. We often lack an adequate understanding of the profound changes that our society experienced in the last 20 years. 

Hence, now more than ever, it is essential that we question ourselves, shift paradigms and flip our perspective on the matter. We cannot forget that the organized crime is not a universe apart from us anymore, but it is quite related to our world.

The process of realization of the presence of mafias within the Church has been slow and not always linear. On the one hand, there were great and prophetic figures, such as Don Sturzo, who in 1900 said ‘The Mafia has its feet in Sicily, but its head, perhaps, in Rome. It will become more ruthless and inhumane, and from Sicily it will rise trough the entire country and across the Alps.’. On the other hand, there were so many underestimations, excesses of caution, accomplice silences and, sadly, also serious forms of indifference and shallowness. A central role in this was played by a mistaken interpretation of Mafia’s religious belief. A belief that was flaunted by the Mafiosi as it was an instrument to portray themselves as honorable and respectable people, especially in environments where faith is also jointly expressed in traditional rituals.  In facts, this religious belief is incompatible with the teachings of the Gospel; which is word of truth, not of deceit, and word of love, not of violence.   

A moment of awareness begun in the 80’s. We cannot forget that in 1982, in the aftermath of the murder of Dalla Chiesa, prefect of Palermo, the Cardinal of the city strongly denounced in his own church the immobility and tardiness of the political powers. 

This seems past history, but it is still happening today in many parts of the world. We cannot forget what John Paul II said on May 9th, 1993 in the Valley of the Temples, in Sicily, where he suddenly urged the Mafiosi to convert and change, and at the same time encouraged the people of Sicily, calling them a life-loving people oppressed by a civilization of death. A clear and firm condemnation of Mafia’s violence and crimes. 

The response: on July 27th 1993 bombs were blown up in two churches in Rome. Later on, two priests, witnesses of the Gospel, were horribly murdered: in September, don Pino Puglisi in Palermo, and on March 19th don Peppe Diana, killed in Casal di Principe by the Camorra.

The Mafiosi speak about the interference of the church… finally, the church goes out of its places of worship to create a connection between heaven and earth, between spiritual dimension and social commitment, between Jesus’ words and the administration of justice on this earth already: right here, down here.

In my opinion, Pope Francis’ words and actions today mark the point of no return. His words are sweeping away any excuse, and leave no space to caution or reticence, as it was in the past. The Pope calls for the Mafiosi to convert themselves in front of thousands of relatives of the victims of the Mafia, In March 2014, during a meeting organized by “Libera”. Just a few months later, shaken by the previous meeting, the Pope cries with force that whoever worships evil is excommunicated, and proclaims this in Sibari, in Calabria, in front of thousands and thousands of families. Once more, he emphasizes that there can be no coexistence of mafias and God’s Word.

It’s true, he’s not the first Pope to denounce the evil of mafias, but he goes much further. He understood that two are the factors that give power to the mafias. First is the moral and material corruption that spoils relationships and steals all hopes; second is a financial system that has lost all sense of ethics and relation to the common good, with just a few exceptions. Francis saw the connection between mafias and economy, that he labelled as a thief’s economy, oblivious of the people’s needs, albeit aware of the ever increasing, inacceptable inequalities.

Therefore churches, and with that I mean communities of all religions, please, should have a vision based on a project that is ethical, social, political, and spiritual, addressing to and including every person, believers and non-believers, in order to affirm the sacred human dignity and freedom, opposing a logic that reduces people to numbers, tools or property.

It is not a coincidence that Pope Francis established within the Vatican a ministry dealing against corruption and the Mafia-related problems. The Italian Episcopal Conference is also part of the Libera network, that draws together 1600 associations in Italy, and is active also all over Europe, in Latin America, and in Africa. We should take an active role as citizens, as communities, groups, and churches; we should commit ourselves and take on our portion of responsibility.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: