Organized crime is a continuously evolving phenomenon. The United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (2000) defined “organized criminal group” as a structured group of three or more persons, existing for a period of time and acting in concert with the aim of committing one or more serious crimes or offenses […] in order to obtain, directly or indirectly, a financial or other material benefit. (United Nations, 2000).
Typically organized crime groups profit and thrive through the manipulation and monopolization of legitimate markets, institutions, and industries – e.g. financial markets, labour unions, and construction or sanitation (UNODC, 2014) as well as through black markets and illegitimate practices – e.g. illicit drug trade and human trafficking. They rely on tools of violence, corruption, bribes, graft, extortion, intimidation, and murder to maintain their respective operations and control their market profits (Costa, 2010). With high market stakes and violence-based operations, criminal organizations remain the primary cause of violent deaths in several countries (Campana, 2013; UNODC, 2014), including regions of South and Eastern Europe (Varese, 2006; 2013; UNODC, 2014) are the main cause of violent deaths in several countries. Beyond physical violence, distortionary participation in legitimate markets and pervasive participation in illicit markets combined with the varied socio-political and geographical scales at which organized crime groups can operate at, both regionally and globally, results in the estimated annual global economic impact of organized crime to be in the range of 1 trillion US dollars (Costa, 2010; UNODC, 2015).
As professionals and citizens we often focus on direct and visible effects of criminal organizations, in their various domains of operation. Throughout the years, however, these criminal organizations have diversified their activities, extending their control to encompass agribusinesses, and the respective commodity value chain from production to retail (Campana, 2011; 2013). Southern Italy provides a clear example of such expansion in power and market control within the agricultural sector. Despite a decrease in reported incidents of violent crimes and murder in the last decades, four Italian regions – Campania, Sicily, Apulia and Calabria – continue to have one of the strongest presence of criminal organizations worldwide (UNODC, 2014). Within these regions, criminal organizations still flourish, and so localise their “strategic headquarters” there, while keeping the local communities, institutions and economies under systematic threats of violence and intimidation (Varese, 2006; D’Alisa et al., 2010; Campana, 2013).
In such contexts Mafia-type organizations do not limit their activities to intimidation, murder, and corruption, but actively work to penetrate and manipulate in the legal sectors of the (local) economy. According to Coldiretti, the largest farmers’ union in Italy, economic activities managed by criminal organizations were worth some 15.5 billion euros in 2014 alone, with an evident increase over the past few decades, making the agri-food business one of the largest industries targeted by Mafia-type organizations (Eurispes et al., 2015). Mafia-type organizations are increasingly integrating and controlling every stages of the agri-food value chain, from production, to distribution through to sale (Varese, 2006). Their involvement is diverse, from financial investments, corporate control of major brands, market conditioning, and re-orientation of scientific research (Eurispes et al., 2015). Agribusiness is used not only to maintain control of geographical territory and extract rents, but also as a legitimate industry through which money can flow into and out of illegal economic activities. In this way, at least €1.5 billion is annually transferred in the form of investments from the legal economy to illegal or “shadow” economies (Eurispes et al., 2015). According to recent investigations Mafia-type organizations also use investments in the agri-food industry as a way to build “relational” and “social” capital – i.e. strengthen ties with respected entrepreneurs, businessmen, political actors, and formal credit lenders (Eurispes et al., 2015). Criminal interests have turned to investments in commercial chains of large retailers, restaurant and agro-tourist sectors, as well as involvement in illegal import/export routes of food products, resulting in lower quality control, traceability, and circumvention of regulations on animal slaughter and animal exploitation (D’Alisa et al., 2010; D’Amato and Zoli, 2010; Eurispes et al., 2015).
Further readings and sources:
Campana, P. (2013). Understanding then responding to Italian organized crime operations across territories. Policing, 7(3), 316-325.
Costa, A.M. (2010). The economics of crime: A discipline to be invented and a Nobel Prize to be awarded. Journal of Policy Modeling, 32, 648–661
D’Alisa, G., Burgalassi, D., Healy, H., and Walter, M. (2010). Conflict in Campania: Waste emergency or crisis of democracy. Ecological economics, 70(2), 239-249.
D’Amato, A., and Zoli, M. (2012). Illegal waste disposal in the time of the mafia: a tale of enforcement and social wellbeing. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, 55(5), 637-655.
Eurispes, Coldiretti, and Osservatorio sulla Criminalita’ nell’Agricoltura (2015). Agromafie. 3° Rapporto sui crimini agroalimentari in Italia. Roma, 2015. (http://www.eurispes.eu/content/eurispes-agromafie-rapporto-crimini-agroalimentari-italia )
United Nations (2000). Convention against Transnational Organized Crime. New York: UN treaty collection. 40 ILM 335 (2001) / UN Doc. A/55/383 at 25 (2000)/  ATS 12.
UNODC, (2014). https://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/organized-crime/index.html
Varese, F. (2006). The Economics of the Camorra. Global Crime, 7:2, 268-273