The Arena clan, part of the Calabria-based ’Ndrangheta mafia, reportedly made millions of euros from the EU through its running of the Sant’Anna Cara facility in Isola di Capo Rizzuto, one of Italy’s largest migrant reception centers.
According to police, the clan “controlled, for profit, the management of the reception center,” which has held as many as 1,500 migrants at a time. It has maintained control of the facility for over 10 years.
Sixty-eight people were taken into custody following an early morning raid on Monday.
“Over 500 agents overnight arrested 68 people…accused of mafia association, extortion, carrying illegal weapons, fraud, embezzlement to the detriment of the state, (and) theft,” police in Catanzaro said in a Monday statement, as quoted by the Local.
Among those arrested was Leonardo Sacco, the head of the Catholic Misericordia association which officially runs the center.
Police believe Sacco was responsible for the clan winning contracts for supplying catering and other services to the center, which made it possible to pocket millions of euro of EU funding destined for migrants.
The EU gives the migrant center some €16 million (US$17.5 million) a year to house and feed those living at the facility, according to Reuters.
A local priest, Edoardo Scordio, was also detained, according to Italian media.
In addition to running Italy’s largest migrant center, the mafia clan also provided food services to a reception center on the Italian island of Lampedusa, which has been at the frontline for the steady influx of migrants arriving from North Africa.
The head of the Italian parliament’s anti-mafia commission, Rosy Bindi, hailed the operation.
“The Cara of Isola Capo Rizzuto had become a money printing operation for organized crime thanks to the complicity of those who ran the center,” she said.
“This operation shows the ability of the mafia to take advantage of the weaknesses and fragility of our times with its predatory and parasitic approach,” Bindi added.
The ’Ndrangheta mafia has been dubbed one of Italy’s most powerful organized crime groups and one of Europe’s largest cocaine importers.
The Sant’Anna Cara migrant center had been flagged by Italian media in the past. In 2015, L’Espresso magazine published a report which alleged that managers at the facility were pocketing funds destined for migrants.
Crotone prefecture, where the center is located, said in 2014 that it appeared the number of people registered at the facility had been inflated, with management pocketing funds for ‘ghost’ migrants. That number, according to a police report cited by L’Espresso, was estimated at €10,000 ($10,969) a day.
In 2013, a health inspection revealed that migrants were being given tiny portions of out-of-date food, and that the facility was housing 70 unaccompanied minors who went barefoot and slept in a hangar with only two toilets.
Italy has been one of the countries hardest hit by the worst migrant crisis since World War II, due to its easy proximity for those illegals being brought by boat from North Africa. More than half a million migrants have reached the country since 2014, most of whom crossed the Mediterranean Sea from Libya.