Criminal organizations have been increasingly investing in the green energy sector. How do they conceal their presence and succeed in such a knowledge-intensive sector?
A fast-growing sector
Investments in the green economy in Italy more than quadrupled from 2005 to 2017. In particular, in 2015, most of the funds were invested in wind (38%) and solar (56%) energy. In 2017, the global figure for new investments was 280 billion euros (GSE data).
Today there are almost 900,000 green energy generating systems in Italy. Most of these (880,090) are photovoltaic systems.
The latest GSE report on renewable energy reports that in 2019 there were 5,644 wind farms in Italy. Over 92% of the plants are located in the Islands and Southern regions, favoured by the large availability of areas and their environmental characteristics. Specifically, the Regions with the most plants are Basilicata and Puglia.
An estimation made by the “Foundation for Sustainable Development” claims that by 2025, in our country, the renewable energy sector will bring about €190 billion in investments. It is clear why criminal organizations have not hesitated to invest in these sectors. They were able to strive in this very technologically advanced sector thanks to the guidance of experts, and this is a pattern that is increasingly present in the mafias’ modus operandi, breaking the classic folkloristic imagery of Italian criminals.
Moreover, they often succeeded in obtaining the contributions of the State and the European Union which, especially in the early 2000s, were particularly substantial.
But the sizable public funding is not the only reason behind Cosa Nostra’s interest in the sector, and the business of renewables goes way beyond the simple appropriation of incentives: from money laundering to the sale of lands, from the traffic of “green certificates” to the disposal of plants, the opportunities are endless.
The Grey Area
Often the investment takes place through “corporate vehicles”, companies that are apparently legal and with the papers in order, but that in reality are a way to obtain – through non-transparent practices – the rights of use of lands, the necessary authorizations and certificates as well as alteration of tenders. These companies would then sell the rights to other firms, national and international ones, gaining huge profits from these exchanges.
A real “grey area” emerges, made not only of mafia members, but also of professionals, politicians, bureaucrats, technicians and entrepreneurs. It is not just an issue of infiltration by criminal organizations into the legal economy, but of intense relations of transactions that also advantage the colluding ruling classes. This allows the system of favours and bribes to remain in the shadow, to such a degree that connivance with crime is seen as the only way to stay in the market.
Looking at the promising numbers of the green economy in Italy, the guideline left to us by the judge Giovanni Falcone “Follow the money and you’ll find Cosa Nostra” proves to be valid once again.
All these factors explain the Italian Anti-Mafia Investigation Directorate (DIA)’s increasing focus on the renewable energy sector, that led in the last 20 years to some impressive investigations and confiscations in the South of Italy.
The Lord of the Winds
Vito Nicastri – a former electrician from Alcamo (Trapani) – in a very short time became the Sicilian king of wind power production by masterfully exploiting the grey area created by Cosa Nostra. He gave birth to many companies in the renewables sector and – over a few years – he was able to accumulate an enormous wealth.
In 2010, DIA’s seizure of Nicastri’s assets for over 1.3 billion euros made headlines as the largest confiscation ever carried out against a single person. The assets in question included 43 companies – some with holdings abroad, and mostly operating in the renewable energy sector – over 100 between villas, buildings and lands, some luxury cars and a yacht. In addition, over 60 bank accounts owned by him were frozen. At the time – in reporting the news of the confiscation – the Financial Times defined Nicastri “the lord of the winds“.
A few words intercepted during the 2013 investigations are enough to fully understand how Nicastri worked in Sicily: “What’s the beauty of living here? You can feel the territory, you sense it, you feel that you have to move in a certain way, understand the needs of the mayor, the councillors… you spend five thousand euros for a party, they are nothing, but you make a relationship, you create a relationship“. Nicastri knew how relations worked in the Sicilian Region and he used this knowledge to create connections with politicians at all levels.
In 2018 he was sentenced to house arrest on charges of being part of a network of companies in the renewable energy sector linked to mafia circles and of being a financier of the boss Matteo Messina Denaro – one of the world’s most wanted fugitives who has been hiding since 1993.
He was sentenced to 9 years and – at the time – he decided to collaborate with the judiciary in Palermo. He told the magistrates about half a million euros destined to the officials of the Region to obtain from them the necessary authorizations for new wind farms; a project that was expected to make him earn more than 15 million euros thanks to the sale of said permits to large companies in the sector.
Last January, the Sicilian businessman was acquitted of the charges relating him to the mafia, given that the judiciary could not find enough evidence to prove it, and so the sentence was eventually reduced to only 4 years.
The Nicastri case is just an example of how essential the work done by DIA and the magistrates is. Anti-mafia monitoring will become crucial in the following years: the growth of the green economy and the increase in investments and subsidies, mainly those coming from the EU, represent a huge opportunity for our country, and we need to shield it from any criminal interference.