Crime & Justice, Europe, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

Q&A: The Fight Against Organised Crime Has to Start with Society

Daniela Pastrana interviews TONIO DELL'OLIO, of anti-mafia group Libera

MEXICO CITY, Apr 8 2011 (IPS) - In countries where powerful organised crime groups operate, like Mexico, there is a kind of “mafiosity” or culture of illegality deeply rooted in society, which must be fought by educating the young, says Italian priest Tonio Dell’Olio, one of the leaders of the anti-mafia organisation Libera.

Tonio Dell'Olio Credit: Daniela Pastrana/IPS

Tonio Dell'Olio Credit: Daniela Pastrana/IPS

Dell’Olio has launched campaigns for economic and social justice and disarmament as international director of Libera, an Italian organisation that has fought organised crime for over 15 years by promoting a culture of lawfulness through cultivation of land confiscated from the mafia, fair employment practices, sports, education, assistance to victims, social mobilisation and other activities.

Libera was a sponsor of law 109/96, passed in 1996, under which property seized from the mafia is distributed to local communities to promote social growth and development.

The activist, who in his work against organised crime has joined efforts with hundreds of labour unions, community organisations and religious groups, visited Mexico several weeks ago to establish contacts for a seemingly titanic task: building a Latin American network of civil society organisations for a culture of peace.

The only effective way to combat organised crime is by attacking their finances, while working to win over their support bases through “education for peace, not war,” Dell’Olio told IPS in this interview in Mexico.

Q: Where do you start, when it comes to creating a network for culture and peace? A: The first line of action has to be to strike at the heart of the criminal organisations, by attacking their economic interests. Because it is from their money that their power comes. In other words, it isn’t violence that produces wealth, but wealth that generates violence.

The problem the world’s large criminal groups are facing now is how to invest the money they obtain.

In Italy, the mafia generates 150 billion euros (213 billion dollars) a year. It is the country’s biggest company! So there has to be a push for investigation of their wealth, and for transparency among civil servants regarding funding and incomes, and a lot of work has to be done with the people, to build a culture of lawfulness.

Q: What do you mean by that? A: There is the mafia, or criminal organisations, but there is also ‘mafiosity’ – a kind of culture where a society accepts coexisting with illegal activities in different forms. And that’s where the most work has to be done: in educating for peace, not war.

A culture of legality and an aversion to illegality must be fomented. This is work that has to be done with the people, in schools and in the communities.

Q: It’s hard to think about that in a country like Mexico, where 95 percent of crimes go unpunished. A: Yes, that’s a big problem in Mexico.

The level of infiltration of organised crime in the police in Italy isn’t as high as it is here. I think it’s the worst problem you have in Mexico…and I don’t know, I don’t have answers, but you have to start somewhere, because the worst thing is to not do anything.

We have the case of a man who, when he heard shooting outside his house, locked himself in to protect himself. And when he finally opened the window, he found his son lying dead in the middle of the street. Now he’s an activist who gives his testimony and explains why it’s necessary to stand up and speak out.

Q: Many people are afraid to speak up. A: Every path to freedom is a risky path. We sponsored law 109/96 for the social use of assets confiscated from the mafia, and we set up cooperatives of young people to produce cooking oil, wine and other organic products.

The mafia don’t like that, and all of the cooperatives have been harassed and have received threats. But the threats have not been carried out because the community itself protects the cooperatives.

But even if the threats were carried out, it would be necessary to support the cooperatives because to forget our dead is to kill them twice, and it also does a favour to the mafia.

In Sicily (in southern Italy), we organise a gathering every Mar. 21 with the families of victims and with schools where the course on lawfulness is given. That day we read out the names of every one of the victims, and we also hold two contests for the movement for education on legality.

Q: You work with schools at all levels of education? A: Yes, we have chosen to start with the young, because it is very difficult to bring about a change in mentality among older people. We have a protocol for collaboration with the Education Ministry to carry out our anti-mafia education on lawfulness throughout the entire country.

Q: How important is political will in pushing these processes forward? A: It is civil society in Mexico that has to start moving. The government isn’t going to do it, unless people force it to.

Legal investigation is lacking in Mexico. For example, in the case of the Reyes Salazar family, (three relatives of murdered community activist Josefina Reyes who were killed in February in the northern state of Chihuahua ) were buried and no one said a thing. That is unthinkable in Italy. How can the bodies be buried before the investigation has been completed?

Q: In Mexico, politicians talk about unity and the rule of law, but the people no longer believe in what they say… A: When we talk about lawfulness, we’re talking about democratic legality. It’s not simple obedience to the law, but obedience with a critical eye.

If laws were passed in Italy benefiting the enrichment of the prime minister, we would not obey them. Legality does not mean blindly following, but compliance with a pact for an order of society that people make their own.

Q: Is a Latin America-wide anti-organised crime network viable? A: Yes. We have been in contact with people in Ecuador, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia and Mexico, and there are useful, positive experiences everywhere.

Right here we have seen, for example, the work of a very small organisation in the Gabriel Hernández slum on the north side of Mexico City, called Marabunta. The work they are doing with former youth gang members is a light that should shine brightly, and that brings hope that there are people who are working for peace.

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