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Mafia earned €3bn by siphoning off EU national park cash

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Mafia families use threats of violence to dissuade farmers from putting in bids to lease out grazing land from the state. Photo: Stock image

Mafia families use threats of violence to dissuade farmers from putting in bids to lease out grazing land from the state. Photo: Stock image

Mafia families use threats of violence to dissuade farmers from putting in bids to lease out grazing land from the state. Photo: Stock image

THE mafia has earned €3bn over the last decade siphoning off EU funds intended for a national park in Sicily, according to a former director of the protected area who survived an assassination attempt by the mob.

Giuseppe Antoci narrowly escaped with his life in 2016 when assailants ambushed his car at night, placing rocks across an isolated, winding road.

Two or three men opened fire but were fought off and forced to flee by the quick reactions of the director's police escort.

In a new book, he explains how Cosa Nostra clans in eastern Sicily have made huge profits by siphoning off EU funds intended for the farmers who graze sheep and cattle within the confines of the 200,000 acre Nebrodi National Park.

Mafia families use threats of violence to dissuade farmers from putting in bids to lease out grazing land from the state.

The clans are then able to secure the leases themselves at low rates, often using front companies, and obtain millions of euro in EU subsidies.

In 10 years they were able to fraudulently pocket €3bn, said Mr Antoci, who battled for years to put a stop to the fraud and still has to live under police protection.

He gave an example of a tract of land, covering 1,000 hectares, which the mafia rented for €36,400 a year.

"They managed to make €1m or more on those 1,000 hectares," Mr Antoci explained in his book, 'The Mafia of the pastures - Europe's big fraud'.

"For years, mafia families terrorised honest landowners and rented land within the park for a few thousand euro, pocketing each year hundreds of thousands of euro from the EU," he said.

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The mafia is nothing if not creative. In one case, it received €200,000 in EU funds to build a bed and breakfast but used the money to construct a villa for a mob family.

It has been accused by police of clearing forest to make more grazing land in a particularly cruel way - tying petrol-soaked rags to cats, which are then released into the woods.

The animals spread the fire over a large area as they flee in terror, making it hard for arson experts to identify where the blaze started.

Mr Antoci began cracking down on the fraudulent leasing and the intimidation of local landowners in 2014, a year after he was appointed director of the park.

He found widespread collusion between mafia families and local politicians, who closed their eyes to the illegality.

Ignazio Corrao, an MEP from Sicily, has raised the issue of widespread fraud by the so-called "agro-mafia" in the European Parliament.

He denounced what he called the "deep infiltration" of mafia clans in the tender process.

The fraud meant "millions of euro of EU funds for agriculture are going directly to the bank accounts of mafia families", he said in November.

The MP, from the Five Star Movement, which governs in coalition with the hard-right League, said the mafia has "monopolised" the renting out of pasture land in the park.

Mr Antoci was removed from his post by a newly elected regional governor in February last year, six months before his mandate was up.

He says that sent a message to Cosa Nostra that they could continue to act with impunity.


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