Antonio Ciavarello’s arrest in Mosta on a nondescript Thursday morning brought Malta’s role as the hideout of choice for mafia bosses and henchmen back into the spotlight.
Ciavarello is the son-in-law of notorious Sicilian mafia boss Totó Riina, once the head of the Corleone clan immortalised by Francis Ford Coppola in The Godfather trilogy.
But Ciavarello is only the latest in a long line of mobsters linked to Italian or Sicilian mafia clans found to be hiding in Malta over the years. Riina himself was known to be a frequent visitor to Gozo, often spotted in St Francis Square in Victoria.
Like many others before him, Ciavarello successfully kept a low profile in Malta, avoiding run-ins with the police and dutifully reporting for his day job as a driver with a construction company.
Fake names, cross-dressing and a ferry ambush
Some of his predecessors had gone to greater lengths to hide their identities.
Sebastiano Brunno, the head of the Nardo clan of the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, was arrested to great acclaim in 2014 after five years on the run. Brunno had been living under a false identity, going by the fanciful name of Natale La Modica, even producing a fake Italian ID card when approached by police moments before his arrest as he was on his way to lunch in a Buġibba restaurant.
Seemingly unperturbed by the prospect of years behind bars, Brunno reportedly congratulated police as he was being handcuffed, telling them “well done, you found me”. He is currently serving a life sentence for the 1992 murder of a man called Nicolò Agnello.
Earlier in the same year, Aldo Gionta, a member of the Neapolitan Camorra, was caught by Italian police in Pozzallo as he attempted to board a ferry to Malta.
Gionta was known to be somewhat of a maverick, often taking to wearing wigs and even cross-dressing in his attempts to evade authorities. Known as the “poet boss”, thanks to his penchant for penning poems while in lockup, Gionta was wanted by police for hiring his own brother to kill a man who had slapped his 14-year-old son, after the boy had thrown an egg at him during carnival celebrations.
Simone Gaetano, believed to be a member of the Stidda mafia clan, was making the opposite ferry journey from Malta to Pozzallo in September 2019, only to find Sicilian police waiting patiently for him as he disembarked.
Countless others, from Cosa Nostra mobster Giuseppe Arcaria to Francesca Rispoli, daughter of the notorious ’Ndrangheta boss Vincenzo Rispoli, were captured either while travelling to or hiding in Malta, or, in the case of the latter, after organising what police described as an extortion beating in Marsascala.
Carlo Bonini, deputy editor-in-chief of La Repubblica, thinks that the mafiosi caught in Malta throughout the years are only the tip of the iceberg. “In reality, nobody really knows how many people are hiding in Malta,” he told Times of Malta.
Drug trafficking and gambling rackets dominate mob activity
The mob’s presence in Malta’s criminal underworld is spread across several notorious mafia families, each having cornered a part of the market.
According to DIA, Italy’s anti-mafia agency, Cosa Nostra is particularly active in the drug trade, with the ’Ndrangheta and Santapaolo-Ercolano families mostly operating in gambling and betting circles.
A major police operation in 2021, codenamed ‘Operation La Vallette’, uncovered how mob operators smuggled some 430kg of cannabis and cocaine from Puglia to Malta. With the help of their local contact, a man named John Spiteri, the drugs were hidden inside a fruit and vegetable shop in Attard.
This came shortly after businessman Antonio Ricci was arrested in Malta for his alleged links to a €60m online gaming racket. He had been suspected of ties with the 'Ndrangheta mafia although his lawyers insist that his only pending issues in Italy relate to whether he should pay his taxes in Malta or Italy.
Online gambling and sports betting are proving to be increasingly fertile ground for the mafia in Malta. In 2021, Catania police found that several Maltese companies were being used by the Santapaola-Ercolano clan to evade some €30m in taxes from online bets.
The question remains – what is it that makes Malta so attractive to the mafia?
DIA, Italy’s anti-mafia agency, believe that it is a combination of several factors.
First and foremost, Malta’s geographical proximity to Italy and Sicily, together with its EU membership, has meant that “in recent years the presence of Italian organised crime has increased” across the island.
Secondly, Malta’s “particularly favourable tax regime” and its low corporate tax make it ideally placed for the mob’s money laundering activities.
In reality, nobody really knows how many people are hiding in Malta
DIA director Giuseppe Governale argues that it ultimately boils down to a simple equation: “The mafia has always had great vision, it has always carried out a cost-benefit analysis: in short, it goes where GDP grows and where anti-mafia legislation is reduced or less effective.”
Malta, with its decade-long economic boom and historically lax approach to white-collar crime, fits Governale’s description like a glove.
Carlo Bonini agrees. He says that it is an open secret that hundreds of Italian professionals use Malta to hide or launder their money, often by opening companies and benefitting from low taxes. “If regular people do it, why wouldn’t organised crime?”, he asks.
Bonini also thinks that the types of industries that have thrived in Malta in recent years, from real estate to online gaming, are particularly susceptible to money laundering activities. Malta’s police force, Bonini adds, is often less equipped to track down mafia members on the run, compared to their Italian counterparts.
“These people are used to hiding from dedicated anti-mafia agencies and police with specialised training in the field,” he told Times of Malta. Hiding from Maltese police, by comparison, is seen as more straightforward.
But authorities say that coordination between Maltese and Italian law enforcement has been stepped up to tackle these criminals.
In a LinkedIn post shortly after Ciavarello’s arrest, criminologist and head of the Malta Gaming Authority’s financial crime compliance unit Antonio Abdilla Zerafa said that although the geographical proximity between Malta and Italy increases the chances of criminal gangs settling in Malta, the “sustained and effective collaboration between the law enforcement agencies of both nations has consistently facilitated the apprehension of high-profile criminal figures and the confiscation of illicit assets”.