I recently wrote in these pages about the death, in hospital, of Salvatore Riina, sometime ‘boss of all bosses’ in the Sicilian Mafia, saying that he used to make frequent visits to Gozo, that he bought a house here, had a lawyer here, and was often seen sitting openly at a pavement café while being at the top of Interpol’s most wanted list.
I also said that many Maltese believed and talked about Malta having its own type of ‘mafia’.
It provoked the usual splenetic response on this newspaper’s website. Why did I “denigrate” the Maltese (I didn’t). Why do I live here if I dislike Malta so much? (The truth is that I don’t like Malta, which is why I live in Gozo – possibly like many south-islanders who cross the channel at every possible opportunity.)
Predictably, somebody brought Brexit into it, and then there was the inevitable old reference to imperialism.
I was said to be “glorifying” a mass murderer. Oh... and I was accused of having made it all up or, at its kindest, to have simply reported a “myth”.
When we can’t handle the truth, we write it off as invention.
Perhaps I invented the silver-grey Maserati in which Europe’s most-wanted man was driven through Maltese customs and passport control (this was in the 1980s and early 1990s). Maybe I invented the lawyer, and the landowner and the monsignor who regularly sat and sipped coffee with him in St Francis Square.
You think? I could name them all – and throw in the names of the café outside which he sat and the restaurants where he dined – but, for fairly obvious reasons, I am not going to do that. Many Gozitans (and a handful of foreigners) who were around at the same time could do the same.
The underlying point, though – missed by most – was Malta’s own ‘mafia’. I will pre-empt the usual respondents by admitting that I know that other countries (Russia, the US, even Japan) have mafias, so why shouldn’t Malta?
Since Sicily lost copyright of the word, it has become used generally to refer to a syndicate of organised crime. It involves shady deals, bribery, corruption, money laundering, brown envelopes stuffed with cash in return for ‘permissions’… and sometimes no, or very little, police interest in these activities.
That is what the Maltese mean when they talk contentedly or accusingly (according to their political complexion) about their own brand of ‘mafia’.
We are currently ignoring the evidence of one disgruntled offshore bank employee and of an FIAU member… we all know what happened to the sole journalist that they could rely on to expose their information
There was an American movie called The Untouchables about a group of cops who could not be influenced by fear or favour and had modest success in bringing some Mafia bosses to justice. I say modest because, afterwards, “Lucky” Luciano was able to control the American Mafia from a prison cell, just as, generations later, Toto Riina would be doing the same thing on his mobile phone while in jail.
But here, it’s the Maltese Mafia who are the untouchables. Their crimes – money laundering, offshore banks accounts, bribes for permissions (or at least apparently clear allegations of all these instances) – are beyond the bother of the police and the official financial investigating authorities. Or even of the taxman.
And the local reaction?
A Mediterranean shrug, and “Oh, it’s the Mafia… what do you expect?”
The FBI, unable to sort out the Cosa Nostra operations under its own nose back home, was brought in by our Prime Minister to solve the Mafia-style car-bombing of Daphne Caruana Galizia (the 19th unsolved criminal car-bombing in Malta since 2010).
What people don’t seem to realise is that the money (allegedly) accrued by our home-grown mobsters is the people’s money. Bribes being paid, money being laundered, is millions of euros that should be going into the Maltese exchequer – currently being buoyed up by Mafia drug money – not into individuals’ offshore bank accounts.
Tough, eh? Can’t do anything about it. Do we care? We live on an otherwise perfect island that even foreigners want to move to.
However, all mafias have a fatal flaw, in that they are comprised of greedy human beings. And confederates fall out.
It’s how most serious crime in Malta seems to be solved. A former friend tells the police that he knows who committed it, because he was there, or the ‘friend’ confided in him. And that sort of information is difficult to ignore.
It’s what brought Toto Riina down in the end. A disenchanted ‘friend’ – a rival for the top job, no less – told all to Sicily’s incorruptible investigating magistrates and that led to the famous maxi trial of 350 Mafia members. It ran from 1986 to 1992. (Riina was still on the wanted list – being treated under his own name in a local hospital, and crossing frequently to Gozo.)
The Sicilian magistrates promised witness protection and more than 1,000 others came forward. Every time the police set off to Riina’s home in Corleone he moved to a hut on the farmland he had inherited from his father… or was driven away to Gozo. He was eventually ‘found’, not hiding, in his apartment in Palermo, and ended up with life sentences for each of 26 murders among the many that he had ordered.
Could a similar thing occur here? How strong are the friendships among Malta’s corrupt elite? Is every member getting the share, of either power or money, to which he thinks he is entitled? They all need to be kept sweet. Forever.
It requires only one member of the cabal to ‘repent’ (as the Italians describe it) and the whole golden edifice will come tumbling down.
We are currently ignoring the evidence of one disgruntled offshore bank employee and of an FIAU member… And we all know what happened to the sole journalist that they could rely on to expose their information… but we couldn’t ignore the full exposure by an insider of the corrupt clique.
As Michael Corleone said in The Godfather 2: “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer”.
But best friends sometimes become arch enemies. We have all seen that happen.
We can but live in hope.
Revel Barker is a former Fleet Street reporter and newspaper executive and long-time resident in Gozo.