ROME - A U.S. official said the southern Italian region of Calabria would be a "failed state" were it not part of Italy because of the pervasive grip of the 'ndrangheta organized crime syndicate on the economy and every aspect of life.
In a confidential cable released Thursday by WikiLeaks, the diplomat said the region's ineffective and corrupt politicians, corrupt port officials and woefully unmanned prosecutors' offices only added to the sense of Calabria's lawlessness and hopelessness.
The cable, one of five Mafia-related documents released, dates from December 2008, before the government began a major crackdown on the 'ndrangheta that has resulted in hundreds of arrests, millions of euros (dollars) in seized assets and a handful of rare turncoats.
Interior Minister Roberto Maroni, in office starting in May 2008 after Premier Silvio Berlusconi came to power, pointed to the progress since then in dismissing the significance of the cables from the U.S. consular office in Naples.
"I don't comment on the comments of others, I prefer to respond with results," he said Thursday.
In the last decade, the 'ndrangheta has aggressively become one of the world's biggest cocaine traffickers, often working closely with Mexico's narcotics bosses, to supply Western Europe with the drug and put billions in profits in the syndicate's coffers.
The U.S. cables took the federal government in Rome to task for failing to provide Calabria with enough police, prosecutors and judges to effectively fight the mob. It called the Italian justice system as a whole "dysfunctional" because prisoners are freed to ease prison overcrowding and trials take so long that the statute of limitations often expires.
"If it were not part of Italy, Calabria would be a failed state," one cable began, noting that the 'ndrangheta's drug trafficking, extortion and money laundering activities accounted for at least 3 per cent of Italy's gross domestic product.
It quoted anti-Mafia prosecutors as saying they didn't have enough manpower or resources to run a basic wiretapping organization, and had found it nearly impossible to penetrate the 'ndrangheta because it is family-based, with few members becoming informants.
But it also said the region's politicians were either corrupt themselves, disingenuous or completely fatalistic about the possibility of stemming the region's downward economic spiral because of the mob.
Since there's visibly tight security at Calabria's Gioia Tauro port, "the reported inflow of narcotics there can only be done with the assistance and complicity of corrupt personnel," the cable said.
Since the cables were written, the government has made some inroads in fighting the 'ndrangheta: During one sweep this summer, police arrested around 300 mob suspects in northern Italy; a handful of turncoats have begun to talk; and late last year, the government sent soldiers, carabinieri and police reinforcements to Reggio Calabria to protect prosecutors.
A spokeswoman at the U.S. Embassy in Rome, Paula Thiede, declined to comment on the cables, though she pointed to a statement from the governor of Sicily, Raffaele Lombardo, who said the cables were woefully out of date. Lombardo noted that he had just met with U.S. Ambassador David Thorne and that relations were excellent.