With generous grants and tax breaks offered by nearly every European nation, the green energy market is appealing to entrepreneurs across the continent.
Not all of those investors have the future of the planet in mind, however, when they begin investing in alternative energy.
Italy’s organised crime groups (OCG), the Mafia so often glorified in TV and film, are taking advantage of the surging popularity in environmental investment, and using it to their benefit.
In a recent report released by Europol – the EU’s law enforcement agency – the threat posed by the Italian Mafia is described as “unparalleled by any other European OCG”.
Green energy along with the Internet were identified as emerging trends when it comes to organised crime activities.
“There are increasing reports of Italian OCGs engaging in the so-called ‘Alternative or Green Energy’ market, for example investments in wind energy farms,” the Europol report states.
As well as a means of making a profit, green energy businesses are also being used as a money-laundering front.
“Such projects offer attractive opportunities to benefit from generous … grant and tax subsidies, but apart from effectively exploiting eco-friendly incentives for their financial gain, they also create possibilities to launder proceeds of crime via legal business structures.”
Picturesque depictions cannot hide the fact that the Mafia is a powerful, ruthless and cynically efficient criminal organisation.
Experts in organised crime say the findings of the report are not as surprising as they might seem.
Mafia connections with wind energy first emerged as far back as 2010 when Vito Nicastri, also known as “The Lord of the Wind“, had $1.9 billion of assets seized, including 43 wind and solar power companies.
Professor Vincenzo Ruggiero, a law lecturer specialising in organised crime, told Al Jazeera there was little difference between organised crime and legitimate business.
“It invests anywhere there is a reasonable opportunity and likelihood of fat returns, Ruggiero said.
“There is dirty business wherever business is dirty. I am not surprised by the report because OC [organised crime] attempts to penetrate every area of business which allows it to do so.
“Why shouldn’t the Mafia take a chance? The business around the new energies is very appealing to all sorts of entrepreneurs, legitimate or otherwise.”
In order for the system to work, Ruggiero says there needs to be a partnership between an organised crime group, a legitimate business venture, and an official – the same relationships needed to make “traditional” Mafia schemes successful in the past.
“Without such partnerships and alliances OC would have died a death decades ago,” says Ruggiero.
Despite this decades-long process, part of the Mafias’ success comes from an ability to evolve, as evidenced by the move towards modern business fronts and the Internet.
The image of Mafia bosses using whatsapp and other online messaging tools does not sit well with the Hollywood interpretation of organised crime, but it is essential to the survival of these groups.
Criminologist Jay Albanese, from Virginia Commonwealth University, said this was more a shift in the execution of crime, rather than of its nature.
Over the years, gambling rackets have evolved into online scams at international sites that are outside national regulation, street prostitution has moved online, and theft and fencing of property has developed into stealing intellectual property.
Even trafficking cocaine and heroin has become more technologically advanced, with synthetic drugs being used that are less vulnerable to supply problems.
“OCGs play the continual game of seeking ways to make money without working for it, so they are constantly looking for new opportunities to profit illegally,” Albanese told Al Jazeera.
“The Internet provides many new opportunities for committing fraud, so it is not surprising that we see criminal efforts occurring. OCGs and the police are always in a cat-and-mouse game where success by one side always results in changes in the other side to improve their corresponding success.”
Another reason for the sustained existence of the Mafia in the modern world is its ability to adapt operating methods when moving from Italy to the rest of the European Union.
Aware that their power base is not strong enough to use intimidation and other strong-arm techniques, the crime clans adopt more subtle methods, rigging elections and infiltrating legitimate and established businesses through mergers, after weakening the organisations by under-selling them.
“The Mafia has the capacity to adapt to local restrictions and opportunities, modifying its modus operandi accordingly,” the Europol report says.
“Italian Organised Crime members operating in Northern and Central Italy, and abroad, rarely even attempt to replicate the control of the territory they impose in their areas of origin. They are far more subtle than that, and aim to reach their criminal objectives by infiltrating economic sectors and through corruption.”
|Vito Nicastri had 43 green energy companies seized in a sting operation|
Often, legitimate businesses that are well established fall victim to a hostile takeover by the Mafia, who will then continue to operate using the known and respected name of their economic victims.
The report, which describes the various Italian Organised Crime Groups as “a clear and present threat” to the European Union, says the rising popularity of this kind of investment is representative of a “trend towards infiltration in the legal economy”.
This trend, it says, is sparked by a combination of the Mafia having too much money, without enough investment opportunities.
“This concept, combined with the ongoing economic crisis, explains the recent trend towards infiltration in the legal economy,” the report says.
This is not a view shared by Professor Ruggiero, however.
“I would say, rather, that the financial crisis itself is an example, a gigantic one actually, of white-collar crime and of the crimes of the powerful,” he said.
“The debate around green energy, in my view, re-proposes the old dilemma between ‘shallow’ and ‘deep’ ecology. Are the very firms that are destroying the planet going to save it?”
Historically, the Mafia is seen by the public in a somewhat romantic light, with Hollywood and the small screen adding to the fascination with “the Family”.
The Europol report acknowledges this rose-tinted view of the Mafia, and wants to make sure its threat to the EU is not underestimated.
“Picturesque depictions cannot hide the fact that the Mafia is a powerful, ruthless and cynically efficient criminal organisation,” it said.
Follow Philippa Stewart on Twitter: @Flip_Stewart