ROME — The seizure of a record 1.5 billion euros from a Sicilian businessman known as “Lord of the Wind” has put the spotlight on Mafia money-laundering through renewable energy ventures.
“The Mafia use clean energy to invest dirty money,” Sicilian journalist Lirio Abbate told AFP after police confiscated the assets from businessman Vito Nicastri on Tuesday.
The haul included no fewer than 43 wind and solar energy companies and around 100 properties including swank villas with swimming pools in Sicily’s western Trapani region, along with cars, a catamaran and bank accounts, the interior ministry said.
The infiltration of organised crime into the renewable energy sector is “a combination that is only now coming to light” in terms of legal action, said Abbate, a specialist in Mafia affairs who is under police protection.
“In the countryside it’s been apparent for longer because wind farms are springing up on land belonging to people with ties to the Mafia or obtained through violence,” he said.
Opposition Senator Giuseppe Lumia lamented: “The Cosa Nostra has managed to infiltrate the wind energy sector in the past few years by taking advantage of bad policies and bad bureaucracies.”
Nicastri, 54, is known nationally in the wind power sector, hence the nickname “Lord of the Wind”.
Anti-mafia investigators said Nicastri has links to Matteo Messina Denaro, considered the current supremo of the Sicilian Mafia, or Cosa Nostra.
Denaro has shifted from hypermarkets to wind energy, Abbate said.
“It’s obvious that these companies were tied to the Mafia because they have never been targeted, while construction sites in other sectors have been attacked,” he said.
This affair “confirms what we have been denouncing for a long time: infiltration in the new energy economy,” said the vice president of the national Anti-Mafia Commission, Fabio Granata.
Since Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi returned to power for a third time in 2008 elections, authorities have seized or sequestered some 16 billion euros (20 billion dollars) in assets belonging to suspected members of Italy’s crime syndicates.
The seizure of Nicastri’s assets “confims the interest that organised crime has in renewable energy, which several annual reports on environmental issues have already stressed,” said Beppe Ruggiero, an official with the anti-Mafia association Libera.
“It is very important for this sector to stay far from Mafia activities,” Ruggiero said, stressing the need for renewable energy to develop in Italy’s poorer south. “Investment in renewable energy should not be discouraged,” he said, adding that the nuclear alternative would be “a losing choice”.
The Berlusconi government in February began a process of restarting nuclear power, which was banned by a referendum held soon after the 1986 nuclear meltdown in Chernobyl, Ukraine, sent highly radioactive fallout over large areas of Europe.
Italy is ranked third in Europe, after Germany and Spain, for wind power, with a total power of nearly 5,000 megawatts at 294 farms as of the end of 2009, according to Gestore Servizi Energetici, a public company that manages incentive programmes for renewal energy.
Over the past decade, thanks to generous subsidies, wind farms have proliferated at a rate of 20 percent per year and the energy generated has risen by 34 percent per year, GSE said.
Most of that total — 98 percent — is generated in the south.
Last year wind power produced 6,543 gigawatt hours, 35 percent more than in 2008.
The Mafia interest in clean energy is explained by the fact that it is a “new sector where there is more public money and less control”, Ruggiero said.
“It allows the creation of new companies, and so the recycling of money. For organised crime, it’s a sector that was still unknown 15 years ago, but is becoming very important.
“They steal money from the state and in addition they sell them the energy they produce. They win twice,” Ruggiero said.