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Uncovering the Italian mafia in Africa: an interview with grantee Stefano Gurciullo

The Italian mafia’s influence goes beyond borders; its multiple arms reach several countries and exploit several lucrative sectors. Well-known criminal groups like the Sicilian Cosa Nostra have been investigated for decades, but the recently published project Mafia in Africa uncovers for the first time the actual scope of the mafia’s economic power on the African continent. The team found that important members of the mafia, so-called “capos”, engage in money laundering activities and invest in land, mines or farms in South Africa, Kenya, Namibia and other countries. The same people also establish useful associations with relevant politicians and thus fuel the dynamics of corrupted regimes and unstable markets.

Working on the crossroads between investigative and data journalism, the international team behind the project researched the mafia’s activities in thirteen different countries. Their stories were published in CORRECT!V, L’Espresso, Il Fatto Quotidiano and Mail&Guardian among others. Ultimately, their aim was to show the need to fight the mafia’s criminal practices worldwide.

In order to know more about their investigation and final output, we interviewed our grantee Stefano Gurciullo, director of and the data scientist and coordinator of the project.

What were the main goals of such an ambitious project?

The goal of the project was to find out how and in what sectors and countries the Italian mafia invests. Our investigation does not deal with drug profits, prostitution or weapons, we only deal with money laundering and financial activities. The importance of this project for us was not to just launch a nice investigative project but to spread a message: “this is happening out there, it is huge and we do not know much about it.” We want to convince the public and policy makers to start taking measures against economic infiltration of the mafia. Once we achieve this, we can say that our project has succeeded.

In the project you employ investigative and data journalism. What did you get from this combination?

Using both techniques was not an easy task, but it was very useful. Investigative journalism is usually concerned with the narrative, while data journalism primarily deals with providing the readers a bigger picture. Investigative journalism allows you to discover new data, and the data scientist can create databases and do the quantitative analysis on it. We are really happy to be an example of this.

The most telling of your case studies was South Africa. Could you briefly explain what you uncovered there?

In South Africa we focused on the stories of two Sicilian hustlers, Vito Roberto Palazzolo and Antonino Messicati Vitale. Two well-known cases, but we gave the full picture with in-depth information and big data. In the case of Vito Roberto Palazzolo we did something amazing: we managed to track a huge part of the network of companies he and his collaborators have owned in South Africa, Namibia and Angola over the past 20 years. We essentially tracked nearly his entire economical empire. The story we published is a summary of this. His economic activities were very wide; they went from ostrich farms to uranium mining. We also found that he had connections with important political actors, like the son of the first Namibian president since the independence of the country. The other story in South Africa is about Antonino Messicati Vitale, a powerful boss of the Sicilian mafia, who invested in the diamond mining industry.

After months of research and analysis, you published several long-forms paired with big and detailed infographics. What is their function?

Finding a good way to represent what we discovered was very important to us. For example, we created a map of Africa, which summarises nine months of work in just one image. In a few lines it explains our main findings. The reader can first see the big picture and then decide what story he or she wants to delve into. Our infographics make the story easily accessible.

Another example is the network that depicts Palazzolo’s huge economic empire. Again, in one graphic, you can easily see how big his influence was. This is twenty pages of story summed up in just one graph.

What are the consequences of the mafia’s economic infiltration and money laundering practices in Africa?

There are two direct consequences, one is political and the other economic. What we found out was that the Italian mafia strengthened the Politics of the Belly in Africa—a form of political governance characterised by self-aggrandisement. The mafia come as outsiders, but they have friends across the African political spectrum, which allows them to take part in high-level corrupted politics that exist in many African countries. We saw this very clearly with Vito Roberto Palazzolo, but we did not have enough resources to go more in-depth.

Another consequence is that if you have a lot of money coming from illegal funds and you decide to enter a legitimate market, this is unfair towards the other competitors. Unlike the mafia, these competitors do not engage in illegal activities. This situation just as much distorts the market as it dismantles innovation.

Did you receive any kind or pressure from actors somehow involved in the criminal network during the investigation?

We have been very careful. Minimising risk in the field means making sure to follow some protocols, such as keeping your project goals reasonably confidential and following the indications of your local colleagues, who know very well what threats might lie ahead.

We are happy to say that we did not receive any significant pressure from the actors involved. However, there always is the chance that this may change soon, as we start engaging closely with policy makers and bring the issue of financial and economic crime higher up in their agendas. We do not know what form this pressure might take. It may range from personal threats to lawsuits.

You wrote that this first project was like discovering the tip of the iceberg. What do you plan to do next?

This was only the first step. It is part of a broader project through which we encourage policymakers to pay attention to the mafia’s global business. If we get enough funding, the next step will be to find reliable information to track the mafia’s practices in other countries, also outside of Africa. Africa is just one part of the story. For instance, we also found connections between Vito Roberto Palazzolo and the biggest diamond mining in Russia. Few people knew about it before. It would be really interesting to conduct the same research we did on the African continent in Asia, the Caucasus area or Latin America, for example.

What was the most surprising finding for you?

I think that each team member would give you a different answer. To me, the most striking thing was the value of the diamond deposit Vito Roberto Palazzolo had in Russia. The total value of them was 12 billion dollars. Palazzolo, together with another entrepreneur owned 17%. He also had diamond mines in Namibia. I was really shocked that they had control over these huge sources of money.

The second surprising finding was to see, with my own eyes, how well connected these people were with very important political figures, how they always had a partnership with whoever was in power, especially in Namibia. This fact gave us the confirmation that if you want to fight the mafia, you also need to fight the corruption existing in the political sphere.

Interview by Paula Montañà

Paula Montañà is a project coordinator at the European Journalism Centre and a Media Culture graduate student at the Maastricht University. She holds a Bachelor degree in Journalism from the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona and has published articles in the Spanish newspaper El País as well as in other smaller printed and online publications.

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