Naples, Rome

Expat Romanians: their own worst enemy

For a decade until 2015 Romania occupied the top spot in the number of foreign criminals in Italy. We examine why this happened - and how this is changing. Text by Michael Bird, Cecilia Ferrara and Vlad Odobescu. Illustration by Sorina Vazelina

By Michael Bird, Vlad Odobescu, Cecilia Ferrara
01 November 2016

Romanians love to move out of Romania. The EU country has the second largest expat population in the Europe, after Poland. Almost three million have anchored their lives in another EU country. And the highest number - officially one million - have descended on Italy.

Not every single one of these people is honest.

Almost 3,000 Romanians are now in jail in Italy. For ten years until 2015 this was the largest foreign nationality - and it remains the largest population of expat EU prisoners in any country in Europe.

When Romanians started arriving in the late 90s and early 00s, a criminal minority was performing begging, shoplifting, pickpocketing and pimping. Romanians also monopolized the line in stealing copper cables from transport connections and hospitals, melting it down and selling it for scrap.

“In the beginning of the 2000s, there was a wave of Romanian crime,” says Vincenzo Nicoli, Second Department of the Central Operative Service in the Italian Police.

But now, in 2016, the official states that because there are a large number of Romanians in Italy, there is a level of crime reflective of this population surge.

Romanian crime mainly strikes large cities in Italy - Turin, Bologna, Milan and Rome, where the expats have settled.

But there is no specific crime related to all Romanians.

“There is no Romanian problem,” says a lawyer who represents Romanian suspects in Italy, Piero Piccinini. “It is impossible to speak of a specific Romanian criminal trend. It would be like trying to specify a type of crime from Tuscany or Lazio.”

But Romanians are becoming more organized. As the citizens of their country are escalating through the ranks of Italian civic life to achieve better qualifications and gain higher paid jobs, start their own businesses and develop the Italian economy, their criminals are also more professional.

Romanians: seizing the jobs the mafia don’t want to do

Romanian criminals in Italy have followed a similar path to those from Albania. They arrived in massive numbers in the late 1990s and started committing the high-risk and visible crimes that Italians no longer wanted to do. While the Albanians gravitated more to drug trafficking, the Romanians took up theft and pimping. “The Italian criminal organizations allowed those foreigners to do certain activities in which they had no further interest,” says Nicoli.

The police official adds that many criminal organizations from the Balkans have a background that can include military training, and a readiness to use violence. They are tougher.

“All the people who come from strong military training know how to use weapons and they have self defense techniques,” he says. “They are physically prepared for any kind of aggression - which makes the difference between them and an Italian, who eats pizza all the time.”

Ro-on-Ro crime: the major trend

A large number of Romanian crimes take place within their own communities. Since the mid-90s, Romanian gangs have been trafficking their own citizens for sex work, forcing their own people to beg, and preying on their own people with loan scams. These can be easier to undertake abroad than at home because the victims are in a more vulnerable position. Due to the language and cultural barriers, the local authorities are, at first, baffled by what is going on.

“If I had to say something about the Romanian organized groups, I'd say they are particularly specialized in committing crimes against their own nationals in big communities in large cities,” says Nicoli.

In Turin, Romanians created an Italian-style mafia within their local community. Using techniques similar to the southern Italian mafia - Cosa Nostra, Camorra and the 'Ndrangheta - they would extort money from Romanian night-clubs that ran prostitutes, and impose their own businesses and singers on weddings by force.

This was not a Romanian Roma group. Nicoli has never seen Roma groups involved in organized crime in Italy.

In the Turin example, he says there is a full tree of a military organization with a figurehead and a second line of command. The case file includes wired conversations where the members of the gang discuss that if one from their clan goes to prison, the group will pay expenses for his family. This is a “quantum leap” in the development of such a group, says Nicoli.

“If I belong to a criminal group, and I do not have to worry about being arrested because my family will have a livelihood, I clearly offer a higher level of loyalty to the organization,” he adds.

However Romanian mafia gangs have no chance to compete with their Italian neighbours. Take Naples, for example, where crime is run by the Camorra.

“If there are foreign communities who commit crimes in Naples, they do so solely because they are allowed,” says Fausto Lamparelli, head of Squadra Mobile, Naples Police.

Organized Romanian crime “would not be possible in Naples” because of the Camorra, which has a monopoly on drug-dealing and extortion.

Gangs of thieves in Naples from Romania have stolen wallets and phones from people’s bags. “But pickpockets have to be careful from whom they choose to rob - not from the Camorra,” says Lamparelli. “It may happen that if they commit the crime against the wrong person, they can die.”

Romanians’ prime target: the ATM machine

Romanians have recently gravitated from plain theft to attacking jewellery stores and blowing up ATM machines.

At night, they ram-raid a bank with a vehicle. Smash to pieces the front wall. Steal the ATM machine. Chuck it in a truck. Take it to a remote place. Blow it up with an injection of acetylene gas, and steal the money. Because this does not involve weapons, the guilty party is subject to less severe sentences - as it is seen as theft, not armed robbery.

The video below, provided by the Carabinieri, is from what the cops have called a mixed Romanian-Bosnian 'Roma' gang of second generation immigrants:

“It’s no more the case of the Romanian who enters the house taking advantage of the open window, there is now a group of Romanians who are better organized,” says Nicoli.

Further evidence of this growing sophistication emerged last September, when Italy was rocked by the revelation of a Romanian criminal “school”. In December 2013, a gang of five armed men in ski masks broke into a Rolex dealer in Florence. They had also hit a store in Paris. After three years of investigation, the police arrested eight of them.

The crime bosses recruited their members from Romanian orphanages. According to the prosecutor Giuseppe Creazzo, the 'orphans' were trained in robbery at an “academy of crime”.

The press has stated these men belong to “a paramilitary group of over 300 men trained to pull off robberies across Europe”. They were subject to military training for four months in the forests of Romania, learned how to use axes, how to change clothes in a hurry, escape without a trace, sleep outdoors andwithstand harsh climates.

Meanwhile the cloning of credit cards at ATM machines is “exclusively” the preserve of Romanians and Bulgarians, according to Naples police chief Fausto Lamparelli.

The thieves install a device called a ‘skimmer’ on ATM card slots that records all the data from a credit or debit card. They can also attach the skimmer to ticket machines at a train station or any automatic device that accepts cards.

“This copies the data from the magnetic strip. [The gang] films the card-holder typing his PIN code - and then he's screwed,” says Lamparelli.

The gang members position the video-and-skimmer kits in petrol stations or corner stores. Small shops also accept to be part of the game for a short time.

With the data, groups can create a white credit card with the same magnetic strip. Over a short time, they either make a series of small purchases, or one big expensive payment. The client sees his money vanishing. He panics. The insurance company foots the bill.

“I had my personal credit card cloned,” says the Naples police chief.

When looking at his bank statement, Lamparelli was shocked to find he had bought plane tickets from Spain to Romania.

“Investigations are difficult because they are transnational," he says. "My card was definitely cloned on the Internet. We never found the person responsible.”

This credit card fraud has a high incidence rate, but peaked a few years ago. These are criminals who move around different countries, because they do not want to draw attention. But they are not Roma.

Romanians have also been involved in scams involving cars. Here an Italian has a problem with his old, beaten-up Fiat that doesn't work properly any more. It's a rust-bucket. He cannot sell it. He cannot repair it. He cannot dump it. He wants to make some money out of it. So he looks for men who advertise with flyers outside train stations offering “cash for cars”. These are from Romania, Albania or Bulgaria. The Italian hires them to steal his car.

The Romanian, for example, knows the license number. It is easy to break inside. He takes it and drives it to Austria, Hungary and then back to Romania.

“Two days later the owner calls the police to say the car is stolen,” says Mario Pontillo, director of prisoners association Associazione Il Viandante. “By that time the car is out of the country. The owner then collects the insurance. If it’s a good car, maybe the Romanian can sell it on.”

Romania: a country or a crime?

Every killing involving a Romanian suspect in Italy becomes a headline event. In 2007, the 47 year-old wife of an Italian marine officer Giovanna Reggiani was walking back home in a suburb of Rome, when she was attacked and beaten to death by a worker from a nearby slum, Romulus Mailat.

This kicked off an Italian media campaign against Romanians. The press demanded action. On the day of Reggiani’s death, the President of the Republic, Giorgio Napolitano, issued an urgent decree to kick people out of the country for reasons of public security.

This gave the power to local prefects to expel European citizens from Italy for a serious threat against public order. This was not explicitly targeting Romanians - but it was clearly implied. In the weeks following the law, thousands of Romanians were ‘sent back’ to their home country.

In response to this, civil rights association Antigone lobbied against the proposal and demonstrated wearing T-shirts - which read: ‘Romania: is it a country, or is it a crime?’

The decree wasn’t transformed in a regular law, so it was dismissed two months later.

Mailat was jailed for murder and, in 2015, Italy transferred him to a Romanian jail, where he is now serving a life sentence.

During the investigation and trial, Mailat’s lawyer Piero Piccinini says the defendant had no support from the Romanian Government. The Romanians sent a police team to investigate, and Piccinini was invited once to the Consulate to answer a few questions - but nothing else.

“I was surprised by the absolute indifference,” he says now.

He suspects that this may be because Mailat was Roma.

“I was starting from the point of view that Mailat was entitled to have the best possible defense and the Romanian government should have come to the same conclusion,” he says. “I did not understand the Romanian government's position - it's like the Romanian Roma were the children of a lesser god.”

The integration of Roma in Italian society has not been smooth. Around 8,000 still live in home-made favelas at the edges of large cities such as Naples and Rome. Their legal status is sketchy and many occupants suffer prejudice, arson attacks and aggression from inside and outside their own communities. Neither the Romanians nor the Italians seem interested in finding a comprehensive solution.

“The case of Mailat gave some terrifying insight [into this world],}” says Piccinini, “one of Mailat's friends had gone stealing copper wires, the other stole scooters, another collected their remaining supplies in supermarkets. It came out of a terrible world and we could have done something. What was done? Nothing.”

Romanians: judged by media

Prejudice against Romanians also has an effect on the prison numbers in Italy.

“There is a strong influence of public opinion and mass media” on convictions in the justice system, says Patrizio Gonnella, president of human rights group Antigone, which has analyzed Italian prison data for 20 years.

On 26 April 2007, a 21 year-old Romanian - Doina Matei - was riding the Rome underground to the central Termini station with a friend. As the crowds exited the train, she was jostling with a 23 year-old Italian woman, Vanessa Russo.

The two argued on the platform. Matei was carrying an umbrella, which she wielded towards Russo. The sharp end hit the Italian in the eye. The victim spent two days in a coma, before dying. Matei fled the scene.

The Rome court called the attack a “mortal blow” and condemned Matei to prison for 16 years. She is now in a semi-open prison.

This April, after nine years inside, Matei was granted eight hours of freedom. She went to the seaside...

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...and posted a picture of herself in a bikini on Facebook.

This kicked off a massive scandal in the Italian press, which labelled her actions disgraceful.

“Some important opinion leaders said that she did not have the right to smile after what she did,” says Gonnella.

In a climate of strong pressure from public opinion, the judge decided to interrupt her state of semi-liberty - and keep her inside prison.

“Why should there be an alternative measure for Doina Matei?” says Gonnella. “Because she went to the beach? Because she smiled?”

Antigone ran a campaign against the judge’s ruling. After a few months, the tribunal changed the decision, and reinstated her right to semi-liberty.

A drinking problem: "solve this, and solve most crimes"

On whether there is prejudice against Romanians - and particularly the Romanian Roma - from the legal system, this becomes more complex.

There are high rates of recidivism among Romanians. This is because many Romanians commit a crime, get released and commit the same crime again inside of five years - which is usually pickpocketing. This increases their sentences.

“The law is tougher on recidivists, and this is tougher on Romanians,” says Mario Pontillo.

But Piero Piccinini believes there is no bias by judges against Romanians. Instead he argues that there is “no attention” given “or tolerance” to the problems that affect immigrant communities. This means that Romanians may get banged up on minor issues, such as falsifying a residence in order to help out a friend.

For Piccinini, the major problem among Romanians is booze. And this is linked to drink-driving accidents.

“If we managed to break the habit of alcohol abuse, we would knock down 80 per cent of the crimes,” he says. “But alcohol is linked to the lack of family, decent housing, and solitude. Alcohol is an escape.”

Most of Piccinini's cases are related to drunkenness or domestic violence. Romanians have little support in Italy to deal with these problems.

“If there are one million Romanians in Italy, this is a reality of which we should take note,” he says. “Not only the Italian, but also the Romanian Government should put in place a form of administrative, legal and cultural assistance for the millions of Romanians. But this doesn’t exist.”

Romanians: not ISIS terrorists

In 2016 the numbers of Romanians in prison in Italy fell from 2,893 to 2,825. This drop was slight - but significant.

“This is a very interesting decrease. It is the first time they don’t go up,” says Patrizio Gonnella from Antigone. “Why? Are Romanians more integrated? I don’t think so. Do they commit fewer crimes than two years ago? I don’t think so. The persecution of the police and judicial system is now [targeted] against another kind of people. Now we have to face terrorism. Now it is the criminalisation of the Maghreb.”

From June 2015 to June 2016 the top foreign prisoner community in Italy - as in the EU - are from Morocco.

“The pressure of ISIS terrorism will change the prejudice against Romanians,” says Gonnella. “Now the media is interested in terrorist attacks. Romanians are involved in ordinary crime. There is no change in the mentality of media and the public system, but there is another emergency, and it is not Romanians.”

Part of The Black Sea Eurocrimes project financed by Journalism Fund

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