NAPLES, ITALY — While businesses around the world are hunkering down for survival, the Italian mob is living a golden moment.
Italy's various organized crime syndicates -- often lumped together colloquially as Mafia Inc. -- are gobbling up gas stations, muscling in on supermarket franchises, making loans to cash-starved businesses, taking over trattorias and acquiring buildings in swank neighborhoods in Rome and Milan, investigators say.
These mobsters have lots of what is in short supply for many businesses these days -- liquidity -- as well as centuries-honed expertise in preying on the vulnerable, whose ranks are swelling in the current financial crisis.
It all means the mob is free to sink cash into two areas that lie at the heart of the global meltdown: real estate and credit markets.
The crime syndicates are flush with billions of euros from extortion rackets, drug trafficking and booming sales in fake designer clothing made in China expressly for the Italian mob -- an increasingly lucrative trade as hard-hit consumers search for bargains, prosecutors and police said in recent interviews.
For the mob bosses, the global economic meltdown "is only an advantage," said anti-Mafia prosecutor Franco Roberti, in his office in Naples, the chaotic port city that is home to the Camorra, one of Italy's major crime syndicates.
Italy has scored some spectacular successes in its decades-long fight against the Mafia, capturing top bosses, persuading turncoats to testify and encouraging ordinary citizens to resist shakedowns.
But the mob keeps growing -- and its drive in recent years to grab chunks of legitimate business is paying off big time in the financial crisis.
In Rome, in the high-rent neighborhoods around the Spanish Steps, Piazza Navona and the Trevi Fountain, mobsters are snapping up real estate, anti-Mafia prosecutor Giancarlo Capaldo said in a courthouse interview.
In probes of what Capaldo described as "indications" that mobsters have taken over hotels, restaurants and cafes in Rome, police seized assets of some of these businesses, although the establishments remain open.
"These places are well run because they want to make money," Capaldo said. He declined to identify the establishments because the investigation was still being conducted, saying only that "you'll find some of them in tourist guidebooks."
Capaldo's office also confiscated auto dealerships in Rome from suspected Camorristi or their allies.
"The Camorra makes the money here in the south, but it invests it in legal activities up north," customs and tax police Gen. Giovanni Mainolfi said in his Naples office.
If the mobsters built posh places in the largely undeveloped south, "they would stand out, but do it in Milan . . . and they blend right in," Mainolfi said.
In an operation code-named "Easy Money," police this year seized a hotel in the exclusive Tuscan sea resort of Punta Ala, as well as a supermarket, two Ferraris, a gas station in the wealthy northern Reggio Emilia region and other properties, altogether totaling about $40 million. All were believed to be owned by the Camorra, flush with drug profits.
The revenue raked in by Italy's crime syndicates would be more than respectable for many a stock market-listed company these days -- although, of course, the mobsters hardly issue annual reports.
The Rome-based Eurispes think tank has estimated that in 2008, "Mafia Inc." earned $167 billion, or about 8% of Italy's GDP, from its criminal activities, nearly half of that from drug trafficking.
Eurispes, which analyzes social, economic and criminal trends, said loan sharking brought in an estimated $17 billion of that income. It calculated that about 180,000 merchants and other businessmen got their loans, directly or indirectly, through organized crime in Italy.
With the world financial crunch having made real impact in Italy only in the first months of this year, it's too early to tell how much more profit organized crime might make.
Government investigations have found that as they launder illicit revenue, mob bosses are increasingly moving their money out of the underdeveloped south, where the syndicates are rooted, and into affluent central and northern Italy.
In March, Italy's intelligence services warned in a report that rising unemployment and the credit crunch could help crime syndicates tighten their tentacles around vast swaths of the nation's business sector, including supermarkets, real estate and tourism.
A main engine of the mob's recent strength -- the age-old practice of loan sharking -- is thriving as banks hoard cash, allowing the Mafia to elbow in on legitimate businesses.
The mobsters are poised to "acquire control of businesses in difficulty, especially through their consolidated practice of loan sharking," as well as to "snap up assets put on the market by enterprises experiencing liquidity crises," the intelligence report said.
The dire predictions seem borne out by businessmen's complaints.