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Malta: the mafia’s paradise island 

Investigations into two major and seemingly unconnected scandals in Malta have a common link; a mafia clan in Sicily that thrived on the the lax supervision of Maltese authorities

Toto Riina, Italy's most feared mafia boss, frequently visited Gozo. He died in 2017.

‘Operation Beta’ by the Italian Carabinieri in 2017 led to the arrest of 30 individuals as part of a major clampdown on illegal gaming activities and money laundering linked to the Sicilian mafia family Santapaola-Erculano.

Almost a year later, the Italian police arrested individuals involved in an operation including Sicilian, Maltese and Libyan individuals smuggling Libyan fuel into the European market. And once again a link to the Santapaola-Erculano emerged.

A look at the family histories of the mafia clans reveals deep family connections that used Malta as hub to extend their reach and profits.

The links date back to 1974, when a Sicilian man and his bride went to Gozo on their honeymoon. They loved the island so much they frequently returned, where the man spent much of his time in Qala. To the locals who interacted with him in Pjazza San Frangisk he was simply known as Toto. Did they know he was the feared godfather from Corleone?

Salvatore ‘Toto’ Riina, wasn’t your common Sicilian. A few years after his Gozo honeymoon he succeeded Luciano Leggio as Cosa Nostra’s ‘boss of bosses’. Riina, the beast that terrorised Sicily and made the Italian State tremble, was well respected on our islands.

He rose to power and with him rose a new generation of Cosa Nostra leaders. The Corleonesi under Toto Riina’s leadership reached the apex of control over Sicily and beyond. A generation that would control the Sicilian islands and expand their influences worldwide.

In the same era, another boss was rising through the ranks of the Sicilian mafia. In Catania, a slightly younger man who was just as ambitious as Riina was making the grade, Benedetto Santapaola. In the 60s, ‘Nitto’ (as he was known) was introduced by his cousin Francesco Ferrera into the largest mafia family of Catania, which was at the time under the command of Giuseppe Calderone. Ambition and connections propelled Santapaola to the top ranks of the mafia.

In 1975 he took over the Catania throne by killing his own boss, and with the assistance of the Corleonesi he imposed his reign of terror. Making Santapaola the boss of Catania gave Riina widespread influence across the island.

Riina was handsomely compensated for his assistance. On 3 September 1982, a hit squad from Catania was sent to Via Carini in Palermo. There, Santapaola paid his dues by murdering general Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa who was dispatched to Palermo by the Italian government to stop the violence of the Second Mafia War.

It came as no surprise that Vincenzo Romeo, nephew of Benedetto Santapaola, rose through the ranks of the family and established himself as a modern boss in Messina. The well-educated and ambitious boss recognised the potential of iGaming and online betting.

In April 2015, Romeo boarded the ferry to Malta with €38,000 to start a new business in the sector. Due to his family’s criminal past, he could never get the necessary licenses from the Italian authorities.

The Carabinieri’s operation Beta revealed that Romeo, who ran a chain of betting shops in Sicily, was linked to Massimo ‘Nunzio’ Lagana, an old acquaintance from Messina. Lagana’s high profile within Malta’s iGaming scene allowed him to recruit developers to create an online casino that would meet all of Romeo’s needs.

Once Romeo gained access to the software he installed it in gambling machines in his betting shops in Sicily. The Italian investigators said the betting shops allowed patrons to place their bets in common accounts held by shop owners rather than their personal accounts. This allowed the shop owners to by-pass secure gateway payments such as Emoney or Skrill and leave untraceable payments.

Sources within the illegal gambling industry had said mafia clans would send their men to the betting shops to collect their share. Most of the money was laundered through Italian banks while a part would be sent to middlemen in Malta to keep the operation running.

Another Romeo recently made headlines in connection with the oil smuggling case linked to Malta. Sicilian Nicola Orazio Romeo is one of the accused in the case involving Darren Debono and Gordon Debono who, together with Libyan ‘smuggling king’ Fahmi Bin Khalifa, smuggled fuel from Libya and sold it as regular fuel in Europe with the assistance of an Italian trader.

Investigations by the Italian authorities refer to Orazio Romeo’s connections to the Sicilian mafia clan of Santapaola-Ercolano. The Panama Papers had revealed offshore companies with the same San Gwann address as ADJ Trading, the company once owned by both Debono and Bin Khalifa.

The freedom with which these figures built a life in Malta and opened businesses that thrived for years sheds more light on the Malta’s authorities’ vigilance who according to the Catanzaro prosecutor Nicola Gratteri are less cooperative than authorities in “Peru or Colombia.”

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