Suspicious bank transactions jumped by a third in Italy last year, the central bank said on Wednesday, a sign that tax evaders, swindlers and mobsters are cashing in during the worst economic crisis since the Second World War.
The number of dubious money exchanges rose to almost 49,000 in 2011, a 31.5-per-cent increase from a year earlier and seven times the number reported in 2009, according to an annual document compiled by Bank of Italy's financial information unit.
Italian anti-mafia prosecutors say crime syndicates have tightened their grip on the euro zone's third-biggest economy during the slump as banks have cut lending and mafia groups, flush with cash, increase investments in the legitimate economy.
"It's clear that the crime groups involved in drug trafficking have enormous sums of money to invest and that during an economic downturn the cash is needed by many businesses, including honest ones," Vittorio Mete, a mafia researcher at the University of Catanzaro, told Reuters.
Many of the suspicious transactions turn out to be red herrings, but about a third of those investigated last year proved to be illegal, the report said.
Crimes uncovered by authorities included money laundering, corruption, tax evasion, extortion, fraud, usury, drug trafficking and a variety of lesser, administrative infractions, the report added.
Earlier this month, the head of a tax agency and four of his employees were arrested on charges of pocketing €100-million ($128-million) they had collected and spending it on private planes, parties and yachts.
In 2011, 445 of the suspicious money exchanges were confirmed by investigators to be linked to the mob, the report said, and a quarter of them were transactions made in Lombardy, Italy's richest region.
"Organized crime is active nationally," the report said, citing an analysis of the financial transactions linked to the mob.
Italy's main organized crime groups such as Sicily's Cosa Nostra, the Camorra around Naples, or Calabria's 'Ndrangheta have long had a stranglehold on the southern economy. Recently their national reach has become more evident.
A member of the Lombardy regional government was arrested last week and accused of buying votes from the Calabrian mob, which is deeply rooted in the region around Milan.
The Calabrian mafia, a leading drug trafficker in southern Europe, was behind 185 of the transactions that led to criminal investigations in 2011.
According to a separate Bank of Italy study, the country's criminal economy is worth almost 11 per cent of gross domestic product, or more than €170-billion, while money laundering amounts to about 12 per cent of GDP per year.