The Sicilian mafia has been defrauding the EU’s agricultural subsidy scheme for years to the tune of €10m (£8.57m), Italian authorities have said.
Officials say Italy’s state and financial police made 94 dawn arrests across Sicily in relation to the scam, which apparently dates back to 2013.
According to authorities, thousands of acres of farmland in the east of the island have been fraudulently qualifying for EU agricultural subsidies. Some land actually eligible for European aid is also said to have been acquired by the gangs through “extortion” and threatening its owners.
National anti-mafia prosecutor Federico Cafiero de Raho said mobsters “used extortion to force sales of the lands”. Mr Cafiero de Raho described the alleged racket as a “criminal system, a system of fraud” and said rival crime families had joined forces to take their share.
Officials say farmers who declined to participate in the fraud reported the activities to the authorities, helping to bust the alleged mobsters.
Gianluca Rizzo, an MP from the governing Five Star Movement party, told the Associated Press news agency that the arrests represented “a true and real blow to the heart of a criminal system that, sucking away European funds to develop our region, makes money off the backs of future generations”.
The farm subsidies like the Common Agricultural Policy make up over a third of the EU’s entire budget. Italy is one of the largest recipients of Common Agricultural Policy payments, taking in 12 per cent of the total – behind only Germany, France, and Spain.