Special units of the Italian police, supported by the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF), have moved against a Mafia-linked gang stealing EU agriculture funds.
The complex fraud and money-landering operation, which stretched across a number of other states – including the Republic of Ireland – is believed to have involved more than €16 million in EU and national funds.
The Carabinieri special units arrested 48 people in the swoops in the Puglia region of southern Italy last week in an operation codenamed Grande Carro (Big Dipper in English).
Those detained face a number of charges, including criminal association, money laundering, extortion, intimidation, kid-napping, having firearms and explosives, and fraud.
The OLAF initiated the investigation into the Societa Foggiana group after discovering it had fraudulently obtained some €9.5m (£8.5m) from EU agricultural funds set aside for rural development.
The criminal gang is said to have set up fictitious companies in a number of European countries, including Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Ireland, Portugal and Romania.
These “bogus” firms were used to provide a cover for fraud and to launder money, it is alleged.
According to the authorities, the gang used the companies to buy and sell to each other farm machinery at hugely inflated prices, often passing off second-hand items as brand new on documents lodged for EU funding.
They then “spent” the grant money on fictitious purchases, allowing them to pocket the cash.
OLAF Director-Genera Ville Itälä said: “I am glad that excellent cooperation with the Italian authorities has led to a successful operation against a dangerous criminal group.
“Unfortunately, organised crime can often be found hiding behind fraud schemes and money laundering.
“The fight against fraud has implications that go well beyond the financial aspect.”
EU Agency for Criminal Justice Co-operation Eurojust also supported the operation by providing coordination among different national judicial authorities.
Eurojust Vice President Filippo Spiezia said: “The investigation in this case confirms the seriousness of the threat to the abuse of EU funds, posed by organized crime.
“This shows the need to work together to combat this kind of crime by all EU institutions and we stand ready to support OLAF and the European Public Prosecutor’s Office now and in the future.”