‘Coffee is the new racket’: Sicilian mafia brews up trouble

Less than a month after the death of Sicily’s most notorious mafia boss, his daughter is attempting to trade on his infamy with a range of espresso products bearing his name.

Days after Salvatore “Totò” Riina died in a prison hospital on 17 November, his daughter, Concetta Riina, created an online espresso store named Uncle Totò after the man believed responsible for about 150 murders.

Riina launched the Zu’ Totò range on the Facebook page of her husband Antonio Ciavarello, who is under house arrest for fraud, and said she was accepting pre-orders for espresso pods in order to raise money after police seized the family’s savings.

The online store disappeared soon after being exposed by Italian media, but mafia experts say that coffee was not a random choice for the daughter of Sicily’s “boss of bosses”.

Not only is espresso an emblem of Italian culture, but it has become an effective tool for crime bosses to extort money from traders. Bars are often bullied into selling specific coffee brands promoted by mobsters, who skim the profits.

“Coffee is the new racket,” said author Antonio Nicaso, one of the world’s leading mafia experts and university lecturer in Canada and the US.

“Bar and restaurant owners are willing to pay the higher prices for fear of retribution. It’s a subtler way to extort money from owners of bars and restaurants – a difficult method for the police to intercept,” he said.

Some mobsters have even taken to producing their own coffee. A case currently under way in Naples involves 50 people allegedly connected to the Mallardo clan of the Neapolitan Camorra.

Investigators say that Camorra bosses forced bars to buy a coffee brand owned by the feared D’Alterio family. Other clans, such as the Vollaro clan of Portici in Naples, made owners buy minimum coffee orders of €20,000 (£17,500). If they did not pay, bosses took over the bar, prosecutors say.

Nicola Gratteri, one of Italy’s most respected anti-mafia chief prosecutors, told the Guardian that the tactic was becoming increasingly common.

“People might think it’s just an espresso, but there are thousands of bars in Calabria. It would be as if the mafia forced every fish and chip shop in London to buy their cod from the bosses,” he said.

According to Nicaso, mafia groups in the US and Canada were the first to use espresso as an instrument for extortion, by forcing cafe owners to buy specific brands of coffee imported from Italy. “It’s hard for the cops to prove the extortion: you’re not handing money over – you’re just buying coffee,” he said.

Nicknamed the Beast because of his cruelty, Riina is believed to have been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people, including a 13-year old boy who was kidnapped, strangled and dissolved in acid. Riina was serving 26 life sentences, when he died of cancer last month.

Before his capture in 1993, Riina was a three-a-day espresso addict, but he gave up coffee in prison, fearing that his enemies would take advantage of his addiction to poison him.