By Elke Weesjes

Amatrice, Italy, August 2016. Open Domain, Leggi il Firenzepost

As Central Italy begins the daunting task of recovering from a 6.2 magnitude earthquake that struck last month, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is taking steps to stop rebuilding—rebuilding by companies with mafia ties, that is.

There will be plenty of reconstruction ahead, thanks to the devastating quake that demolished towns, killed 295 people and left as many as 4,000 people homeless. Keeping that in mind, Renzi is focused on making sure organized crime—notorious for corner-cutting and ignoring regulations—doesn’t interfere with the process.

It wouldn’t be the first time the mafia was able to cash in on earthquake reconstruction efforts. After the 1980 Irpinia Earthquake near Naples, and again after the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake in central Italy, companies backed by criminal organizations ended up winning contracts to reconstruct homes and public buildings.

Preventing the mafia from worming its way into rebuilding is no easy task, said Franco Roberti, head of Italy's national anti-mafia directorate.

“The risk of infiltration is always high,” Roberti is quoted as saying by USA Today. “Post-earthquake reconstruction is a tasty morsel for criminal organizations and business interests.”

The construction industry has long been the economic backbone of organized crime in Italy. In some parts of the country, mafia building is among the most prolific, said Anna Sergi, a University of Essex sociologist specializing in organized crime.

“Construction is one of the mafia’s main sources of revenue, partly because construction is linked to territory, so the mafia not only seeks construction contracts for money, but also to mark their territory,” Sergi told CNN.

While such contracts might be lucrative for the mafia, they shortchange everyone else, leading to dangerously second-rate building. When a mafia-controlled company wins a contract, it often underpays sub-contractors who in turn cut corners to make up for lost profits, Sergi said.

“They pay their workers way less, so they of course do a worse job, and that leads to higher maintenance costs, and in many cases, more money generated for them.”

This cycle of shoddy construction work could be responsible for the death toll in Italy’s most recent earthquake, according to Rieti chief prosecutor Giuseppe Saieva.

Saieva said that contractors who cut corners when constructing or reinforcing buildings, as well as property owners who knowingly hired such contractors, will be held responsible for the damage and could even face criminal charges.

Saieva is investigating how public funds that were allocated for anti-seismic renovations across the impacted region were used. The Romolo Capranica Primary School in Amatrice, one of the towns hit hardest by the quake, has been a focus of the investigation.

Four years ago, a consortium of builders was hired by the Amatrice town council to incorporate anti-earthquake safety standards in the school. The renovated school collapsed during the quake, however, leading some to question if the anti-seismic measures were indeed implemented.

In the week after, Saieva’s team began to collect documentation and contracts related to the school’s renovation from municipal offices. In addition, firefighters examined the ruins of the school, looking for clues as to why the building did not survive the tremor.

While Saieva has stated that it is too early to draw any conclusions, his team will also investigate another 14 sites in the region for illegal construction. Regardless of those results, the devastation of Romolo Caprianica was a wakeup call that has many voicing concerns about the seismic safety of public buildings and homes.

In response to these concerns, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi proposed a long-term national program aimed at bringing Italy up to international seismic standards. Renzi’s initiative, called Casa Italia, would include the strict enforcement of earthquake resistant building regulations.

As part of the initiative, Renzi asked Renzo Piano—the Italian architect and engineer responsible for designing the earthquake-resistant Kansai Air Terminal in Japan and the flood-resistant New Whitney Museum of American Art in New York—to play a leading role in the reconstruction and disaster prevention efforts.

Piano, committed to his new role, identified the many obstacles in front of him. Yet he also expressed optimism about the future.

“It is not just corruption, there is bureaucracy and illegality,” Piano told The Guardian “Now there is a strong push against it and Italy is trying to do something about it. It is not impossible to overcome it, something new is coming.”

Renzi also appointed Vasco Errani, former governor of Emilia Romagna, as a special commissioner in charge of overseeing reconstruction in the devastated regions. Errani, who previously served the same role in Emilia Romagna after a 2012 earthquake that claimed 27 lives, will work closely with the National Anti-Corruption Authority.

Errani, Piano, and Renzi all acknowledge that in order for Casa Italia to succeed, they have to keep the mafia at bay. Closely following the money is one way to do that, the prime minister told* Agenzia Nazionale Stampa Associata*.

“The key point is to track [the reconstruction funds] cent by cent to make sure central Italy is rebuilt without corruption and criminal infiltration,” he said.