Organised crime has tightened its grip on the Italian economy during the economic crisis, making the Mafia the country's biggest "bank" and squeezing the life out of thousands of small companies, according to a report on Tuesday.

Extortionate lending by criminal groups had become a "national emergency", said the report by anti-crime group SOS Impresa.

Organised crime now generated annual turnover of about ?140bn ($178,89bn) and profits of more than ?100bn, it added.

"With ?65bn in liquidity, the Mafia is Italy's number-one bank," said a statement from the group, which was set up in Palermo a decade ago to oppose extortion rackets against small business.

Organised crime groups such as the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, the Naples Camorra and the Calabrian 'Ndrangheta have long had a stranglehold on the Italian economy, generating profits equivalent to about 7% of national output.

Extortionate lending had become an increasingly sophisticated and lucrative source of income, alongside drug trafficking, arms smuggling, prostitution, gambling and racketeering, the report said.

"The classic neighbourhood or street loan shark is on the way out, giving way to organised loan-sharking that is well connected with professional circles and operates with the connivance of high-level professionals," the report said.

It estimated about 200000 businesses were tied to extortionate lenders and tens of thousands of jobs had been lost as a result.

EXTORTION WITH A CLEAN FACE

Old-style gangsters handing out cash in bars and pool halls had been replaced by apparently respectable bankers, lawyers or notaries, the report said.

"This is extortion with a clean face," it added. "Through their professions, they know the mechanisms of the legal credit market and they often know the financial position of their victims perfectly."

Small businesses that have struggled to get hold of credit during the economic slowdown may have been increasingly tempted to turn to the Mafia, said the report.

Typical victims of extortionate lending were middle-aged shopkeepers and small businessmen who would struggle to find a new job and who were ready to try anything to avoid bankruptcy, it added.

"They are usually people in traditional retail sectors such as food, greengrocers, clothes or shoe shops, florists or furniture shops. These are the categories that, more than any other, are paying the price of the (economic) crisis," it said.

According to a separate report this week from small business association CNA, 56% of companies had seen banks tighten their lending requirements in the past three months.

REUTERS