Italian police discovered €15 million in banknotes stashed behind a false wall in an apartment in Milan, one of the biggest sums of cash ever seized in the country.
The money was packed into 28 cardboard boxes which were stacked behind a false wall in a flat belonging to the father of an alleged hashish trafficker, suspected of making millions importing the drugs from Morocco.
Investigators believe the huge amount of money had been amassed as a sort of retirement fund for Massimiliano Cauchi, and would have kept his family in comfort “for generations”, in the words of one of his collaborators.
Police received a tip-off from a “pentito” – a former criminal turned informer – that money could be hidden in the flat.
They compared the architectural plan of the apartment with its actual dimensions and found that one room was 40cm smaller than it should have been.
Using hammers, they hacked into the plaster and discovered the cardboard boxes stuffed with banknotes in denominations ranging from €50 to €500. Each box contained around €500,000.
Cauchi, 46, from Sicily, was under house arrest, awaiting trial for allegedly masterminding the import of more than 1,000kg of hashish from Morocco last October.
The drugs were hidden in a yacht that landed in the port of Rapallo near Genoa.
He had amassed the €15 million from past drug operations and had the false wall built in his father’s bedroom a couple of years ago.
Italian police and prosecutors have repeatedly warned that businesses that are struggling financially because of the coronavirus crisis are highly vulnerable to criminals who are awash with cash.
Loan-sharking is expected to increase dramatically, with organised crime offering loans to failing shops and restaurants on initially favourable terms.
But repayments are then set so high that the business owner cannot possibly pay, allowing mafia groups to take over the enterprise and use it as a front for laundering the proceeds of crime.
“The availability of these amounts of cash is highly destabilizing for the legal economic system,” said Francesco Greco, the chief prosecutor in Milan.
“We’re worried about usury because at a time of deep economic crisis like this, organised crime can buy up everything.”