• Italy's six southern regions have had seven straight years of recession
• Businesses are terrified of losing custom and youth unemployment is high
• Local mafias are taking advantage of the situation and growing in power
• The 'Ndrangheta group in Calabria are particularly adept at infiltrating, controlling and eventually hollowing out small businesses
By JOHN HALL FOR MAILONLINE
The struggling economy and 'permanent state of underdevelopment' in southern Italy is allowing violent mafia groups to flourish, as locals struggle with spiraling debt and youth unemployment.
Businesses in Sicily, Campania and Calabria face tough choices about whether to pay protection money to crime lords, who can easily drive them out of business.
While the threat of violence remains, it is increasingly the thought of intimidated would-be customers staying away from companies that refuse to pay 'tribute' to local mafia bosses that keeps many southern Italian small business owners up at night.
Add to this mix a drastic lack of jobs for young men and the ever growing riches associated with organised crime - particularly through the drug trade - and Italy once again finds itself faced with an uphill struggle in the battle to degrade and destroy the mafia.
That year, out of deference to the mobsters or fear, 55 of his 60 employees quit, local banks closed his accounts, and his clients shunned him. His company's sales fell 97 per cent, and he and his family have lived under 24 hour armed guard ever since.
'Most businessmen learn to live with the 'Ndrangheta,' Federico Cafiero de Raho, chief prosecutor in the region's largest city, Reggio Calabria, said of the crime syndicate.
'It is the arbiter of who can do what in the economy,' added Cafiero de Raho, whose court resides in a city that saw its local government dissolved in 2012 because it had been infiltrated by the group.
One of Italy's youngest mafia groups, yet steeped in the kind of quasi-religious symbolism and imagery that gives the impression it has existed for centuries, 'Ndrangheta has developed lucrative links with South American cocaine producers.
These links allow it to import directly from source, swerving the numerous middle men who have traditionally taken their own cut as the drug made its slow passage to Europe.
The key element in Ndrangheta's success, however, is its control over the ports in Calabria, where paid-off officials have been known to turn a blind eye to massive shipments of cocaine on the understanding that the criminals sacrifice the odd smaller cargo to keep drug enforcement happy.
The corruption is so rampant that one US official said that were it not part of Italy, Calabria would be a failed state.
The Riace bronzes, considered two of the most spectacular sculptures of the ancient world, were pulled out of the crystal clear waters of the Ionian coast.
But like the rest of the Mezzogiorno - Italy's six southern regions plus the islands of Sicily and Sardinia - Calabria has suffered seven straight years of recession and is challenging Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's efforts to fuel a recovery.
From 2008 to 2014, output in Calabria, which forms the toe of Italy's boot, shrank more than 11 per cent. Unemployment is three times that of the north and annual per capita output is €15,800 - the weakest in the country.
In July, Svimez research institute said 744,000 people left the Mezzogiorno between 2001 and 2014, and more than 70 percent of the emigrants were under the age of 34.
The body warned of a 'a permanent state of underdevelopment' in a region also home to separate mafia groups in Sicily, Campania and Puglia.
For his part, Renzi has promised to tackle the mob and offer a 'master plan' for the withered south in coming weeks. But filing cabinets in Rome are full of failed economic initiatives for the south and well-meaning anti-mob plans that have achieved little.
For Saffioti, the reason growth has stubbornly failed to take root in Calabria is because the 'Ndrangheta chokes it off.
'The 'Ndrangheta wants a hand in everything,' the 54-year-old said. 'If Calabria were wealthy, there would be no need for the 'Ndrangheta. Real growth would marginalise it.'
Thanks to Saffioti's testimony and closed circuit video recordings he made when he paid the mob, 48 'Ndrangheta members from nine different crime families went to jail.
According to his own records, he paid the equivalent of €2.5 million in extortion over 18 years.
Saffioti could have fled and assumed a new identity as part of Italy's witness protection programme, but he chose to stay in his native Calabria.
Now both his home and adjacent business are surrounded by 13 foot concrete walls, barbed wire, towering spotlights and dozens of video cameras. Four police stand on duty at all times.
'It looks like Guantanamo,' quips the bearded and bear-like Saffioti. 'But I'm very happy to have rid my life of that scum. I'm a free man now.'
Over the past two decades, the 'Ndrangheta, which takes its meaning from 'strong man' in ancient Greek, has eclipsed its more storied Sicilian cousin Cosa Nostra by becoming Europe's biggest cocaine broker and establishing criminal colonies across the globe.
But the 'Ndrangheta business model, he says, requires it to be a local power broker with broad consensus - especially among businessmen, politicians, and the Church.
The 'Ndrangheta's role as an intermediary - from job provider to lender of last resort - dates back to the creation of Italy 150 years ago, when a northern king conquered the south. The mob has long cultivated a warped sort of colonial mentality where the state is considered a foreign occupier.
'Whoever is born here must follow the unwritten rules of a parallel state. To buy or sell a property or open a business, you go to the 'Ndrangheta, not the bureau of commerce,' Saffioti said, adding that no deal was too small.
Before he turned state's witness, he had a job pouring concrete in the nearby town of Polistena.
Though he was going to earn only some €250 for the work, the local boss, Giovanni Longo, demanded his cut.
'He told me it wasn't a question of money, but of respect. He said: 'It's like when you go visit someone's home, you knock on the door. You don't just walk in.'
In 2001, a mafia hit man shot Longo dead.
David Bumbaca, whose seaside restaurant and bathing area in Locri is just the kind of economic activity the area needs, is weighing up whether his future lies there.
Over the past year because he refused to pay extortion 'as a matter of principle', two of his cars were burned, two men wearing ski masks tried to beat him up in front of his home, and he received an anonymous letter with a death threat.
'My problems began when I started to be visibly successful,' Bumbaca said, sitting in a shaded corner of his restaurant, which specialises in fresh seafood salad and other local treats.
The 46-year-old Bumbaca got a business degree in northern Italy, but he says he returned out of love for Calabria.
'Now I don't know how long my love of this land will hold out. I'm thinking more about selling and moving away than investing at this point,' he said. 'It's not a good situation for my family, and these things weigh on you.'
For now, in part because magistrates and police are among his regular clients, he is holding out. He has reported the threats to police, but he does not want to become a state's witness like Saffioti.
'I admire the people who make those choices. I just don't know if I could do it. I want to be with my family and live a safe life. I don't want to be anyone's hero,' he said.