Car bombs and gangsters in Malta

When Malta’s most prominent political journalist, Daphne Caruana Galizia, was killed in a car bomb on October 16th a fair amount of the reporting talked about how this attack was at odds with the apparent success of Malta since joining the European Union in 2004. In fact, my two visits to Malta, which came prior to joining the EU, suggested quite the opposite: that the risk for the EU was that Malta would serve as an unguarded backdoor for criminal networks to operate throughout Europe. Indeed, Daphne Caruana Galizia herself wrote a half hour before her death, “There are crooks everywhere you look now. The situation is desperate.
My experience was that the Maltese talk openly about the criminals in their midst, even as they can be discreet about naming just who and what they’ve done. As it happens, two months separated my visits to Malta and when I returned to Trattoria da Pippo in Valetta, where I’d eaten once before, the proprietor professed to remember me from my earlier visit. I was doubtful, of course, but as he said quite candidly, “You don’t look like the lawyers, bankers and crooks who usually eat here.” And as I looked around the dining room, I saw that it was true: a heavy mafia figure smoking a cigar was at a table of young guys who looked half-apprentice and half-bodyguard. To my right, a Russian businessman with an awkward haircut drew out schemes on a pad of paper for the benefit of the naïve Maltese with him and from the few words that drifted over I could tell it was a con: “seven houses in Russia,” “no hard currency,” “everything’s perfectly legal,” “I could end up in the docks, no way” (the Maltese said that one), “tax free,” “I’ll have to check that with my boss,” “have you been to the Seychelles?”, “so we’ll meet again on Sunday…” And so on.
I didn’t love Malta, in fact, and this seedy side was a large part of why. The EU thought it could change that; more likely, in its own small way Malta changed the EU. Daphne Caruana Galizia was thought to have been assassinated for her role in investigating the Panama Papers, which were the leaks revealing the extensive use of offshore tax havens and blind companies to hide ill-gotten gains. The Panama Papers, really, were the lunch tables at Trattoria da Pippo writ large.

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