ROME — S. had been working at his family’s café since he was 14, selling espressos, cigarettes and lottery tickets to customers in the working-class suburbs of eastern Rome.
But by early 2010, his business, and his life, were in shambles. A small, high-interest loan he had taken from a loan shark had ballooned into a mountain of debt, and the lender was trying to seize his café and his home.
“There was nothing left to do but close shop and face the problem,” says the 39-year-old Italian, a Catholic man who asked not to be named because he fears retribution.
Help came from an unexpected source. Once S. filed a complaint with the police, he was referred to Dror, a volunteer group run by Rome’s Jewish community that supports victims of loan sharks and people whose financial situation puts them at risk of falling into their clutches.
As Italy struggles to emerge from recession and banks are reluctant to grant credit, families and small businesses increasingly turn to unscrupulous lenders who charge illegally high interest rates of up to 1,500 percent per year.
“It’s hard to convince victims to go to the authorities, and even those who find the courage to do so often find themselves alone, without support,” says Fabio Calderoni, a local businessman who founded Dror and serves as its president.
Named after the Hebrew word for “freedom,” the organization offers guidance from experts including accountants, psychologists and lawyers to victims of usury and severely indebted people. About 30 volunteers help with everything from restructuring a failing business to balancing a family budget and assisting in court.
Calderoni created Dror in 2006 while volunteering at the welfare organization serving Rome’s Jewish community. While there, he says, he noticed that more and more businesspeople and middle-class families were coming in to seek help for mounting debts, some of which were owed to loan sharks. According to a 2012 report by Libera, a national grassroots group that fights organized crime, Rome is a hub for usurers charging the highest interest rates in the country.
Rome’s Jews are few — about 15,000 — but many run clothing stores and other small businesses that are particularly vulnerable in times of economic stress and are easy prey for loan sharks. Initially, more than half the cases Dror dealt with involved Jews, but since Calderoni's organization is the only anti-usury group operating in downtown Rome, word spread beyond the Jewish community quickly. Last year, just 15 percent of those who received counseling were Jewish.
The group had just 50 cases in its first year, but now deals with more than 550. Nationwide, according to police figures, usury cases rose by 19 percent last year compared to 2012, and nearly 170 million euros ($234 million) have been seized during investigations. Authorities believe those figures are only the tip of the iceberg, since many victims never come forward and some cases emerge only when they end in violence, including suicide. Even Pope Francis called for firmer action earlier this year, describing usury as “a dramatic social scourge, which violates human dignity.”
Calderoni says the economic crisis and the credit crunch combined with existing social problems, such as a rise in gambling addictions and Italians’ recent taste for buying consumer products on credit, to create fertile ground for loan sharks. Usury — which used to be the purview of small-time local crooks — is now increasingly attracting the Mafia and other crime cartels that have sensed the potential for new business and opportunities to launder money, he says.
For S., a practicing Catholic who has been meeting regularly with Dror’s experts for the last four years, this was his first contact with Jews, aside from the age-old stereotypes that still permeate much of Italian society — including the canard, perhaps best embodied by Shakespeare's Shylock, that Jews tend to be the ones perpetrating the usury, rather than suffering from it or helping those who do.
“Everybody speaks badly of the Jews; they say they have all the power,” the café owner told Haaretz last month in an interview at the Dror office. “But here I didn’t see power; I saw the love of Jews toward their neighbors.”
Calderoni is happy the project can help erase prejudice, and says its main goal is to “give something back to society” in these difficult times. The Italian businessman, who visits Israel often, says he dreams of bringing Dror’s experience to the Jewish state, opening a branch and training local staff to fight loan sharks in Israel.
But those plans may have to be put on hold, as Italy’s crisis is affecting Dror on its home front. The group’s shoestring budget of 40,000 euros is jointly financed by the Jewish community and the Rome municipality. However, the city is on the verge of bankruptcy and last week the Italian government had to inject cash into the capital’s coffers just to keep buses, museums and other public services running. Calderoni believes the municipality will discontinue its support, and he may be forced to reduce Dror’s activities just when they are most needed.
Calderoni believes the key to fighting usury is prevention. That’s why most of Dror’s activities focus on helping people who are deeply in debt but have not yet turned to a lender.
“The solutions are not always painless; sometimes we have to convince a businessman that his activity cannot be saved or push a family to accept a lower standard of living,” he says. “But dealing with someone who is already a victim is like starting out with a defeat and managing it.”
Dror’s volunteers also lecture in schools across Rome about the importance of maintaining sound finances, avoiding loans that cannot be repaid and staying away from loan sharks.
S. learned that lesson the hard way. The café owner says his troubles began in 2009, when a drop in customers, a series of break-ins and his father’s health problems meant debts to suppliers started piling up.
After failing to secure financing from official lenders, S. was approached by his landlord, who offered to use his connections to have a bank give him a credit line of 13,000 euros, in exchange for a 10 percent monthly interest rate and a postdated check of 21,000 euros as a guarantee.
“I thought I would manage to pay him back in a few months,” S. recalls. “I didn’t realize he was out to get my café and everything I owned.”
This was a textbook approach, Calderoni explains. Usurers are often people the victim knows and who take on the guise of friends offering a helping hand, while stacking the cards against the borrower.
“You become dependent, you have to borrow more and more just to pay the interest, until you have to hand over your property and your livelihood,” Calderoni says. “Rarely do they resort to violence. They don’t need it — they can strangle you economically.”
A few months later, with S. struggling to keep up with the payments, the landlord cashed the huge guarantee check — presumably expecting it to bounce, which it did. This allowed him to appeal to a judge to seize the café and the apartment of S.’ parents, which was registered under his name.
Despite the shame and fear of retribution, S. filed a police complaint, and it is at this point that his story starts looking like those Hollywood movies in which, inevitably, accidents happen to those who oppose the mob. While the landlord never threatened him directly, he says, a day before he was set to testify in court, armed robbers paid a visit to his café and made off with the day’s takings. A few weeks later, when it was his 73-year-old mother’s turn to take the stand, S. had a serious accident with his moped and spent a week in a coma.
“No witnesses came forward and I don’t remember anything about the accident, but based on the marks on the scooter, the police believe I didn’t just fall on my own,” he says. “It was a hit and run.”
Last year his former landlord was found guilty of usury and sentenced to three and a half years in jail, but is now free, pending an appeal. That’s why S. still lives in fear and asked that his name not be printed.
His thinning hair, gaunt face and chain smoking testify to the toll his misfortunes have taken on him, but his face lights up when he talks about how, just over a year after being forced to shut it down, he brought his beloved café back to life. For this happy ending he credits Dror’s staff, which arranged for a lawyer to fight his court battles at no charge, negotiated new terms with his legitimate creditors, and helped him navigate the complex bureaucracy to access state funds allocated for victims of usury.
“Thanks to them, I was able to reopen, pay my debts and regain the respect of the people in the neighborhood,” he says. “Maybe in a few months I will even be able to take a vacation.”