Bustarella (Italy)

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Location: Italy
Italy map.png
Author: Simona Guerra
Affiliation: Leicester University

Original text by Simona Guerra

Bustarella is the diminutive of the word ‘busta’ (envelope), and may be translated literally as ‘little envelope’. The term has its roots in the Neapolitan dialect, and refers to an envelope in which money is hidden in order to facilitate favours or smooth a process. It thus equates with a kickback or bribe.

In the context of corrupt practices in Italy, bustarella has become a term commonly used to represent the brazen exchange of favours, which encompasses not only the exchange of money or offshore funds, but also refers to ‘arrangements’ such as the offer of yachts for holidays, the gift of new luxury cars, apartments, the payment of mortgages, the promise of prostitutes, free holidays, and the payment housing costs (Mapelli and Santucci 2012[1]; Ceccarelli 2012[2]).

Cultural references abound. In the song ‘Abustarella’, by the Italian film actor and comedian Nino Taranto, 1950s Italy is described as the ‘Land of Plenty’ (‘il Paese della Cuccagna’), where you just need a bustarella (‘brown envelope’) to satisfy your greed. In the book ‘Il male italiano’ (‘The Italian disease’), prosecutor Raffaele Cantone describes the impression of Italy he gained as a result of his investigation of Expo 2015 in Milan. The year preceding the opening of the Expo saw the rise of corrupt practices with regard to contracts on buildings and infrastructure, and clear evidence of nepotism and clientelism (La Repubblica 2015[3]).

The Italian political system has long been recognised as ‘distinctive’ in relation to party domination at the local level. Bustarella has been a widespread feature in land development and contracts; a mechanism described as ‘an extensive system of bribes and kickbacks to party officials… [where] parties [can] penetrate the bureaucracies, and share the heights of the economic power. This power is passed down to local party officials and technocrats, so that they may enjoy significant autonomy vis-à-vis incipient local-growth activists.’ (Molotch and Vicari 1988: 203-207[4]).

Institutional arrangements for preventing the use of bustarella in political parties and government authorities can be effective in principle, but due to constantly evolving structures and external pressures they do not tend to be effective in practice. The practice of bustarella itself is so prevalent because it is able to thrive and flourish on a small scale, often falling within the ‘grey area’ of corruption (Heidenheimer and Johnston 2002: 33[5]). In general, only a minority in society wants to see the practitioners punished, and even then only in instances regarded as ‘severe violations of community moral or legal norms’ (ibid.).

As a rule bustarella helps speed up a process, such as an exchange of services, or may be used as a means of successfully accomplishing work. Further evidence of the practice can be found among public officials. In Rome, for example, construction workers were intercepted discussing the corrupt work of an officer who had asked for a bustarella of nearly 8,500 Euros in return for processing papers relating to security (Il Fatto Quotidiano 2015[6]). In another example, a private agency was investigated after it was found to be controlling the funeral services offered within four hospitals in Rome (Il Messaggero 2014).

The case of Mafia Capitale (Guerra 2014[7]) shows the extent to which a ‘greasing’ system involving bustarella and a clientelistic culture combine to support a criminal mafia-type network. Approximately 200 million Euros were frozen when the Mafia Capitale case was uncovered in December 2014, and some forty-six politicians, administrators and businessmen were put on trial. All appeared to be members of a criminal network that extended across Rome’s administration. Money originally intended for community centres for refugees and basic city services was embezzled through bustarella and other corrupt schemes. In a wire tapped phone conversation, Salvatore Buzzi, Head of the 29 June Co-operative, which provided services to the homeless and marginalised of society, was recorded boasting that the network had made €40m from the misuse of funds for ‘gypsies and immigrants,’ and that it was ‘more profitable than trafficking drugs.’ Buzzi’s secretary, arrested for her involvement in the case, confessed that she had been responsible for arranging bustarelle on behalf of her boss (Guerra 2014[8]).

The Great Game of the Goose of Mafia Capitale: Monthly Euro payments among city officers and regional politicians.

Italy scored 7.6 out of 10 and ranked joint 15th (out of 28) on Transparency International’s Bribe Payers Index (2011), which ranks the world’s wealthiest and most economically influential countries according to the likelihood of their firms to partake in bribery abroad. The attitude of government leaders to bribery and bustarella gives some indication of why this is so. In 2013 the then Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi declared in a televised interview that bribery should not be regarded as criminal activity but merely a form of ‘commission’:

‘[B]ribes are a phenomenon that exists and it’s useless to deny the existence of these necessary situations […] These are not crimes. We’re talking about paying a commission to someone in that country. Why? Because those are the rules in that country.’ (Transparency International 2013[9])

Berlusconi made this statement regardless of the fact that in 2000 Italy (along with 38 other countries) had signed and ratified the OECD Convention on Combatting Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in International Business Transactions, a step that was seen as being key to halting global corruption.

The Italian government headed by prime minister Matteo Renzi (February 2014 – present) has suffered from bribery-related scandals. In March 2015, the Infrastructure and Transport Minister, Maurizio Lupi, was forced to resign following an investigation of kickbacks and other unspecified matters connected with infrastructure projects and the high-speed railway system. Thus, despite the fact that bustarella is a widespread practice in Italy, it is still subject to sufficient moral disapprobation to end political careers. The minister’s son allegedly accepted a €10,000 Rolex watch for the ‘honour’ of granting the giver some work experience. The minister’s response was ‘I didn’t have the heart to tell my son not to accept it’ (Day 2015[10]).

Prevention of opportunity has been suggested as the most successful tool to combat small cases of corruption like bustarella, thus stopping them from expanding into to a well-functioning system of corruption. It is noted that while there are costs to detecting a case at an early stage, it is more challenging when the case becomes ‘too big to be ignored’ (Brytting et al 2011: 243[11]). The best solution is to maximise the risk of getting caught, since ‘a good record of detecting fraud when it occurs acts as a deterrent and reduces the likelihood of other frauds’ (ibid.: 244). Yet Italy may be regarded as ‘a model of the failure of ordinary institutional mechanisms to control corruption in advanced society’ (Vannucci 2009: 234[12]). This was starkly demonstrated by the ‘Clean Hands affair’ (Mani pulite), a nationwide judicial investigation into systemic political corruption in the 1990s that led to the demise of the so-called ‘First Republic’. Gherardo Colombo, one of the main prosecutors in the ‘Clean Hand affair’ asserted that, ‘the culture of this country is based above all on cunning and privilege. Since the statute of limitations and other laws were changed or annulled, we have arrived at a complete renaissance of corruption’ (Moore 2012[13]). This is perhaps unsurprising in a country that has often failed to establish one of the key principles of a healthy democratic state: the mutual independence of the judiciary and politics.

References and Bibliography

  1. Della Porta, D. and Vannucci, D. 2009. ‘Corruption and Anti-Corruption: The Political Defeat of ‘Clean Hands’ in Italy’, in M. Bull and M. Rhodes (eds.), Italy – A Contested Polity. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 174-197.
  2. Ghersetti, A. 1990. ‘Un tema sempre attuale: Malgoverno e disonestà dei pubblici funzionari: Testimonianze nella letteratura d’abab del X secolo’, Oriente Moderno, 9(1/6): 101-114.
  3. Il Resto del Carlino. 2014. ‘Senigallia, finanziere arrestato dopo la denuncia di un operatore balneare’, 16 July, http://www.ilrestodelcarlino.it/ancona/senigallia-finanziere-arrestato-concussione-1.53231.
  4. Kaikati, J. G. 1977. ‘The Phenomenon of International Bribery’, Business Horizons, 20(1): 25-37.
  5. La Provincia Pavese. 2015. ‘Tangenti, mazzetta da 5mila euro al giudice tributario’, 19 December, http://laprovinciapavese.gelocal.it/pavia/cronaca/2015/12/19/news/tangenti-mazzetta-da-5mila-euro-al-giudice-tributario-1.12647095.


  1. Mapelli, W. and Santucci, G. 2012. La democrazia dei corrotti. Milano: BUR.
  2. Ceccarelli, F. 2012. ‘La bustarella nelle mutande’, La Repubblica, 22 March, http://ricerca.repubblica.it/repubblica/archivio/repubblica/2012/03/22/la-bustarella-nelle-mutande.html.
  3. La Repubblica. 2015. http://www.repubblica.it/argomenti/tangenti_expo
  4. Molotch, H. and Vicari, S. 1988. ‘The Development Process in the United States, Japan, and Italy’, Urban Affairs Review, 24(2): 188-214.
  5. Heidenheimer, A and Johnston, M. 2002 [3rd edn.]. Political Corruption: Concepts and Contexts (New Brunswick, NJ ; London: Transaction Publishers)
  6. Il Fatto Quotidiano. 2015. ‘Corruzione, 22 arresti a Roma. Tangenti sulle fogne. In carecere funzionari pubblici’, 8 January, http://www.ilfattoquotidiano.it/2015/01/08/corruzione-concussione-22-arresti-roma-imprenditori-funzionari-pubblici/1322550/.
  7. Guerra, S. 2014. ‘Politicians fiddling while Rome burns?’, The Conversation, 10 December, https://theconversation.com/politicians-fiddling-while-rome-burns-35213
  8. Guerra, S. 2014. ‘Politicians fiddling while Rome burns?’, The Conversation, 10 December, https://theconversation.com/politicians-fiddling-while-rome-burns-35213
  9. Transparency International. 2013. ‘Reminder to Italy: Bribery is against the law’, 14 February, https://www.transparency.org/news/feature/reminder_to_italy_bribery_is_against_the_law
  10. Day, M. 2015. ‘Corruption in Italy “worse than ever” as minister quits over links with gang accused of bribery’, The Independent, 20 March, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/corruption-in-italy-worse-than-ever-as-minister-quits-over-links-with-gang-accused-of-bribery-10124024.html.
  11. Brytting, T., Minogue, R. and Morino, V. 2011. The Anatomy of Fraud and Corruption. Organizational Causes and Remedies. Farnham, Surrey: Gower.
  12. Vannucci, A. 2009. ‘The Controversial Legacy of Mani Pulite: A Critical Analysis of Italian Corruption and Anti-Corruption Policies’, Bulletin of Italian Politics, 1(2): 233-264.
  13. Moore, M. 2007. ‘Italy as corrupt as ever’, The Telegraph, 21 March, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/1546267/Italy-as-corrupt-as-ever-says-prosecutor.html.