The Mafia's Deadly Garbage: Italy's Growing Toxic Waste Scandal
For decades, the Mafia has been dumping toxic waste illegally in the region north of Naples. Recently declassified testimony shows that leading politicians have known about the problem for years, yet done nothing about it -- even as the death toll climbs.
Carmine Schiavone has been baptized twice. The first time was as a newborn, by the priest. The second was by the godfather himself, Luciano Liggio, a leading figure in the Sicilian Mafia.
"The second baptism went like this," says Schiavone. "An icon was placed in my hand and a drop of blood was dribbled onto it. Then, the icon was burned and the following was recited: 'You shall burn like this saint if you betray the brothers or the allies of the Cosa Nostra.'"
Schiavone gave his vow, committed himself to the cause -- and nevertheless went on to betray it in the end. After years as a leader in the notorious Casalesi clan, part of the Mafia network around Naples, he changed sides in 1993 and became a key witness in legal proceedings against his associates. He testified against Casalesi heavies with nicknames such as Sandokan, Midnight Fatty, Baby and others.
When the so-called "Spartacus Trial" finally ended in 2010, members of the Campania clan received up to 16 consecutive life sentences, thanks not least to the testimony provided by Schiavone. His reward has been a new life under police protection in which he had to constantly remain on the move. On this morning, too, he has a fake ID in his pocket just in case, complete with an alias and a birthplace in Libya.
Sitting in front of an open fireplace in a countryside villa, a cat dozing on his lap, he looks like someone who has made his peace with the world. But the bucolic scene is misleading; the guilt from his previous life weighs heavily on Schiavone. "I participated in about 50 murders, some of them I ordered myself. I knew about an additional 400 to 500."
The ex-Mafioso has spent roughly half of his 70 years in jail or under house arrest. From a legal point of view, he has paid for his crimes. Yet these days, Schiavone is once again the center of attention, due to testimony that he delivered on Oct. 7, 1997 before a parliamentary investigative committee in Rome. His statement was so expansive that it was kept secret -- until the Italian parliament relented to public pressure at the end of October last year and lifted its classification.
'Millions of Tons'
The 1997 hearing was not focused on the kind of killing that Schiavone played a role in during the gang warfare in the Neapolitan hinterlands. Rather, it centered on negligent homicide -- the product of contaminated soil and groundwater from highly toxic waste that, as is now known, was for years illegally and profitably dumped, primarily by the Casalesi clan.
"We are talking about millions of tons," Schiavone, formerly head of administration for the Mafia organization, told the parliamentarians. "I also know that trucks came from Germany carrying nuclear waste." The operations took place under the protection of darkness and were guarded by Mafiosi in military police uniforms, he said. He showed Italian justice officials the location of many of the dumpsites because, as he put it in 1997, the people in those areas are at risk of "dying of cancer within 20 years."
More than 16 years have passed since Schiavone uttered this prophecy before the investigative committee -- and nothing has been done. The outrage is all the greater now. Not only because cancer researchers have found mounting indicators that Schiavone might have been telling the truth. But also because numerous officials at all levels must have known about Schiavone's warnings since the mid-1990s -- and ignored them.
The pressure is particularly great on the following players:
- Giorgio Napolitano was Italy's interior minister at the time and thus ultimately in charge of the investigation. Today, he is the country's president.
- Gennaro Capoluongo was, according to Schiavone, in a helicopter that went on a tour of some of the toxic waste dumps. Today, he is Italy's Interpol head.
- Alessandro Pansa was head of mobile units for the Italian police force at the time. Now he is head of the Italian State Police.
- Nicola Cavaliere was with the criminal police at the time and was involved in the case, according to Schiavone. Today is the deputy head of Italy's domestic intelligence service.
But even as evening news programs in Italy are now warning of an "atomic inferno," the country's officials are proceeding as they always have, particularly President Napolitano. He speaks of the Camorra as being the "main actor" in the environmental disaster near his hometown of Naples while preferring not to talk about his own role. Secret service deputy Cavaliere has said that he "never directly" dealt with the issue. And others implicated by Schiavone have either remained silent or attempted to play down concerns.
Names, Dates and Places
Didn't the journalist Roberto Saviano already describe in his book "Gomorrah" how the Mafia had transformed Italy's south into a garbage dump for the rich north? Why the sudden alarm? Might it be that a crazed ex-Mafioso is suddenly sowing panic so that the state spends millions to clean up the toxic sites -- from which the Mafia could once again profit?
It's certainly possible.
But even that would do little to lessen the severity of Schiavone's accusations. Nobody before him spoke of nuclear waste transports. Nobody before him described in such detail how industrial waste from illegal plants in the north found its way to the south. He recounted how the waste -- irrespective of whether it contained dioxin, asbestos or tetrachloroethylene -- was dumped into pits that had been dug in the process of road construction.
It is estimated that 11.6 million tons of waste are illegally disposed of each year in Italy. The environmental organization Legambiente puts the business in black garbage at over 16 billion in 2012. It would seem to be a crisis-proof line of work, particularly given that Mafia clans offer their services at a fraction of the price of official disposal firms.
The Mafia is a part of the state, Schiavone says, adding that the Casalesi were a "state clan" and that the state profited from the garbage business as well -- serious accusations which he says he can prove. The former Mafioso opens the door into a room where he keeps boxes of documents, digs into the papers and starts naming names, dates and places.
All of the information in his possession, Schiavone says, was provided to national anti-Mafia officials in the 1990s. The name of a Milan-based intermediary firm, which played a key role in the north-south waste transfer, was also included in the documents. "But that part of my testimony was classified by King Giorgio," he says.
King Giorgio? "Napolitano, who was interior minister at the time." And who was behind the company in Milan? "One of the partners," Schiavone says, "was PB -- Paolo Berlusconi." Paolo Berlusconi is the vice president of the football club AC Milan and brother of four-time Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Was he really a participant in the Mafia's trade in toxic and nuclear waste? Schiavone has publicly said as much, but Paolo Berlusconi calls his claims a "fairy tale."
'Land of Poison'
If you head south on the Autostrada del Sole and exit at Casserta, just short of Naples, you will end up where thousands of trucks in past decades dumped their loads of industrial waste -- in the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius. It is right in the heart of the region where Goethe spent some time during his southerly travels, describing it delightedly as the "most fertile plain in the world."
Times have changed. As early as 2004, the British medical journal The Lancet Oncology described the area around Acerra as a "triangle of death" where sheep with two heads were born. Later, the entire region north of Naples was dubbed "Terra dei fuochi" or "Land of Fires." Images circulated of ragged children in front of black pillars of smoke rising above unauthorized garbage dumps. Now that it has become clear that the greatest danger is posed by what remains beneath the earth, it is referred to as "Land of Poison."
The area that Goethe once traveled through is now a series of non-descript settlements separated by cauliflower fields and shopping centers; one sees Nigerian prostitutes, figurines of saints in roadside altars and mountains of garbage where you can find everything from beer bottles to barrels of dioxin. And yet, even on this piece of maltreated Italian territory, there is a tiny drop of color: a vanilla-toned fortress, stranded like a UFO on a far-away planet.
The lovingly landscaped US Navy base in Gricignano lies halfway between two poisoned swathes of land. Which means that everyone on the base, including Admiral Bruce Clingan, who commands US and Allied forces in Europe and Asia -- and resides in the "Villa Capri" with its view of Mt. Vesuvius -- must obey strict rules. Tap water may no longer be used on base, not even for brushing teeth. Even the Naval Support Activity commander's cat drinks bottled water.
- Part 1: Italy's Growing Toxic Waste Scandal
- Part 2: Tumors and Autism
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