Graft and crime may haunt Italy quake recovery

ROME (Reuters) - Three decades after an earthquake ravaged southern Italy, many victims still languish in temporary homes after mafia and political clans allegedly lined their pockets with billions of euros of aid cash.

Many Italians now fear corruption and organized crime could hamper efforts to rebuild the shattered central region of Abruzzo, despite Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s promises of swift reconstruction after this week’s devastating earthquake.

Abruzzo, where Monday’s disaster killed more than 280 people and left 28,000 homeless, lies on the doorstep of the southern strongholds of organized crime groups like the Camorra, and has a history of corruption cases involving senior officials.

With billions of euros for reconstruction expected to pour in, Berlusconi’s government will need to ensure transparency.

“We can be fairly sure there’ll be attempts by organized crime to secure a share of this money. Abruzzo is close enough to the Camorra’s power centers to make it a tempting target,” said James Walston of the American University of Rome.

Italians are used to hearing promises of reconstruction only to see disaster funds siphoned off by officials and the mafia. In Sicily, home of the mafia, people still live in emergency huts built after a 1908 quake that killed 5,000.

The reconstruction in the wake of the 1980 Irpinia earthquake -- which killed 2,800 and left 200,000 homeless -- has been cited as the worst example of the misuse of government funds and political graft in post-war Italy.

Some victims of a 2002 earthquake in San Giuliano di Puglia still live in prefabricated homes, amid complaints that works have been prolonged for electoral reasons.

“My fear is that after the media glare fades, politicians will forget their promises and we’ll be left to ourselves. My fear is that I’ll spend the rest of my life in a tent,” Stefania Cantalini, eight months pregnant, said at a camp in L’Aquila.


For Franco Pavoncello, professor of political science at the John Cabot University in Rome, the level of public scrutiny of the Abruzzo reconstruction should help ensure probity.

“Probably we will not see spectacular embezzlement here of the kind we have seen in the past in southern Italy,” he said.

The quick rotation of post-war Italian governments helped ensure no one was held to account. But Berlusconi, who has a strong mandate to govern to 2013, has staked his reputation on the reconstruction and promised it will be completed.

“We will not abandon you. The reconstruction will be rapid,” said Berlusconi, who started his own fortune in property development. He has vowed transparent public tenders and an enquiry into why modern buildings, including hospitals, collapsed.

The habit of “skimming” money from public contracts is well-documented in Italy. The anti-graft watchdog Transparency International ranks the country as the most corrupt in Western Europe, faring worse than countries like Malaysia and Bhutan.

In July, the governor of Abruzzo and nine associates were arrested on charges of siphoning off millions of euros from businessmen to fund the center-left opposition. Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party won early elections in December.

“There are reasons to be concerned. In emergencies, money gets thrown in and if there are structural forms of corruption, it’s natural some of it gets diverted,” said Alex Stille, professor at Columbia University and an author on modern Italy.

“There are no signs that high levels of corruption have changed dramatically since the 1980s.”

Berlusconi, who swept to power in 1994 after the Clean Hands campaign tarnished established parties, has himself faced corruption charges but has never been convicted. A new law gives him immunity from prosecution while in office.

Berlusconi’s high popularity, which has survived Italy’s worst post-war economic downturn, is based on his reputation as a man who get things done. Reconstruction after the Abruzzo earthquake will be a key test of that, Stille said.

“This is a nice opportunity for Berlusconi to show he’s a superman capable of working miracles,” said Stille. “It’s a chance for him to show he’s different from other governments.”

Additional reporting by Silvia Aloisi in L’Aquila; editing by Andrew Roche