NAPLES (Reuters) - “For us, rubbish is gold,” is how one Italian gangster explained the mafia’s involvement in waste trafficking to an investigating magistrate in Naples.
Areas of the southern city have ground to a halt this week because of piles of rotting rubbish and sometimes violent protests about what to do with it, and Italians are questioning whether organized crime is to blame for the emergency.
The Camorra, the Naples equivalent of the Cosa Nostra mafia of Sicily, has been turning filth into cash for decades in the city, says Michele Buonomo, president of environmental campaign group Legambiente Campania.
“Before 1994 they controlled the entire waste cycle,” he told Reuters in an interview. He estimates Mafia involvement in crimes against the environment yield a turnover of 6 billion euros ($8.8 billion) a year.
Fourteen years ago, Italy appointed a special commissioner to take charge of waste disposal and pry it away from Camorra-run companies.
By undercutting legitimate operators, these companies won a host of local authority contracts and ended up in charge of the region’s then-privately owned landfills.
“The Camorra isn’t actually that interested in household waste but it is interested in controlling the waste cycle, controlling the dumps,” said Buonomo.
The Camorra filled the dumps, not just with household trash but also with industrial waste trucked in from around Italy. This traffic remains one of organized crime’s most lucrative activities rivaling, and possibly exceeding, narcotics for profitability.
A state of emergency, declared in 1994, was meant to tackle the problem by taking waste dumps into public hands and defining a coherent waste strategy. But six successive trash tsars have been unable to banish the Camorra from the sector.
The gangsters still make fortunes in waste transport and, as they no longer run the dumps, by dumping and burning toxic refuse in the countryside - a major source of pollution blamed for higher than normal rates of certain cancers in the region.
Camorra gangs have also bought land at knock-down prices from intimidated small landowners and sold it at a huge profit to companies involved in stocking bales of waste, said Buonomo.
These bales are destined to be burned in a giant incinerator which is still being built.
But mafia-watchers are not convinced the current garbage crisis was orchestrated by the Camorra.
Just as much to blame are political opportunism, cronyism and the willingness of many legitimate companies to employ shady, but cheap, operators to handle their waste, they say.
“It absolutely was not the Camorra that created this emergency,” said Roberto Saviano, author of “Gomorra”, a bestselling book on the Naples mafia.
“The Camorra doesn’t like emergencies and doesn’t need them. It keeps profiting from waste, come rain or shine.”
Reporting by Robin Pomeroy; editing by Robert Woodward