Italy's Mafia banks on trash

'EcoMafia' earns billions by illegally dumping toxic waste.

There is something majestic about mount Vesuvius. From its base, visitors spot the fig trees and grape vines that cover its black slopes. From its peak, gazers admire the Bay of Naples shimmering in the summer haze. On its slope, travelers smell something rotten.

Roads climbing this famous volcano are lined with crusty heaps of putrid milk cartons and crushed beer cans. In Naples, mountains of garbage often pile up in the streets, bringing angry locals out in protest. No, the literati have not become "litterati." But the local Mafia, the Camorra, have perfected a rubbish racket, making the Campania region the capital of the 'ecoMafia' in Italy.

Millions of tons of industrial and urban waste are trucked into the region and dumped illegally every year, poisoning farmland and contaminating public waste-disposal sites. For the authorities, it is a crisis. For the Mafia, it is a gold mine.

"Me, I can turn waste into gold," one Mafioso, nicknamed King Midas, told his police interrogators.

According to Legambiente, Italy's environmental watchdog, 13.1 million tons of toxic waste "disappeared" into the hands of the southern Italian Mafia in 2003. In the last decade, the ecoMafia has made132 billion euros ($159 billion).

The Mafia's move from aggressive extortion tactics to dealing in rubbish is a sign of the times.

"The Mafia have changed strategy. They have moved from [overt] violence into [more legitimate] business," says Pierluigi Vigna, head of Italy's Anti-Mafia Commission.

The racket is lucrative for two reasons. First, Mafia hide behind apparently legitimate waste- disposal firms, which appeal to unscrupulous companies tempted to remove their waste cheaply. Second, illegal construction and waste dumping make use of Mafia territory. In Campania, observers are loath to report a truck dumping sludge.

Gone are the days when the Mafia terrorized Italy. Reports of clan warfare and shootings have dropped while Mafia are arrested almost every week.

"People have the impression organized crime is being stamped out," Vigna says. "But the Mafia is alive and well. It has become more discrete, more intelligent, and richer than before."

A recent report by independent research group Eurispes suggests that the Camorra, along with their three main counterparts throughout Italy, will make profits of 100 billion euros this year - roughly 10 percent of Italy's GDP.

The Camorra has created a clever circle of illegal business, Mafia watchdogs say. First it digs illegally for sand, leaving gaping pits around the countryside. Next, it dumps toxic waste in those holes. Then it uses the sand dug earlier to build illegal concrete constructions over the toxic waste, or it wins government contracts to clean up the contaminated area.

Mafia clans hide behind legitimate waste-disposal firms bidding for industrial contracts at up to 90 percent below the usual price. They then forge papers defining the waste as safe, ship it from all over Italy back to Campania and dump it in pits, lakes, and fields. In some cases, they have sold it on to farmers who have spread toxic waste over their fields thinking it was fertilizer.

Hundreds of square miles of the Campania region have been declared toxic emergency zones. Cattle and sheep have been banned in 18 municipalities after buffalo milk produced toxic mozzarella.

While local authorities have stopped some trucks trying to dump their loads at night, most slip through unnoticed. Rubbish fires are found smoldering in the 'burning triangle' - an area north of Naples comprising the small towns of Qualiano, Giugliano, and Villaricca - leaving toxins soaking into the ground.

"The rubbish arrives from all over the country every day, in lorries, by road. It doesn't fall out of the sky," says Paolo Russo, chief of a parliamentary commission for waste trafficking. "But it seems we need a military operation to stop it."

Some toxic waste carrying a false safety certificate has been dumped in government landfill sites, forcing local authorities to close them down. Others are full. Hence the sporadic failure to remove rubbish from the streets of Campania. In the next three years, Russo estimates, without new incinerators, Campania will generate enough urban waste to cover 72 football fields. In this climate, the Mafia thrives.

"It is much harder for us to stop this new kind of organized crime," says Vigna. "It's easy to track down a murderer with blood on his hands. But documents and bank transfers, done in a split second, can take six months to trace."

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