Contamination, corruption, and cancer: how Camorra mafia poisons Southern Italy

The countryside around Naples is polluted by mafias illegal waste business

Three decades of dumping toxic waste in provinces of Naples and Caserta has created immense profit for the clans of local Camorra mafia. Meanwhile residents in the contaminated areas suffer from cancer and the death rate is above national average.

Setting landfills ablaze in the night, spreading toxic smoke in the air is the waste management method used by Camorra, the mafia that controls the Campania region. Concentration of these flaming dumps has earned the area between provinces of Naples and Caserta the nickname Terra dei fuochi: Land of fires.

“Terra dei fuochi is caused by a mix of critical environmental issues that make it extremely complex. Firstly, the illegal and not correct management of urban and special waste, during the past and also in the present. There are illegal landfills, even dangerous, concealed in both agricultural and urban areas,” Antionio Gallozzi, regional area director of Legambiente Campania explains in an e-mail interview.

Legambiente is the biggest environmental protection association in Italy. The association created the term “eco-mafia” already in 1994 to describe the criminal action and corruption that damages the Italian environment. The association dates back to 1980, and so does the problem of Terra dei fuochi. Legambiente has been researching and reporting about the issue for 23 years.

“In these years of investigation at least 10 million tons of waste has been found in this area: thermic metallurgy aluminium slags, fume dust, sludges from industrial cleaners, liquid wastes contaminated with heavy metals, asbestos, paint sludges and contaminated soil from reconditioning activities,” Gallozzi says.

The waste comes primarily from northern Italy’s developed factories. It’s transported to the Campania region, where it’s hidden in caves, buried underground or dumped in illegal quarries. The waste can also end up in authorised landfills, but is handled illegally so there is no surveillance on what type of waste is dumped in the landfills.

According to Legambientes “No Ecomafia” report, an illegal 4000 square meter landfill was found in the territory of the ancient city of Pompeii by the Neapolitan police this March. The seized dump contained 1000 cubic metres of hazardous demolition waste. Terra dei fuochi covers 3% of the Campania region by Gallozzi’s estimation. And that’s only the landfills found so far.

“The Terra dei fuochi is a result of a great economic business between industrial management, politicians, mafia and diverted secret services,” Gallozzi explains.

How the System works

“No Ecomafia” report reveals staggering numbers. In 2014 the profits made by ecomafiosi and other ecological criminals amounted to 22 billion euros. Camorra has taken over waste management over the years due to absence of real management and regulation.

Secret to such a lucrative, yet illegal business is Camorra infiltration in all the stages of waste disposal. Roberto Saviano investigated the methods and structure of the Camorra clans in his 2006 book Gomorrah. According to him, especially the Casalesi and Mallardo clans are in charge of the waste business in the Campania region.

Often the companies search out for the mafia services themselves: the clans offer waste disposal for a fraction of the price of legal disposal. Starting from the warehouses where the waste is collected, documents shuffled and toxic concentration is diluted by mixing it with regular waste, tons and tons of garbage is transported to Campania by selected carriers.

If necessary, public officials and employees are bribed to turn a blind eye for the procedures. Owner of an abandoned farmland, landfill or compost facility can also be paid to let the clans use their property as a landfill. The waste is labeled with false identification forms or deceptive analytic codes. By the time it arrives to Campania, there is no telling what type of substances will be dumped in the countryside.

The key person in the procedure is the stakeholder, the white-collar worker who manoeuvres the business around the European Community’s regulations. He rarely is a Camorra member, but acts as a contact between the clans and the companies.

The gear oil for this corrupt system is the vast public bureaucracy. Necessary documents can be forged, and criminal sentences take their time to come into effect. The system that should oversee the collective interest is being abused by criminals.

Legambiente’s “No ecomafia” report found out that Campania-based company, whose owners were convicted for imprisonment for illegal trafficking and dumping of waste already in 2014, still received contracts to remove asbestos from schools in March 2016 by the Naples and Bari municipalities, while waiting for the supreme court’s final rule.

Business side-effect: cancer

Trickle-down effect doesn’t bring the residents of Terra dei fuochi region their part of the Camorra’s astronomical profits. Instead the toxins trickled down from the landfills have a serious impact on the health of locals.

“The phenomenon of burning waste causes dispersion in the atmosphere, and subsequent deposition of particles rich with poisons such as dioxins to the soil, in addition to contamination of soil and groundwater by percolation, during years and years,” Antonio Gallozzi explains.

The National Institute of Health of Italy carried out research about the existing contamination in the Terra dei fuochi area. The 2015 report of the Institute found excessive mortality, hospitalisation and cancer rates in 55 municipalities in the provinces of Naples and Caserta.

Municipalities considered as the Terra dei Fuochi region according to Agenzia Regionale Protezione Ambientale Campania.

Municipalities considered as the Terra dei Fuochi region according to Agenzia Regionale Protezione Ambientale Campania.

The countryside in Giugliano, a municipality just 15 kilometres north of Naples, is littered with legal and illegal landfills. Carmine Taglialatela, who has lived all his life in Giugliano, like his father and grandfather, recalls smelling the toxic smoke from the burning waste every day in the past.

“Now we see the smoke only two or three times a month, when they burn the trash under highway bridges,” Taglialatela says.

Though the burning or waste in the area has reduced, the airborne toxins have already done their damage to the local residents. Taglialatela’s three uncles got sick with cancer. Only one of them survived.

“The government with the mafia obscures the real problems. They have sentenced us to death. We have to get away, this area has no hope,” Taglialatela says.

Stomach and lung cancer, and liver and bladder tumours are some diseases that riddle the residents in the municipalities in Terra dei fuochi. Suspected exposure to environmental pollutants is most harmful to infants and children. The report observes in particular excesses of children hospitalised in their first year of life, due to all types of cancer and central nervous system tumours. The latter also affects 0-14 year-olds.

The life of the mafiosi is often short, and profit weighs more than social responsibility. The Camorra bosses have no problem poisoning their land with toxic waste. Antonio Gallozzi quotes Peppino Impastato, a young mafia victim:

“The Camorra is just a mountain of shit.”

Toxic agriculture

The Cammorra clans’ greed for profit doesn’t end at the landfills. These vicious entrepreneurs are even transforming the poisons into fertiliser and selling it, according to Roberto Saviano.

Many of the polluted areas are used for agriculture and grazing. Alarming levels of toxins such as dioxin found in the produce has led to several seizures of farmland. A documentary by Italian tv-program Le Iene revealed in February, that these seizures are poorly managed and that the farmers keep selling produce from the contaminated land.

“We must not forget that for monitoring the territories, polluted or not, resources are required, for example video surveillance systems, trained personnel and also maintenance,” Antonio Gallozzi says.

Gallozzi also hopes that the politicians, such as the mayors, would urge the local police force to take control of the territory. He also calls for the national government to take a bigger role in aiding polluted areas in Campania.

“Terra dei fuochi makes the Campania the main point where illegal waste traffic converges, from all over Italy. This means that there should be a solution by the national government. It is unthinkable that single cities can solve the huge amount of environmental issues,” Gallozzi says.

New tool to fight the environmental crime

A year ago, in May 2015, a valuable weapon against ecomafia was gained, as environmental crimes were introduced to the Italian criminal code. Before the prosecution of ecomafiosi or other criminals seldom led to a conviction, but things are about to change.

The new law about ecocreati provides five new environmental crimes to the criminal code: pollution, causing environmental disaster, trafficking of radioactive materials, neglecting reclamation of land and impediment of control.

The penalty for pollution ranges from 2-6 years of imprisonment, and 5-15 years for committing environmental disaster. From now on, to counter the ecological crime judges and police can use more effective tools in their investigations, such as telephone and environmental interceptions and confiscate assets from the convicted criminals.

During the first eight months after the law came to force, 947 criminal offences and administrative violations have been reported, 1185 people reported, and goods seized worth a total of almost 24 million euros. The highest number of people reported for environmental crime comes from Campania.

“Finally, after 21 years of battles against environmental crime, eco-justice is made!” Antonio Gallozzi says.

Even though the eco-criminals can be brought to justice now, the damage to the environment and residents in Terra dei fuochi region is already done. It will take decades to find out the real ecological and health consequences of Camorra’s dirty business.