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The Mafia's Deadly Garbage: Italy's Growing Toxic Waste Scandal

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.

Tumors and Autism

The reasons are carefully listed in a $30 million study commissioned by the US Navy in 2011 -- a paper that was only brought to the attention of Italians via an article in the magazine L'Espresso. It's title: "Drink Naples and die."

The Americans took soil, water and air samples from the thousands of square kilometers surrounding the base, with 5,281 contaminated or suspicious locations being identified. It was found that water from 92 percent of the private wells sampled outside the base posed an "unacceptable health risk." In 5 percent of the samples, uranium levels were found to be "unacceptably high." The most embarrassing verdict for Italians? "Over time, it became evident that lack of enforcement by responsible institutional bodies contributed to the current situation in Naples."

Should a soldier elect to live off base, he or she is advised to live in a multi-story building and to avoid ground-floor apartments; contamination from toxic gases is lower on upper floors. Three areas not far from the base have been declared completely off-limits.

In the meantime, the more than 500,000 Italians who live in the region north of Naples are trying to make the best of their situation. They spend their evenings in places like the Goldhotel in Marcianise, right in the heart of the residential zone that is forbidden for American troops. They don't ask three times where the vegetables in their insalata mista come from or where the buffalo, whose milk was used for the mozzarella, grazed.

Indeed, much of the produce from the region is still considered to be uncontaminated and there are several harvests per year. Yet there are still days when even upright men such as General Sergio Costa from the national forest service have the feeling they are looking through the "gates of Hell:" on the day in November, for example, when he and his men dug up barrels of toxic waste from beneath cauliflower fields in Caivano. The plastic gloves some of the officers were using to handle the waste dissolved on contact.

Europe's Nastiest Landfill

Further west in Giugliano, 500 Roma live in shacks and caravans at the foot of what is probably Europe's nastiest landfill, stuffed with, among other things, toxic sludge and dioxin. It is a place where, in the opinion of the responsible government commissioner, a "sarcophagus like in Chernobyl" would be necessary to protect the public. According to a geological study, a disaster of such finality isn't expected there for another 50 years -- until then, the poisons will continue to "contaminate dozens of square kilometers of land and everyone who lives there."

Antonio Marfella from the Italian Cancer Research Institute in Naples offers other sober findings: Tumors have increased by 47 percent among men in the province of Naples within the past two decades. Above all, the occurrence of lung carcinoma is increasing, even among non-smokers -- a rarity in Europe. The region of Campania now has the highest infertility rate in Italy and also leads in cases of severe autism -- triggered, experts suspect, by increased exposure to mercury.

That autistic children now play on the precious marble in the villa of the incarcerated Casalesi boss known as Sandokan is one piece of good news out of Naples. The residence was confiscated and transformed into a social center for the autistic.

There are other signs of hope elsewhere: when angry farmers, who are forced to sell their suspicious produce at ridiculously low prices, come together and discuss eco-agriculture as a model for the future, for instance. Or when Padre Maurizio Patriciello preaches to his flock.

The pastor of Caivano is a symbol of resistance in the toxic belt around Naples, a silver-tongued rebel in long robes who commands an audience when he says he can no longer look at all the "white coffins of children" in his church. On this morning he has placed photos of the children he has buried in the past few years close to the altar while he talks about how locals have begun to fight back.

'Despair Is Spreading'

"Early on, we didn't even know what was happening in the next parish," says the pastor, "until we began to organize ourselves. Since we started adding up the cancer deaths, there is fear -- and despair is spreading."

Padre Maurizio preaches, comforts and fights practically around the clock. He encourages believers to be vigilant and perform their civic duties. He teaches schoolchildren to keep a closer eye on politicians and on the Carabinieri. He has lobbied the senate in Rome and the European Parliament in Brussels for assistance, and he has requested an audience with Pope Francis.

Civil rights campaigners working with Padre Maurizio have sent 150,000 postcards, depicting mothers looking into the camera while holding photos of their dead children on their laps, to the pope and to President Napolitano. More than 100,000 people attended a protest march in November in Naples -- solidarity with the Land of Fires.

The petite Anna was on the front line of demonstrators. Her son Riccardo, a "boy who smiled constantly," was 20 months old when he died of leukemia in 2009. The children in this area have been "murdered, you understand? Murdered!" Anna shouts from the stage in Naples. "We demand first and last names, and not just of the Camorra people," she continues. "Everyone should pay for multiple murders and crimes against humanity!"

"Murderer! Murderer! Murderer!" the crowd echoes from below; the name of President Napolitano is hardly mentioned. The state and the Mafia, it's "more or less the same thing," Schiavone told the parliamentary committee in Rome way back in 1997.

Radioactive Waste from East Germany

Of course the influence of the Casalesi clan didn't -- nor does it now -- end on Italy's northern border, Schiavone says, sitting by the fireplace at his villa, adding that he said the same thing to the German federal police who interrogated him in Munich and Rome. "We had one of our men in Germany, who had contacts to politicians there," said Schiavone. "Through him, among others, came the toxic waste, including nuclear, to the company in Milan."

Germany's Federal Criminal Police Office confirms that a meeting with Schiavone took place in 1994 and that it pertained to Casalesi activities on German soil. But officials say they have no recollection of discussions over toxic or nuclear waste.

Schiavone insists, however, that radioactive material "presumably from East Germany" was delivered in lead containers around 50 centimeters long. The containers were then buried "up to 20 meters deep -- but the probe, which was later used for measurements, only went six meters deep."

According to the prefect of the Campania region, the information provided by Schiavone is being verified. But for small quantities of radioactive material, he said, that could take a while.

[Source: By Walter Mayr, Spiegel Online International, Berlin, 16Jan14]

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