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A crime most foul in Italy

Times Staff Writer

Raffaele del Giudice was a crusader. Squeezed into a sports jacket and a beat-up Fiat, he roamed the illegal trash dumps of southern Italy, covering his nose against the stench and exposing what he considers the ecological crime of the century.

Then people started being threatened. Ostracized. Killed. Del Giudice called off his crusade.

Because when you go up against trash here in Campania province, you are going up against a powerful, vicious mafia known as the Camorra. The Naples-based Camorra controls the import, transport and disposal of millions of tons of rubbish, an extremely lucrative business in which the group follows its own rules, ignores regulations on toxic waste and contaminates once-fertile farmland, country fields, forests and rivers.

Beyond the ugliness of it all, evidence now suggests that the garbage is poisoning the food chain and may be causing cancer, birth defects and other health problems.

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Del Giudice calls it Italy’s Chernobyl.

There are few more dramatic, and putrid, symbols of the mafia’s persistent power in Italy and the government’s -- some would say willful -- impotence in the face of it. It’s almost a cliche: Tony Soprano, after all, was in “waste management.”

For most of the last year, Campania suffocated under towering mountains of festering, uncollected garbage. Dumps, legal and illegal, were full to overflowing. Until cleanup crews finally made their move in July, seas of trash blocked roads and doorways and swallowed sidewalks and parks. The Camorra periodically paid Gypsy boys to set fire to portions of the waste, creating Dantesque scenes of a land ablaze, villages and towns filled with toxic smoke.

The blighted condition of southern Italy has earned sanctions from the European Union and condemnation from international health organizations. It ignited violent protests this year and contributed to the downfall of the government of Prime Minister Romano Prodi in the spring.

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This is not a new problem. For more than 15 years, with the government spending more than $2 billion and appointing seven “trash czars,” the problem hasn’t gone away. It doesn’t get fixed because the mafiosi , and politicians in their pocket, don’t want it to be.

“For years the waste has been accumulating, nothing has been done to clean it up, and the consequences are lethal,” said Donato Ceglie, the leading “eco-mafia” prosecutor in this region. “They have poisoned the land. They have poisoned the water. And it is getting worse. The trash is still arriving.”

This is how the racket works. Hundreds of factories, industrial complexes and businesses of every sort in affluent northern Italy and in other parts of Europe contract with middlemen to have their waste removed. To reduce costs, these brokers turn to about 20 disposal firms in Campania, almost all of which, prosecutors say, are controlled by the Camorra.

The Camorra has enthusiastically made Italy’s poor south the trash dump to the world, or at least part of the world. Trucks transport the waste to the south day and night, year-round, and deposit it in mostly illegal and unregulated landfills.

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No trash is too foul: metallurgical dross, sludge from tanneries, tires, discarded refrigerators and stoves, rotting animal carcasses, medical waste -- a nauseating cesspool of crud.

Camorra operatives have gradually driven away farmers and taken control of more and more land, where they dump the stuff. But Campania is filling up.

And so the Camorra has gone global.

Enormous shipping containers that arrive from China with cheap toys and knockoff designer clothing unload and then take on trash, prosecutors say. In one sting operation two years ago, customs agents seized 9,000 tons of waste that had been smuggled onto cargo ships, half of it destined for China.

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Of particular concern to environmentalists are the effects on food production and health. Toxic substances from the waste have seeped into groundwater, polluting the streams that cows and sheep drink from and the grass they forage. More poison is spewed into the air when trash is burned.

Campania is home to buffalo herds whose milk is used to make the best mozzarella cheese. Unacceptably high levels of the cancer-causing agent dioxin were detected this year in some mozzarella, threatening the half-a-billion-dollar export business of one of Italy’s top signature products.

Scientists continue to study the link between the refuse and health, but already point to alarming trends, according to the World Health Organization, including a rate exceeding regional or national norms for cancers of the stomach, kidney, liver and lung, as well as congenital malformations. In some areas between Naples and the city of Caserta, residents are two to three times more likely to get liver cancer than those in the rest of the country, according to Italy’s National Research Council.

At one of the many trash protests this year, numerous women approached reporters to complain of what they said was a plague of cancers and tumors afflicting their families. Some showed pictures of sick children; one woman pointed to the scars from what she said was surgery for thyroid cancer.

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Public disgust finally rose as high as the rubbish, and with Del Giudice and others in the lead, citizens decided to defy the Camorra and attempt to reclaim the land and reestablish normal family life.

They put up fences to declare ownership of the countryside and block Camorra takeovers. Farmers set up markets to sell their produce and thousands of residents made a point of frequenting them. Schools put on anti-mafia plays in class.

“Seeing this kind of life and unity bothered the Camorra,” Del Giudice, a 40-year-old, easily excitable environmentalist with glasses and a mop of graying hair, recalled with satisfaction.

He continued to roam the land, concentrating on the so-called triangle of death between Naples and Caserta, an area where he was born and his family once farmed. He documented the illegal landfills and horrific pollution, secretly photographing what he discovered. He starred in a documentary that recounted his findings and compiled testimony from besieged farmers and sickened residents.

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Momentum was building, and Del Giudice and his fellow activists expected police and state officials to lend them support in challenging the Camorra.

Instead, the Camorra apparently decided to seize the initiative. Mafia gunmen allegedly began to systematically eliminate several people who were cooperating with prosecutors in criminal cases against the Camorra. Four people were killed in a matter of weeks, including businessman Michele Orsi.

Orsi ran a waste disposal company and worked with the Camorra. But after years of having to pay off the mobsters and take orders from them and their political masters, he agreed to turn state’s witness. He was killed by a barrage of 18 bullets shortly before he was to testify in court on alleged ties between the Camorra and politicians.

Intimidation of the farmers and others who were working with Del Giudice was more subtle. Farmers arrived at their fields to find trees had been cut down overnight, or their machinery was destroyed. Gunmen shot up barns and greenhouses.

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Several farmers and residents who had appeared in the documentary with Del Giudice fled the region, abandoning their property; others found their business dried up.

They turned on Del Giudice: You promised us we would get help; you lied. And Del Giudice received warnings passed along through acquaintances: Stay away.

“It is my land, I was born there, and now I am told I cannot go there,” he said, on the verge of tears, in his cluttered office in Naples, where he is the regional head of the environmental group Legambiente. “It is not just fear; it is despondency.”

The Camorra did suffer one major setback. An appeals court in Naples confirmed life sentences for four top bosses of one of the Camorra’s most powerful gangs, concluding a 10-year investigation called Operation Spartacus.

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But few here think that it will do much to slow the Camorra’s activities. There are always more mobsters to take the place of those who go to jail.

“The Camorra laughs at me now,” Del Giudice said. “They won.”

--

wilkinson@latimes.com

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