Mafia moves in to turn Italy's mud to gold

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The Independent Online
OPERATIONS to clear the millions of tons of mud which engulfed the town of Sarno two weeks ago are far from over, and reconstruction of the buildings, bridges and roads swept away by a natural disaster which left at least 125 people dead has not yet begun.

But already, magistrates fear, the promise of generous state funds to get the area back on its feet may have attracted the wrong kind of emergency help in an area which, a report out last week said, has Italy's biggest organised crime problem. Inquiries are now under way to assess whether local mobsters are seeking to turn mud into gold.

Among sludge-shovellers in Sarno and neighbouring villages, tales of louche characters returning under the cover of darkness to excavate arms caches in mud-filled cellars are rife. As is speculation that the town council might, in the near future, find itself presented with hefty bills - bills it would be wiser not to refuse to pay - from some of the trucking companies transporting the detritus to local dumps.

According to Massimo Siano, a Sarno town councillor, few questions were asked about offers of assistance in the initial panic: "Frankly, faced with an emergency of those dimensions, had Salvatore Riina, the most famous mafioso of them all, come to me and said `I've got 30 trucks and I can clear up for you', I would have told him to go ahead."

Mr Siano said the town council, only too aware that this is historically a high-crime area, is now making up for lost time by checking anti-crime credentials. He promised that when reconstruction contracts are handed out "we will be looking very carefully into whom the money goes to".

Well they might. As recently as 1993, central government dissolved Sarno's town council when investigations showed it was still under the control of the mob. Nearby Quindici, also hit by the landslide, was run by a state- appointed administrator for three years in the early Nineties when no candidate could be found to run against the all-powerful Graziano clan in local council elections.

"Things have changed over the past few years," said Mr Siano. "Our police and magistrates have been very effective. Much of this criminal activity has dried up."

The council's attempts to play down the threat posed by the Camorra, as the local mafia is known, have angered the judiciary. "If Sarno's Mayor Gerardo Basile lacks the courage to admit that the Camorra is strong in the Sarno area, then it would be better if he packed his bags," said Luciano Santoro, head of the anti-crime squad at the Salerno magistrate's office, in an interview with La Repubblicanewspaper. "You can't save Sarno's reputation by pretending that the mob doesn't exist."

Santoro blamed local administrators for the "criminal" failure to halt ecological mismanagement, a process in which the Camorra was "deeply involved".

Those same clans, said Green MP Alfonso Pecoraro Scanio, will now be aiming to lay hands on the 50bn lira (pounds 500,000) earmarked by the government for rebuilding dwellings for the 1,500-odd people left homeless in the landslide.

"They won't bid for the initial contracts, that isn't their way," he said. "They will wait until sub-contracts are up for grabs, then they'll move in. To combat this, the reconstruction money should be given directly to the households in need. By breaking it up into tiny lots, you make it less interesting for the Camorra."

But even before the rebuilding process gets under way, said Peppe Ruggiero of the Legambiente environmentalist group, local authorities must move immediately to deal with what he described as yet another dire threat to the devastated eco-system around Sarno.

It is an accepted fact, he said, that the Camorra controls the waste disposal business in the area, and has few scruples about what it throws into its many unauthorised dumps. The mud being dug out of Sarno's streets is very probably making its way into these dumps, conveniently masking toxic or even radio-active waste placed there over the years.

"This area is chock-full of old quarries and dumps, many of which have not even been located yet, let alone checked," he said. "No one has been keeping tabs on where the mud from Sarno's streets is going."

Chances are, Mr Ruggiero said, much of it has ended up in Camorra dumps: "Now, we will never be able to tell what's in there. And after all they've been through, local residents may be about to find themselves with yet another ecological disaster on their hands: seriously polluted ground water."