Town the mafia shut down

Andrew Gumbel in Reggio Calabria, where the stench of open sewers is matched by something rotten at the core
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The Independent Online
REGGIO Calabria is exactly the kind of place that should have benefited from the overthrow of the old political order in Italy three years ago.

Instead it is suffering the consequences of this week's continuing turmoil in Rome, where Antonio Maccanico, a 71-year-old bureaucrat with no electoral mandate is making the latest seemingly doomed attempt to form a stable government.

"The state is completely absent here, except as a symbol of repression through the police. Young people have no model of normality to follow," remarks Mario Nasone, leader of a social centre trying to ween young Reggini away from the only flourishing businesses in town - the construction rackets, extortion scams, and international drugs and arms traffic of the 'ndrangheta, or Calabrian mafia. "This is a major problem both for Italy and for Europe."

Years of misguided central government policies and systematic graft have left Reggio with no industrial base, and no significant source of legal income outside the public sector. Agriculture survives only thanks to government and European subsidies, while the modest port attracts only a handful of ships aside from the ferries to and from Sicily. Unemployment stands at 32 per cent, with the figure reaching 50 per cent for the under- 25s.

The city itself boasts one elegant street, the Corso Garibaldi, which runs north to south through the centre and is dotted with pleasant neoclassical and Liberty-style villas including the museum famous for its Bronzes of Riace; otherwise it is an unplanned jungle of illegally built, half-finished concrete eyesores strewn with rubbish and rusting scrap-iron, and rutted, pockmarked roads without pavements or proper drainage.

Reggio is perhaps the only city in western Europe with open sewers in some of its poorer quarters. Its water system dates from the time of the 1908 earthquake, and its water is undrinkable. It is the only city in Italy without gas mains (everyone has to buy bottles), and the only one without a state-approved slaughterhouse; the supply of meat is controlled by the mafia which employs a network of contraband slaughterers in the surrounding villages.

The 'ndrangheta extorts a pizzo, slang for protection money, from every shop and viable business in town, and has more power than the city council in awarding licences to retailers. The 120 stands in the city's market in Piazza del Popolo, for example, are all illegal.

"The mafia has attacked every deepest fibre, every nerve, every last inch of tissue in our organism, jeopardising not only the integrity of individuals but the very survival of our civic society," writes the city's chief attorney in a report on Reggio compiled by the parliamentary anti- mafia commission.

Cross the 'ndrangheta and it will cross you. Last summer one of the city's badly overstretched team of prosecutors, Giuseppe Verzera, found a decapitated cat impaled on the gate of his country house. Mario Nasone's Agape centre receives constant telephone threats and was recently trashed overnight, with faeces left strewn on the floor and walls. Paolo Pollichieni, a journalist with the local paper, La Gazzetta del Sud, has had his car blown up three times.

The city's only textile factory has just laid off all 400 workers, and the other significant private sector employer, the railway machinery firm Omega, has halved its staff with a similar number of redundancies. "We are punished purely for being in the south. Contractors and investors just don't want to know," said the city's councillor in charge of employment, Antonio Camera.

Punished not just for being in the south, but on the very toe with much- mooted plans for a bridge across the Straits of Messina now indefinitely shelved, Reggio risks being isolated altogether. A new container port in Gioia Tauro 35 miles to the north shows signs of taking off after years as a development white elephant; furthermore, there is talk of linking ferries directly from Gioia Tauro to Sicily, just as road links have already been developed between Gioia Tauro and eastern Calabria. The already negligible need for anyone to go to Reggio could disappear completely.

It has been a slow but spectacular decline for the beautiful city the Greeks founded as Rhegium in the 8th century BC. Hit by major earthquakes in 1783 and 1908 which destroyed all its ancient buildings, it attracted national attention in 1970 when young neofascists, backed by the mafia, fought police and troops in the streets for nearly a year in protest at a decision to make Catanzaro, not Reggio, Calabria's regional capital.

Thereafter the mafia, in cahoots with local and national politicians, siphoned off development funds to build up its considerable local and international interests. The only northern businessmen to invest would generally arrive, pocket the government aid money and then declare themselves bankrupt before escaping as fast as possible.

The spiral of corruption reached its zenith in the early 1990s, when sitting mayor Agatino Licandro - since then the author of a remarkable confession - reported "suitcases coming into city hall stuffed with money but going out empty". As a result of the nationwide corruption scandals, most of the city council wound up in handcuffs.

The new mayor, a leftwing literature professor called Italo Falcomata, has repaired some of the damage, starting to disburse L600bn (pounds 255m) in special development aid for tourism, transport and improvements to the water and sewage systems. He has also worked to improve the city's image, for example inviting star director Giorgio Strehler to inaugurate the new season at Reggio's fine theatre. "Last summer, the ice-cream sellers stayed in the city for the first time in years," he boasted.

One can't help feeling, however, that even Mr Falcomata's laudable efforts are no more than handing sandwiches to a man who is bleeding to death. Reggio needs serious investment overseen by a responsible national government. But three years after Italy's "revolution" it is still waiting.