ROSARNO, Italy — Rows of boarded-up homes with peeling paint and battered roofs dot the rugged landscape of Calabria, a region in southwest Italy that seems to have been left behind by Europe's modernizing forces. The village centers tell a similar story: The water in the fountains in the piazzas is swampy, and even on weekday afternoons, most restaurants and shops appear to be closed.
Local officials and analysts say the failure of Calabrian villages like Rosarno is a byproduct of the mafia’s total grip on the runaway region. A diplomatic cable revealed by WikiLeaks showed that in 2008 an American official said the region would be a “failed state” if it weren't part of Italy.
But ahead of Sunday's election, which has seen far-right nationalist parties take center stage, no one is talking about the mafia’s noxious presence here. Instead, the focus is on the cluster of migrants who live on the outskirts of town, in the makeshift camp known as the Tendopoli.
“The mafia penetrates all the economic centers.”
“In this election campaign, the issue of fighting mafia is totally absent,” said Friar Don Pino Demasi, the head of the Parish of S. Maria V in Polistena, another small town in Calabria. “People are not fighting against the mafia anymore; the enemy is the migrants.”
The political reality of this forgotten region reveals the underside of Italy's upcoming general elections: Migrants, especially those from sub-Saharan Africa, are bearing the blame for the nation’s economic woes, generating a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment that has enveloped political parties across the spectrum and burying the issues of mafia activity and corruption that continue to plague the country.
“The mafia penetrates all the economic centers,” said Gussippe Ida, the mayor of Rosarno. “It’s a sort of cancer.” And it reaches every level of the nation's politics. In late February, Interior Minister Marco Minniti warned the nation’s leaders of "a concrete risk of the mafia conditioning the free vote.” Minniti was speaking during the presentation of the parliamentary anti-mafia commission’s latest report, which warned Italy’s major crime rings had shown signs of regeneration. He said there was "too much silence on these issues."
An international crime syndicate
Lesser-known than Sicily’s notorious Cosa Nostra, the ‘Ndrangheta is one of Italy’s dominant cartels. It originated in Calabria but now has a global reach with clans around the world, including in Canada and Australia. The group has been implicated in selling weapons to ISIS, laundering money through Dutch flower markets, and trafficking billions of dollars worth of drugs from South America into Europe. Earlier this week the group was blamed for the death of a Slovakian journalist who was investigating their operations in his home country, and his girlfriend.
The mayor of Rosarno explained that locals still feel the day-to-day effect of the ‘Ndrangheta’s pizzo (tax) they pay, but he said the group’s real impact on the area is that its presence restricts competition and investment, suffocating opportunities for growth and depressing the economy.
“Of course the migrants themselves are scapegoats and have no responsibility for Italy's economic problems.”
Yet you won’t hear locals blame the powerful crime syndicate ahead of the polls. Their ire is reserved for the migrant community just beyond the town’s reach. The Tendopoli was formed after race riots in 2010 turned into an “ethnic cleansing” campaign, resulting in authorities bulldozing the previous migrant camp and pushing it further to the outskirts of town.
Today, the Tendopoli is a mudscape about the size of two football fields across which barracks of plastic huts line the land, intermingled with piles of trash. Those with the means build small open fires over which they heat and sell water, using plastic bottles cut in half to make cups to ladle and wash. In mid-January one of those fires got out of control, ultimately burning one woman, 26-year-old Becky Moses from Nigeria, to death.
Migrants are rarely if ever seen in the region's towns, opting for the safety of the camps, or moving north, where chances of employment and integration are greater.
George, a waiter at a nearby cafeteria in Polistena who declined to share his last name, will be voting for the populist Five Star Movement (M5S), a group founded less than 10 years ago by a comedian and Internet tycoon. More than espousing any particular policy, the group is vehemently anti-establishment, and has attracted disaffected Italians from the right and left.
George doesn’t necessarily think the immigrants need to leave Italy, but feels that the new arrivals are getting first priority over Italian citizens. From his perspective, the migrants are a bigger problem than the ‘Ndrangheta because the mob has always been around. “Let’s focus on the problem: immigration,” he said. “We can’t fight the mafia with an election.”
His views are common throughout much of Calabria and match the rhetoric that has overshadowed the national debate leading up to Sunday’s race.
“Of course the migrants themselves are scapegoats and have no responsibility for Italy's economic problems,” historian David Broder said over email. “But the sense of economic decline and malfunctioning institutions also fuse with the migrant crisis in a particular way. We could say that the migrant crisis is the concentration of Italy's own malaise.”
A crisis on Italy’s shores
At least 600,000 migrants have landed on Italy's shores in the last four years. Although arrivals by sea decreased by a third in 2017, the country’s frontline immigration services, like first responder boats and doctors, are past capacity and in perpetual crisis.
Here too the mafia has found a way to profit from the chaos. In 2014, the government in Rome and a number of crime rings including the ‘Ndrangheta were implicated in the infamous Mafia Capitale scandal that saw the misappropriation of millions of dollars of government funds including “reception” centers for refugees. Closer to home, in the spring of 2017, the ‘Ndrangheta were found to have siphoned off about 30 million of the 100 million euros destined for a refugee center in the Calabrian town of Isola di Capo Rizzuto.
“Very often, migrants are victims of criminal groups in their countries of origin, before then becoming victims of Italian criminality once they succeed in reaching our shores,” Rossella Miccio, the President of EMERGENCY, a humanitarian aid organization that supports migrants in Calabria, told VICE News.
“It's the poor against the poor fighting over small bits of resources.”
The ‘Ndrangheta has also made use of migrants living in Calabria, where many work in slave-like conditions in the mob-run orange and tomato fields throughout the region. “The locals see black as the second level,” said Ousmane Thiam, a Cultural Mediator for EMERGENCY.
Thiam said the migrants he works with are deeply upset by their situation and shocked because the conditions are so much worse than they could have possibly imagined. These sentiments often combine with lingering post-traumatic stress after the treacherous boat ride to Italy, he said.
The toxic political environment has not allowed for nuanced conversations or elegant solutions, said Miccio.
“Politicians’ lack of vision and strategy in managing the migration process in Italy, along with the complicity of the media, is having an important impact on the possibility of properly integrating migrants within Italian society,” Miccio said.
And because ties to organized crime run to the highest echelons of government, it’s difficult for government leaders to address fraud and embezzlement in earnest, even if they were inclined to do so, Friar Don Pino said.
"It's the poor against the poor fighting over small bits of resources," he said. "Politics have become a way to defend and protect the interests of the mafia."
Amanda Sperber is a freelance foreign correspondent mostly based in East Africa.
Cover image: Far-right Casapound party activists hold the final electoral rally in view of March 4 Italy's general elections, in the centre of Rome, next to the Pantheon, Thursday, March 1, 2018. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)