Italy's Eco Mafia: Mafia Are Cashing in on Toxic Dumping and Other Environmental Crimes

By MacDonald, Christine | E Magazine, March-April 2012 | Go to article overview

Italy's Eco Mafia: Mafia Are Cashing in on Toxic Dumping and Other Environmental Crimes


MacDonald, Christine, E Magazine


When you think mafia, cocaine trafficking or loan sharking may come to mind. But groups such as Italy's ruthless 'Ndrangheta crime syndicate have expanded activities to include toxic waste handling and natural resources trafficking. Yes, the mafia has "gone green" but not in a good way.

In Italy alone, mafia groups committed more than 30,000 environmental crimes in 2010, according to the Italian environmental group Legambiente. They include trafficking in exotic animals and stolen timber, running illegal slaughterhouses and schemes to redirect water resources. One mafia family even tried to elbow into the wind farm business. But toxic dumping has proved a growth industry despite increased law enforcement scrutiny in recent years.

"It's largely recognized that up to 30% of the total waste generated in Italy may be handled by organized crime--30 million or 40 million metric tons a year," says Roberto Ferrigno, a waste-management consultant and former Greenpeace campaigner.

Since mafia groups allegedly first started dabbling in toxic waste a few decades ago, mafia watchers at Interpol and the U.S. Department of Justice say it's evolved into a globalized business. Besides the human and habitat harm, the illegal waste trafficking feeds corruption and strengthens criminal gangs in countries on both the shipping and receiving ends.

Legambiente estimates that business in illegal toxic waste dumping on Italian farmland and beneath construction buildings totals more than $26 billion per year. Worldwide, meanwhile, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime says the illicit commodities trade--including profits from toxic waste dumping and natural resources plunder, as well as trafficking in people, arms and counterfeit goods--is worth an annual $130 billion. That's more than combined annual cocaine and heroin sales.

At the bustling port of Antwerp in Belgium, where Ferrigno is based, officials acknowledge that they lose track of one in every four cargo containers carrying waste. Even as countries have strengthened their laws against unsafe disposal and stepped up enforcement, mafia groups have consolidated their grip on the industry in Italy and elsewhere--often by acquiring legitimate waste management companies and using ties to local governments to expand further into the trash trade. Recent law enforcement reports conclude that the groups are capitalizing on "synergies" with their more traditional drug, guns and human trafficking operations.

Michele Polo, an economics professor at Milan's Bocconi University, told Reuters last year that Italy's organized criminal groups have also infiltrated the construction, logistics, hospitality, retail and wholesale commerce trades. Illicit trade routes move industrial slag and toxic waste from European factories and hospitals to Africa, where they are illegally dumped. …

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