Criminal Networks Exploit Italy's Anti-Immigrant Backlash
by Giulio D'Eramo, World War 4 Report
It was a bloody beginning of the year in Italy's poor southern region of Calabria. Twenty-one African seasonal workers, 14 local villagers and 18 policemen were injured between Jan. 6 and the 8, according to police reports. It was not a shooting between two rival families in the land of the 'Ndrangheta, which recently overtook the Sicilian Mafia as the richest and strongest criminal organization in the country. It wasn't another intimidatory bomb set to explode in front of a state building as has happened twice already in 2010, in response to the ongoing trials against members of the criminal organization. What took place was a confrontation between some of the poorest immigrants in the western world, and the local residents of one of its poorest regions.
However, the 'Ndrangheta, making immigrants work and live like slaves through its control of local businesses and town governments, simultaneously exploits the politically controversial issue of immigration. The criminal organization is accused by many of being the dark hand behind the apocalyptic events that took place in the village of Rosarno—in order to create the institutional chaos that serves so well those who want to set themselves up as the substitute state. Supporters of this theory of preemptive strikes can also hold as proof something that went unnoticed by the mainstream media: a few days after the events, on Jan. 12, a two-year police operation brought to the arrest of 15 members and affiliates of the Bellocco clan—the very same that controls Rosarno.
A brief review of the violence in Rosarno and the events leading up to it points to two related factors—'Ndrangheta control of the region, and the Italian state's incapability of addressing the immigration crisis.
On Jan. 6, two unknown youngsters shot rubber bullets at two African workers who were on their way to one of the abandoned hangars where most of the 1,500 seasonal employees lived in disgraceful conditions. News of the shooting rapidly spread through these veritable slums, and a thousand immigrants took their anger to the streets in a violent expression of discontent. Dustbins were set to fire, boutiques smashed, and a few occupied cars were rattled with sticks. The police intervened to prevent a confrontation between the immigrants and the local populace, who were starting to gather in the main square in response to the violence—many already prone to viewing immigration in the region as a "plague." The police intervention was largely effective, although many people were injured in minor incidents in other parts of town. Five immigrants were hospitalized after local villagers intentionally ran their cars over them. One of the motorists were arrested, and one had a long record of mafia-related crimes.
The riots went on through the afternoon of Jan. 9—when the immigrant were largely confined in their main slum, called Rognetta, with a cordon of police protecting them from local residents who had gathered around it, shouting menacing anti-immigrant rhetoric.
The police reports maintain that the next day all the immigrants voluntarily decided to leave. But, as the UK's Observer newspaper put it, "local people clapped and cheered yesterday as hundreds of Africans were moved by police out of Rosarno." The ones without documents (some 700) were sent to the "welcome" camps the national government has established in Bari, while the others took the train in search for better luck. While the immigrants were moving out, the police started to knock down the shameful slums, throwing out their few abandoned possessions. So the only result of the riots is that immigrants fled the village (and their jobs), and that their slum was destroyed. (Where will next years' seasonal workers sleep?) Some of them have since come back to Rosarno, looking for the same job and the same living conditions.
Observers such as the progressive website Articolo21 ask what happened to the Rosarno of the '90s, when it was a model of ethnic integration—so much such so that the village council declared Jan. 6 as day of brotherhood among the local populations. Rosarno had been a frontrunner in the struggle against the 'Ndrangheta. But the city hall that was once routinely shot at by mobsters was ordered temporarily closed by the national government together with the town council because of mob infiltration in October 2008. Until new elections are held this year, Rosarno's municipal powers have been assumed by the local Prefect, official representative of the national state for the province of Reggio di Calabria.
But this has not stopped mafia intimidations. Immediately after the January riots, Loretta Ventre, 83, saw her volunteer social projects destroyed by the mobsters, who ransacked the canteen for seasonal workers she ran at her home, providing free meals three times a week.
The 'Ndrangheta has finally shown that in their territory, not even the police could stop them.
A few miles from Rosarno lies the small village of Riace. A decade ago in this small village, the center-left mayor Mimmo Lucano decided to welcome refugees. After being almost deserted over the previous 50 years (as the young sought work in the cities), Riace now has 1,800 inhabitants, repopulated and revived by some of the Kurds, Nigerians, Eritreans and Somalis who have landed on the shores of southern Italy. This model was also adopted by many neighboring villages. In 2009 the regional government of Calabria adopted the first (and only) law in Italy to integrate refugees through small local projects of sustainable development, from housing and tourism to agriculture and artisanship.
Riace was last summer the set of Wim Wenders' new movie on immigration, Il Volo, where it was described as a modern utopia. To this comment, the mayor responded in a telephone interview: "If ours is a Utopia, then the whole world including Rosarno is madness. Wenders' Utopia is just normality."
Then he gave his opinion about the riots: "The shooting that prompted the riots is a good thing for criminal organizations. It provokes widespread confusion, it destabilizes the institutions and it diverts the public's attention from the underlying problems. I had hoped that immigrants wouldn't respond to the violence, because it was obvious that their reaction would bring very serious retaliation."
After the incident, much was made by the media about the silent racism of Italian society. People from Rosarno, a few days after the immigrants quit the village, demonstrated peacefully to reject any allegation of racism. The funny thing is that the only anti-mafia banner present, set up by high school students, was removed by the organizers. So the locals, while denying any wrongdoing on their part, were silent about the responsibility of the 'Ndrangheta, whose control of the territory explains the subhuman working and living conditions of the immigrants. A war between desperate people, and a wall of silence to protect the criminals responsible for it.
Two years ago in Rosarno, two masked boys entered one of the hangers where the African workers lived and fired a gun, severely injuring two young immigrants. There were some protests, and a Facebook group called "Africans will save Rosarno" was created in response to the attack. But then everything went back to normal, the immigrants kept coming two months per year to get a 20-euros wage for a 14-hour shift in agricultural labor and sleep in crowded, dirty abandoned buildings—for companies which court documents show to be in the hands of criminal syndicates. Anybody wondering if they are crazy not to look for a better job should keep in mind that even an Italian with a 40-hour-per-week job in the private sector (for example, bartendering) only receives around 500 euros a month, in Naples as well as in Calabria.
Last year, the Italian government had agreed to set up a 200,000-euro grant in order to provide the migrant workers in Rosarno with at least chemical toilets and a drinkable water supply—but only the 50,000 from the center-left government of the region actually arrived. For a few months there were some toilets at disposal; then they were removed for lack of funds. The national government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi never delivered the 150 thousand euros promised. And everything went back to "normal."
This example shows that the government knew that the immigrants were treated as virtual slaves, while their employers flourish also thanks to European Union funds for agricultural development that they use to hire undocumented and under-payed workers. Just after the immigrants were moved out of the region, Interior Minister Roberto Maroni dismissed any allegation of responsibility by putting the blame on clandestine measures to assist undocumented immigrants supposedly undertaken by leftist local governments—and, obviously, on the immigrants themselves, not perceived as victims but as criminals.
Along with this rhetoric has come a series of new laws which reduce the possibility for immigrants to get working permits, while at the same time toughening the legal consequences of illegal immigration. Under the new legislation, which passed last July, undocumented immigrants are liable to pay a fine of 10,000 euros ($14,200) and can now be detained by the authorities for up to six months. Obviously no undocumented immigrant could pay such a fine. But the criminal organizations who use them like slaves, saving millions of euros in regular wages, only risk incurring a modest fine in case they get caught. Additionally, people who knowingly house undocumented migrants can now face up to three years in prison.
If that were not enough, the new law also permits the formation of unarmed citizen patrol groups to help police with immigration enforcement. The law criminalizes immigrants while encouraging vigilantism—thus contributing to the dangerous spiral of violence.
It is important to understand that mass migration to Italy started in the '90s, and in the past ten years the country has passed from 1 to 4 million estimated immigrants. Such a fast rise brings inevitable social tensions, especially in times of economic crisis. Figures such as Harvard economist George Borjas purport that native workers' wages decline by 3% or 4% for every 10% increase in immigrants with similar skills. So behind the usual distinction between left and right on such issues stands an inherent contradiction between ideology and actual politics.
Berlusconi clearly summarized the different ideological positions in the aftermath of the riots: "The left wants a multi-ethnic society—we don't." If workers (potential left-wing voters) are scared of immigrants because they believe their presence drives down wages, entrepreneurs and businessmen (potential right wing voters) make good use of workers without legal rights. So potential supporters of right- and left-wing political parties are at odds with their own parties' ideology.
The present and past governments, instead of trying to manage the situation, preferred to either instigate fear in order to build a consensus (Berlusconi), or simply failed to recognize the importance and dangers of the issue (Romano Prodi). Berlusconi and his allies are daily reaching out to new voters with their politics of fear, and pleasing their natural base by reducing the civil rights of immigrants. Increasing the desperation of the migrants further drives down the cost of their labor—which pleases many entrepreneurs, especially if they are part of a criminal organization, as in Rosarno.
So, as the left unsuccessfully tries to hide the fact that they are unable or unwilling to address the problem, Berlusconi gets two pigeons with one stone.
Giulio D'Eramo is a freelance writer whose work appears frequently in Index on Censorship, Articolo 21, Red Pepper and other online publications. He recently launched his own blog. An Italian native, he currently resides in England.