Following the brutal assassinations of two leading public prosecutors by the Mafia in the early 1990s, the Italian government established a National Anti-Mafia Commission. Its goal: to wage more effective battle against the entrenched criminal gangs that manage multibillion-dollar illegal businesses and exert substantial influence over public administration in Southern Italy.
Pier Luigi Vigna is the head of Italy's Anti-Mafia Commission and the nation's chief prosecutor in charge of combatting organized crime. He recently spoke with BusinessWeek Rome Bureau Chief Gail Edmondson and reporter Kate Carlisle from his Rome office about the Mafia's involvement in toxic-waste trafficking and what steps Italy and the European Union must take. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:
Q: Why has trafficking in waste been so difficult to combat?
A: The principal difficulty that we have encountered is that the illegal dumping of waste was a misdemeanor. Industry produces refuse that should be disposed of legally -- that comes at a certain cost. [Industry] preferred to associate with organized criminals to make the waste "disappear" at a lower price.
[At first] no one understood that behind all of these small acts -- such as documents disappearing and unauthorized transport -- there was a criminal foundation. It was in this very office that meetings began with those who had prosecuted the highest number of these petty crimes. [As a result] the criminal nucleus began to be understood, and that raised investigations to another level.
The second difficulty lies in the fact that our Parliament only recently passed a law that makes it a felony to organize and traffic waste. That permits the use of investigative tools, such as wiretaps, that can't be used for a misdemeanor. But it is still not enough. The law refers to a certain type of criminal organization and specific kinds of waste. If organized crime can't be proven or the trafficking involves another kind of waste than the ones listed, then the crime returns to being a misdemeanor.
The previous government drafted a law that was much more inclusive. It made damaging the environment a criminal act, and it would have required polluters to clean up damaged areas [and would have allowed] asset-freezing as well. Unfortunately, it didn't pass. Other countries in the EU -- and we are behind in this -- have technical systems for correct disposal. It was shortsightedness not to set up technical facilities to dispose [of waste] legally and efficiently.
Q: Why is the problem so much worse in Italy than other EU countries?
A: [Sighs.] I can say that in Italy, the principle of behaving within legal norms, to play by the rules, even on the part of industry, isn't deeply felt. So if there is the chance to profit by paying a lower price [for disposing of industrial waste illegally], many will take advantage.
Further, magistrates have uncovered public administration [involvement] in waste-trafficking investigations, including falsification of documents, transit records. The first reaction [when confronted with such crimes] is to deny [that a problem] exists. Then there is the moment of reaching consciousness. [After that,] pinpointing methods to solve the problem, then action. We have passed out of the first two phases but are still fumbling around trying to find solutions and carry them out.
Q: What you have been able to learn about the international dimension of waste-trafficking? Europol says it doesn't fall under its jurisdiction...
A: ...Unfortunately. Look, to resolve these problems, international cooperation is necessary. Efforts [to collaborate] go through various phases. If one country has a law against illicit trafficking but another country doesn't punish it, obviously there is no cooperation...like with Switzerland and the law on contraband or financial crimes.
The EU has long proposed a convention against illicit international waste trafficking, but this convention has not been ratified by all the EU states. Once a phenomenon is transnational, if there is no cooperation, there is little hope of combatting it effectively.
Q: Is Italy a hub for international trafficking?
A: I would say yes. We have had information -- that hasn't been thoroughly investigated -- about sunken boats off Calabria. Unfortunately, it hasn't been possible to recover the boats and examine them. What is well known is that the reports and complaints about crimes related to waste trafficking are on the rise. But almost always, the cases are based on misdemeanors. We need a law [against damaging the environment] passed in Parliament, and we need international cooperation. It's fundamental.
Q: How big is the risk that cleanup contracts get into the hands of traffickers?
A: [Traffickers] create new businesses with new names that are apparently clean but are linked to organized crime. And they get the state contracts for cleanups.
Q: How can Italy combat waste-trafficking?
A: How to fight? The problem of organized crime infiltrating public-works contracts is a phenomena that we have been [battling unsuccessfully] for years. Because criminal organizations like the Mafia have a cultural character, they are able to build links with industry, administrators, and sometimes with politicians.
Q: How does the Mafia infiltrate state bids or auctions?
A: Through municipal, regional, and provincial connections, they manage to obtain funds already designated for a project. Another way is to pre-organize a public bid with the auctioneer and other participants in agreement to select one who is already [agreed upon]. For example, the one wearing the blue shirt and red tie.... There is also the rotation of winners. Three businesses all bid, one wins now, next time the second, and finally the third -- and they divvy up the winnings and bribe each other.
Q: All these racketeers take business from legitimate companies?
A: Criminal business has advantages over legal businesses. They have liquid cash, for one. That is why we were aiming at being able to freeze assets. Someone with money can always keep operating. That is the case with waste-traffickers.
Q: Generally, how is the battle going against the Mafia?
A: After the attacks of '92 and '93 we identified and arrested a great many of those involved, and we convicted them. Following this, the Mafia changed strategy, abandoning the frontal attack of the previous years. They started an invisible strategy.
Q: Many are doubtful about the will of the Italian government to fight this phenomenon and pass a tough law. Do you agree?
A: If there isn't international cooperation, we'll never manage. We need instruments as well, not only the rules. In the EU, two important tools are about to become available: European investigative squads that cooperate and the European arrest warrant, which will replace extradition.
Q: Are you hopeful about EU or European Parliament efforts to outlaw trafficking and punish polluters?
A: You have to understand that behind waste-trafficking there are enormous interests. When I had an audience with the last [Italian] parliamentary commission on waste-trafficking, it was clear even then that the law in Italy was blocked by some industrialist.
Q: So industry is guilty too?
A: Yes, I would say so.
Q: And people are afraid to speak up -- they are threatened and fearful to even ask for test of water and soil?
A: That's exactly it.