False Security

How the Mafia Murdered the Townspeople of Amatrice

After the deadly Italy earthquake that killed 292, authorities fight over where to bury the dead and how to keep the Mafia from making things worse.

Max Rossi/Reuters

ROME — Not even the dead can find peace after the disastrous earthquake last week that killed hundreds in the mountainous region in central Italy. Of the 292 victims of the earthquake and its subsequent aftershocks, 231 were from the once picturesque hilltop village of Amatrice—now nothing more than a pile of stones and personal belongings.

On Monday night, a group of survivors from the destroyed town, led by the parish priest and the city’s mayor, stormed the regional capital of Rieti an hour away to collect the coffins of their dead, who had been taken there for what was supposed to be a mass state funeral. “I’m not holding a funeral here,” the parish priest, Don Fabio, said. “We will hold it in Amatrice even if we have to do it without the bodies.”

Authorities had hoped for a collective state funeral at a hangar in Rieti where all Amatrice’s dead could be essentially lined up and laid to rest together. The first funeral was held on Saturday, when the 34 residents of the small village Ascoli Piceno who died in the earthquake were buried quickly in absence of a functioning funeral parlor able to embalm all the victims in a timely manner.

“Why are we waiting for them to rot?” one resident told me the day before the funeral. “What’s the point of prolonging this misery?”

Authorities had also wanted the bodies of Amatrice’s dead in Rieti so the state coroner could perform autopsies for use in any future criminal trial to prove culpability in the aftermath of the earthquake. As it is often said, “earthquakes don’t kill people; buildings do.” And apparently nowhere is that more relevant than in Amatrice, where a construction firm tied to organized crime apparently sold anti-seismic reinforcement work that was never carried out and, essentially, amounted to a false sense of security.

It doesn’t take a building expert to see that the buildings destroyed in last week’s earthquake weren’t safe. A simple look at the drone footage of the aftermath shows just how easily they disintegrated.

Still, even if autopsies and then a mass state funeral would help hold someone accountable for the carnage, the residents of the area have been adamant that the dead should be left alone and that each community should bury its fallen brothers and sisters at home. And that, no matter how much more convenient one service would be for state officials, each victim should each get the same state funeral trimmings, complete with the president and prime minister personally greeting family members.

Sadly, those who signed for the release of a loved one’s body for the funeral of their choice back home may have also signed away any potential civil lawsuit payouts that might be forthcoming if eventual culpability is determined. Foresight in times of such incredibly human drama is rarely 20/20.

So, as it happened, 78 of the coffins of Amatrice’s dead were hoisted into trucks and hauled back up the deadly mountain to the town overnight. On Tuesday afternoon, 38 were lined up for a service. The rest will be given back to the families who can then decide when and how to have their own funerals, either in smaller groups or individually. No matter how many caskets lined the makeshift tent that had been set up in front of the ruins of an ancient building, the ceremony was clearly for all those who died. It took eight full minutes for the local bishop, Domenico Pompili, to read the names of each of the 292 victims under skies that seemed to be weeping with torrential rain.

Ever since the quake hit on Aug. 24, Italians have been wringing their hands and shaking their fists at the usual nemesis that is all too often tied to any disaster of this magnitude. Within hours, Italy’s organized crime syndicates were again blamed for corners cut in construction and faulty and nonexistent anti-seismic efforts.

What struck most people first was why the Romolo Capranica primary school in Amatrice had been destroyed. After all, the city paid more than €700,000 in 2013 to renovate the structure, including high-tech anti-seismic features that are supposed to be in place in any public building. But when investigators looked up the building code records, the seals and stamps that proved compliance were apparently faked and fudged. In essence, the documents meant to ensure anti-seismic protection measures were installed in a primary school in an earthquake zone had been faked. The school fell because someone had cheated the system.

And now, Italy’s chief anti-Mafia prosecutor, Franco Roberti, is warning that, if left to its own devices, the mob will strike again and infiltrate the eventual rebuilding contracts in the area. “The risks are there, and there is no sense to hide or deny them,” he told La Repubblica. “The post-earthquake reconstruction is historically a delicious morsel for criminal groups and complicit businesses.”

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This is not the first time organized crime has tried to weasel its way into reconstruction efforts. Shortly after the 2012 earthquake that struck the Emilia-Romagna region, the Calabrese gang known as the ‘Ndrangheta was already nipping at the lucrative construction deals. They, along with the Neapolitan Camorra, were also there in 2009 when rebuilding efforts got under way to rebuild L’Aquila after a deadly earthquake destroyed that nearby region. And it seems there is little doubt that they were also there when these buildings were supposed to be shored up after that 2009 quake.

“I don’t want to rush to judgment, but if a building is built well, and if the anti-seismic standards have been met, a dramatic event such as we saw last week would damage or crack a building, but not cause it to pulverize or implode,” Roberti says. “That’s why even as much as we know about the Mafia, we still have a lot to learn.”

It is well known that predicting earthquakes is impossible, even in a country like Italy, which lies in a seismic area. But it is even more alarming that it is more difficult to stop criminal organizations from doing more damage than the actual earthquakes.