Mafia Holds Rome Hostage—With Garbage

Rome thought it could clean up its politics by ousting the mob. Now it can’t clean its streets.

Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty

ROME — There are few things worse than the fetid stench of an overflowing garbage dumpster on a sweltering, breezeless summer day. But the persistent odor of rotting cheese from pizza boxes, soiled diapers, and other non-recyclables literally baking under the hot summer sun has become so common in Rome that most residents, and an increasing number of tourists, have learned to just cover their noses and walk on by, careful not to crunch the swarms of cockroaches or startle any of the rats that feed on the squalor.

Cleaning up the city’s catastrophic garbage crisis was supposed to be the priority for Rome’s new mayor, Virginia Raggi, when she was elected in June. But already, more than a month into her mandate, the neo-mayor is struggling against a wall of corruption that is as high as the piled-up trash. And what could make matters worse is growing concern that Paola Muraro, the woman Raggi just tapped as the garbage czar to manage the crisis, has been embroiled in the criminal scandal that caused the problem in the first place.

A few weeks ago, after a video went viral of children in one of the city’s leafy suburbs counting the rats scurrying from a dumpster (25 in five minutes), Raggi promised she would have the mess cleaned up by Aug. 20. But it will be nothing short of a miracle if she even comes close to reaching that goal.

At issue is the simple fact that organized crime syndicates have run the Italian capital’s waste management system AMA for so long it is apparently impossible to keep the city clean without them.

“It’s a crazy system; I’m speechless,” Raggi said when she started to unravel the layers of corruption.

Addressing city hall on Monday, she explained that AMA has a debt of around €600 million, including owing €200 million to suppliers and €35 million to banks that have carried loans. The company also has around 7,500 employees who aren’t all trained sanitation workers, meaning they are not equipped to handle the type of garbage they must collect, which includes medical waste and other toxic waste products.

Raggi promises that now the city will take on the management role of waste collection, even if it means personally overseeing the job until Rome is acceptably clean.

Muraro, the new garbage czar, was a consultant for AMA for more than 12 years, although she maintains that she was only a consultant on waste removal, and not on the business side where the corruption occurred.

According to an ongoing criminal investigation into the so-called Mafia Capitale that brought the city government to its knees last year—and which left the city without a mayor for more than eight months—the criminality extends not just to the city’s waste management system, but has also engulfed companies involved with just about anything that rots, including maintenance of the city’s cemeteries.

When the Mafia Capitale thugs ran the contracts, few of which were awarded in public bids as the city constitution requires, they kept the city much cleaner as a way to cover the internal corruption, according to Giuseppe Cascini, the lead prosecutor in the Mafia Capitale criminal trial, who says fake management companies ran the contracts for the legitimate sanitation workers who carried out the task of keeping the city clean.

Since the corrupt management companies have been purged, no one seems to be able to do as good a job as the mobsters did at collecting garbage. The sanitation workers have protested the new legitimate contracts, striking against more rigorous work conditions like longer hours and the use of time clocks to ensure they work regular shifts.

They have also protested the fact that they now have to legitimately separate and recycle garbage that was apparently all dumped together for years at waste centers that are also now under investigation for alleged crimes in the way they dispose of especially toxic waste.

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Several dumps that were created to provide state-of-the art recycling facilities somehow never won bids for Rome’s garbage over those that used older methods. Instead, money was spent on new trucks, dumpsters, and managers.

“AMA, recklessly, is not equipped with the necessary plant infrastructure, instead offering opportunities to private groups that would pay to the company’s profits,” Raggi said on Monday as she laid out her plan to meet her Aug. 20 deadline to rid the city of its filth. “We have to act fast.”

With the clock ticking and the smell building, Raggi may have to dig into the city coffers to hire extra workers to sweep the city clean in time or risk the type of failure that could get her ousted. Meanwhile, Muraro, tasked with overseeing the massive cleanup efforts, is expected to be questioned by Rome’s Ecomafia (environmental mafia) prosecutors this week for any role she had in creating the problems.

In the meantime, the garbage keeps piling up, making the eternal city, every day, more of an infernal city.