ROME—Thousands of acres of woodland on the picturesque island of Sicily were set on fire last week by burning cats believed to be ignited by members of the Sicilian Mafia. Authorities allege the mobsters tied gas-soaked rags onto the felines’ tails and then lit the rags, sending the cats fleeing into heavily wooded forest areas, where they set fire to the thick underbrush as they tried to escape their flaming backsides.
Nearly 14,000 acres were burned in around 800 individual fires that were set over 48 hours, Italy’s interior ministry said. The flames destroyed houses, hotels, farms, and protected natural reserves, with losses tallying more than €30 million.
The fires started just as a hot African windstorm known as a sirocco—a common summer occurrence in southern Italy—blew though, and it fanned the flames. No one died, but 50 schoolchildren at a summer camp near Palermo were hospitalized for smoke inhalation.
With the fires now under control, authorities are working to determine the exact motivation for the animal arson attacks. According to Italy’s leading environmental group Legambiente, which publishes an annual report on the “Eco Mafia” or environmental organized-crime syndicates, the setting of these fires has been increasing annually at increments of nearly 50 percent for the last three years.
One theory is that the Mafia has invested heavily in reforestation firms and construction companies—and will soon reap the financial benefits of replanting the burned forests or developing the cleared land.
There is also ample evidence that the Mafia has infiltrated the forestry job sector, which employs some 23,000 people in Sicily—more than any other region in all of Europe, according to the European Union’s labor statistics. The Sicilian forestry sector has been subject to job cuts this year as the government tries to tighten the island’s budget, and anti-Mafia investigators are also considering whether the fires were set to try to prove the dubious necessity of the sizable staff.
Earlier this month, Rosario Crocetta, Sicily’s regional governor, fired 180 forestry workers who had been convicted of Mafia-related crimes or who are under investigation for Mafia collusion. “This is a political Mafia attack, the goal is not only the forests and land speculation. There was an attack in the area with 800 simultaneous fires,” he told reporters over the weekend. “This is also an attack on a government that fights the Mafia; it is a frightening mob attack.”
Giuseppe Antoci, president of Nebrodi Park, which was especially hard hit in the recent fires, has been the target of a number of assassination attempts, including an ambush he narrowly escaped last month. He said he believes the Mafia is trying to exert control through chaos, both by trying to prove that the inflated number of forestry staff are essential and by cashing in on reforestation and building contracts that will be doled out to revitalize the destroyed woodlands. “Hundreds of fires do not trigger from spontaneous combustion at the same moment,” he told Corriere Della Sera newspaper. “They were waiting for the sirocco winds to set the fires.”
Antoci, who said he plans to file civil lawsuits for the destruction of his park against anyone who is caught, said hidden cameras set up in the fields led to the discovery of the use of cats as arson weapons. Last summer, after a handful of fires were set, he put up surveillance cameras. When authorities looked at the footage, they were perplexed at first at the absence of humans in the areas where the fires ignited. Then they realized that the dead carcasses of cats they had been finding in the singed land were no coincidence. “They use the animals as arsonists,” he said. “They set fire to cats that then run in fear, burning all the bushes they touch.” The Sicilian Mafia, also called the Cosa Nostra, has been facing increasing pressure from law-enforcement officials and rival gangs, especially Nigerian groups that have settled on the island amid the wave of migration, said Leonardo Agueci, the deputy anti-Mafia prosecutor of Palermo. “The Sicilian Mafia has had to forge an uneasy alliance with the Nigerian gangs because they can’t control them,” he told The Daily Beast. “The Cosa Nostra is still in charge, but their authority is challenged almost daily.”
Until recently, the Mafia has made hefty profits by renting out state-owned land to farmers for grazing and cashing in on European Union contributions through a corrupt network that netted the mob around €3 billion annually. When the Italian government finally cracked down on the practice in 2013, Antoci said the Mafia retaliated by burning the land and then sweeping in to replant or redevelop it.
Interior Minister Angelino Alfano vowed to bring the cat-burning criminals to justice. “The phenomenon of forest fires is another horrible plague of our country. What is happening in Sicily… shows that we must remain vigilant and must fight fearlessly against the arsonists using all the tools necessary,” he said, vowing to send more security forces to the island to help patrol sensitive areas.
Gianfranco Zanna, president of Legambiente Sicily, says government inaction is really what allows the Mafia to maintain its destructive control. “Evidently hectares of forests in smoke, evacuated homes, charred animals, and the millions of euro in damage is not enough make the regional government act,” he said recently. “And instead, history repeats itself regularly every year.”