Photo: Ben Salthouse

When we hear the word “mafia” we often picture the crass, Hollywood stereotype of trigger-happy men in expensive suits, ready to mouth off when insulted. But in Italy, they’re the middle managers signing the checks of your friendly neighborhood garbage men.

In Rome, the idea of thugs as garbage men isn’t far-fetched. Crime families have long held governance over Italy’s waste management systems; so much so, that many feel it’s impossible to clean up without them.

“It’s a crazy system,” said newly elected mayor Virginia Raggi. “I’m speechless.”

A dumpster in Rome, Italy. (Photo Credit: Ben Salthouse / Flickr)

A dumpster in Rome, Italy. (Photo Credit: Ben Salthouse / Flickr)

Once synonymous with pizza, history and fine wine, Rome has become a landfill of garbage and rats where tourists would rather hold their noses than dig into a plate of spaghetti. Following her election last June, Raggi vowed to clean up the city by late August, but Rome’s trash problem extends beyond plastic bags, used diapers and apple cores. Raggi is going to have to dig through her government’s corruption with a very large spade if she wants to meet her goal, and some say it’s beyond her power.

“The environment here is poisoned,” cardiologist Dr. Alfredo Mazza told The New York Times. “It’s impossible to clean it all up. The area is too vast. We’re living on top of a bomb.”

Presently, Rome’s trash syndicate employs nearly 8,000 people, but very few are fully trained. As a result, toxic and medical waste often goes uncollected or is improperly sorted. Raggi further commented by saying that Rome’s waste removal is “not equipped with the necessary plant infrastructure,” and instead offers “opportunities to private groups that would pay to the company’s profits.”

Last year, anti-Mafia authorities arrested over 40 individuals for allegedly rigging maintenance contracts and obstructing garbage control. Several politicians found themselves cuffed and in the back of police vehicles, while the incident left weak sectors in its wake for approximately eight months.

“Politics in the past gave a bad example,” said Rome’s then Mayor Ignazio Marino. “But today, we have honest people who want to restitute quality of life and all the rights and dignity the capital deserves.”

The country may have cleaned house (in a figurative, if not literal, sense), but mobsters did keep the streets free of garbage. Few deny that they did their job – even if that job was for the purpose of hiding fraud and venality. Now that Mafia power has been lessened, some are wondering if Rome can pull itself together.

The problem isn’t just reserved to Italy’s capital. 2013 saw the birth of a new garbage crisis in Naples, which had been living under mounds of trash since 2008. The city witnessed new dangers when waste heaps fueled toxic bonfires and poisoned local water supplies, making them unsuitable for human usage.

“People are just terrified,” said local priest Maurizio Patriciello. “Central and local governments have underestimated this problem for decades.”

Since the early ‘90s, approximately ten million tons of waste, including nuclear and industrial waste, have been dumped in the area by a local Mafia syndicate known as the Camorra. The group has held power in the city for nearly 30 years.

“My sense is that there is an agreement between the political parties and the Camorra,” says Rev. Giannino Pasquale. “Just look around. Tires and asbestos are tossed on the sides of the roads. Why is it not possible to control this area?”

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