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Sicilian Mafia Cashes In On Desperate Immigrants

Details emerge of poisonous links between local politicians and organized crime networks in Sicily working together to siphon public funds and exploit migrants arriving via Lampedusa.

Undocumented immigrants after landing in Lampedusa in 2011
Undocumented immigrants after landing in Lampedusa in 2011
Niccolò Zancan

Migrants who arrive to the island of Lampedusa, or any other place in Italy, and are not recognized as asylum seekers are first housed in Identification and Expulsion Centers. Those who may be entitled to political asylum are sent on to stay in CARA reception centers while authorities assess whether to grant them this status. There are eight such centers in Italy, mostly in the southern part of the country that continues to be plagued by organized crime.

MINEO — The first thing a visitor is asked when arriving at the gates to Europe's largest center for asylum seekers is: "Do you want one girl, or two?" It is not a misunderstanding between the visitor and the four Eritrean migrants standing in the dark in front of Italian Army trucks. "How about two girls for 50 euros, OK?"

On any given evening, they sell women, their own women. Everything here is connected on various levels to organized crime, starting with the 97 million-euro contract for the three-year management of the center itself. The national anti-corruption authority deemed this contract illegal in late February.

"The choice to contract a variety of activities (work, services, supplies) to a single operator appears at odds with the principles of economy, efficiency, impartiality, equal treatment, transparency," it concluded.

In the Sicilian city of Catania, an anti-mafia prosecutor is looking into how — and in exchange for what — the contract fell into the hands of the Calatino Lands of Hospitality consortium. Ten suspects have been detained, with two names released. The first is Giuseppe Castiglione, Undersecretary for Agricultural Resources and Sicilian leader of the New Center-Right party . The second is Luca Odevaine, who is already the focus of a investigation that recently allleged that mafia members bribed officials to win contracts for profitable public work and extorted money destined for the country's Roma population and immigrants.

Odevaine's role in Sicily emerged after he was heard on a wiretap. "Having this relationship continue with the ministry allows us to steer the flow of migrants coming from down there," he says to a colleague. "Otherwise they would pass by Mineo." Odevaine works at the Ministry of the Interior and had pull in awarding the contract.

Exploiting the refugees

The small village of Mineo, with its yellow houses and groves of orange trees, is just 40 kilometers from Catania. What were originally 2,000 places for migrants have ballooned to some 4,000. The lodgings were once used for soldiers on duty at the Sigonella military base, but they are now a kind of open prison for migrants who roam the countryside and do what they can — including prostituting the women — for cash.

"They give us very little to eat and one pack of cigarettes a week," says Joel from Nigeria. "We do nothing all day except wait." Others instead line up at 7 a.m. in order to get on the trucks and go out to the nearby fields and work. The pay, of course, is under the table and fluctuates between 1 and 3 euros per hour. Even transport to and from Catania, where refugees can begin the endless paperwork for political asylum, is run by unlicensed groups who profit from the desperation of immigrants. A one-way trip costs 5 euros.

There are all kinds of black market activities around, but the prostitution is perhaps the most visible. There are girls for sale on side streets, or are sometimes brought into the city where they can earn more. "They're keeping us hostage," says Himat from Tunisia. "They keep us here for 14 months until they tell us whether or not we are political refugees."

Long time coming

The headquarters of the Calatino consortium is an unmarked office in Caltagirone, southwest of Catania, and the employees are deeply embarrassed by the news of the contract's illegality and the investigation into how it was awarded. "This bad news was unfortunately in the air," says one person who comes to the door.

Mayor Valerio Marletta of Palagiano, another town in the area, smelled a rat years ago. "They wanted to involve us in the consortium, but I was opposed," he says. "It was clear that the contract had been specifically designed to facilitate the usual activities, and there was no doubt who would win."

To put it in crude terms, migrants translate into money, and the unholy alliance of mafia and local politics is still big business in Italy. These are all at the center of the investigation coordinated by Catania's chief prosecutor Giovanni Salvi. "Any comments are premature," he says now. But a few days earlier he spoke at a parliamentary inquiry looking into the phenomenon of organized crime profiting off of immigration.

Much of this hearing has been classified, but the guidelines are available to read. "In 2013, the number of migrants who arrived was 50,000," it reads. "In 2014, there were more than 150,000. Of these, more than 90,000 entered the province of Catania. We understood that there was a serious emergency in the management of Mineo's CARA center. There is an investigation underway."

The prosecutor noted that there are possible connections in Sicily with a massive scandal that erupted in Rome late last year over similar alleged connections between the capital's local leaders and organized crime networks in exploiting immigrant service contracts.

Many pages later, just before concluding, Salvi apologizes for an oversight: "We also have an important trial that concerns the reception centers for unaccompanied minors. Another emergency. Both from the point of view of the children themselves, as well as from an illegality standpoint."

It's only when we finally know the full story that we'll understand what the migrants who came to Sicily, or other parts of Italy or Europe, really went through on their journeys to a new life.

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