Geopolitics

Waste Trafficking: A Dirty Italian Affair Poisons The Balkans

Thousands of tons of trash are sent from Italy to Bulgaria illegally each year. Between poor controls and political complicity, wealth-hungry entrepreneurs — and the mafia — and local oligarchs earn millions as Eastern Europe turns into a rubbish dump.

Bulgaria has become a giant trash can for Italian waste traffickers
Bulgaria has become a giant trash can for Italian waste traffickers
Vittorio Malagutti

SOFIA — Italians aren't just exporting fashion, food, and soccer to Bulgaria. The Made in Italy label is also attached to mountains and mountains of garbage as Bulgaria has become a giant trash can for Italian waste traffickers. The Bulgarian judiciary have discovered this through recent major investigations, leading to the discovery of dozens of illegal dumps around this Balkan country.

The criminal web is intentionally complex, with overlapping trails, mediators, front men and shell corporations, but in the end, the common thread weaved between business and suspects led to Italy, as discovered by the investigation carried out by L'Espresso and the journalistic consortium EIC (European Investigative Collaborations).

This problem is so serious that, in January 2020, then Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte flew to Sofia to discuss Rome's "maximum cooperation" with Prime Minister Bojko Borisov in fighting the "eco-mafia."

But, in the clamor of scandals and crises over the past few months, Conte's promises were lost in the furore. The Minister of Environment and his deputy resigned after being accused of covering, if not favoring, illegal trash trafficking.

Border checks are not the problem. As both countries are part of the European Union, goods arriving into Bulgaria from Italy enjoy minimal customs formalities. Exporting waste is based on a system of special authorizations. So, in order to evade customs, you need to simply change the transport identification codes en route. Minimal risks are accompanied by huge gains, given that the cost for disposal is much lower in Eastern Europe than it is in Italy. This is why Bulgaria, which has the lowest income per capita in the EU, has become the "promised land" for Italian toxic waste merchants.

"The business of garbage"

In October 2020, after months of investigation, the Carabinieri (Italy's national gendarmerie) of Environmental Protection in Milan dismantled a gang of traffickers, capable of amassing over 24,000 tons of waste throughout illegal dumps in Northern Italy. Among the 16 people arrested at the request of the local Anti-Mafia Department was Antonio Foti, from Calabria, in southern Italy, who had already served jail time for his connection to the "Ndrangheta" (the Calabrian mafia) and who has invested in the "business of garbage" with his children.

Bulgaria has become the "promised land" for Italian toxic waste merchants.

A truck driver witness to the investigation explained over the phone that Tecnobeton, the company owned by Antonio Foti's family, ships waste to Bulgaria. "They're grinding away at full speed. They're always doing business with Bulgaria," he said.

This, however, is not the only thread which leads to the Balkans. Also included in the web is Mario Accarino, as well as his daughter Laura and nephew Francesco. According to the L'Espresso investigation, Accarino, 61, manages the Bulgarian company Acar Eco, where Avni Kadir Musein, 40, is a shareholder (for reference, his brother Kadir Avni Kadir was arrested in 2012 for trafficking cocaine into Italy). However, the police report lists his charges under the name of Krassimir Zlatanski, which was only registered with the Italian state in 2008.

Over the phone, Zlatanski/Kadir confirmed that he knows Accarino. But, he said that Acar Eco was actually owned by his sister, and that he only worked in the iron scraps export, which is currently inactive.

Despite troubles with the law, Zlatanski has not cut ties with Italy. A small trading company in Milan is also registered under his name. "I have nothing to do with Accarino's business," he claimed.

Acar Eco is based in Bulgaria's second-largest city, Plovdiv, and is involved with a complicated web of illicit activities discovered through years of investigations. With his brother Salvatore, a likely fugitive in North Africa, Mario Accarino has collected a variety of arrests and convictions for environmental crimes. In 2019, the waste trafficking brothers had a million-dollar fortune confiscated, which included, among other things, 27 properties and 28 bank accounts and safety deposit boxes in Italy and Switzerland.

As wealthy as they are, the Accarino brothers are nothing compared to the Bobokov brothers, Atanas and Plamen, two of the richest entrepreneurs in Bulgaria, with assets of hundreds of millions of euros. The Bobokov brothers, too, have been indicted for illegal waste trafficking and, like the Accarinos, built their empire between Italy and the Balkans. Their case caused a sensation in Sofia last May because of their reputation as being untouchable, thanks to their close relationships with politicians. Their empire collapsed last year when the duo ended up in jail for illegally dispersing at least 7,000 tons of various trash material, including toxic substances, throughout the country. The investigation also involved Bulgarian Deputy Minister of the Environment, Krasimir Zhivkov, who was swiftly arrested, and Plamen Ouzounov, responsible for President Rumen Radev's legal affairs.

Tons of waste in Svilengrad, Bulgaria — Photo: Hristo Rusev/NurPhoto/ZUMA Wire

The Bulgarian story also leads to northern Italy. Three years ago, Monbat group, owned by the Bobokovs, acquired Piombifera Italiana, a metal manufacturing company with an office in La Spezia and a factory in Macrobio, both in the north. The company claims to recycle spent batteries by extracting lead to reuse as raw material, but magistrates in Sofia suspect that they are putting Italian waste in illegal dumps.

"We don't know anything about it," said Paolo Pofferi, Piombifera Italiana's managing director, who already had suspicious shipments returned from Slovenia in 2019.

Pofferi is not new to the limelight. Thirty years ago, he founded an off-road vehicle factory in Nusco (near Naples in southern Italy). The company had a short life and closed after just three years. Pofferi, in the midst of a series of bankruptcies, ended up at the center of an inquiry on wasting public earthquake reconstruction fund and is also accused of having buried polluting waste from his companies in Nusco. His accountant, Giovanni Grazzini, has just been appointed local commissioner of Forza Italia (Italy's right-wing political party), however Grazzini says he is unaware of any judicial troubles. "A long process, but in the end I was acquitted," boasted Pofferi.

In Bulgaria, however, the question of relations with the Italian company remains as present as ever. The affair could land in the courtroom by spring, with three minor defendants already pleading guilty.

Parcels from Naples

In February 2020, Bulgarian authorities came to a legal verdict that resulted in the rejection of 3,700 tons of waste in 147 containers: "Take back your eco-bales' (compact balls of refuse) was their refrain.

The Bobokov brothers ended up in jail.

The delivery, which was part of a larger shipment of about 600 containers, had just landed in Varna and was promptly returned to Salerno, where it had parted months earlier. Dentice Pantaleone, the waste management company that had sent them, then had to manage its own waste, symbolizing a catastrophe for waste management in the Neapolitan area.

According to the official version by Bulgaria — contested by Italy — the parcels were different from what was declared on paper. In Bulgaria's capital city Sofia, the government suspended the license of the local coal-fired incinerator controlled by Bulgarian energy magnate Hristo Kovachki working with Italy.

To pick up the slack, in November 2020, another Bulgarian company entered the playing field: Blatsiov. This one, however, is actually managed in part by two Italians: Ezio Buscè, who has since died, and engineer Vincenzo Trassari. When questioned by L'Espresso, Buscè"s brother, Fabrizio, presented himself as the "operational manager" of the company that shipped eco-bales to Bulgaria.

The third manager of Blatsiov is Goran Angelov, a Bulgarian man who is actually also the manager of the Italian waste management plant, FCL Ambiente of Frosinone, just outside of Rome.

This waste management system is a closed circle with Italian (criminal) elements involved in every step. Thousands of tons of waste will still need to be disposed of in Italy, and hopefully without the disposal method used in 2015, when an Italian ship dumped 65 tons of plastic waste into the sea off the coast of Tuscany. Those 65 tons of eco-bales are still there, still polluting protected waters and still slowly killing off a sanctuary for cetacean aquatic mammals.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire


According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA

Unsplash/@nemo23


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council


Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire


The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

Unsplash/@hkblind


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke


During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press


Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS
MOST READ