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.
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.