In this interview, the scholar from SUNY Stony Brook talks about his personal involvement with the issue of organized crime in Campania: "I lost my little four-year-old cousin to stomach cancer, and the doctor said it was most likely linked to toxic waste. So I take it very seriously... I have had enough of Dante and Petrarch conferences. My students want to know what is going on now in Italy, and they have the right to know"
Most children don't wake up during the night to the sound of exploding bombs – unless they live in a war zone. Giuseppe Costa, as a child, had that terrifying experience, even though his middle-class family lived not in Beirut or Baghdad but in Torre del Greco, a medium-sized city in the province of Naples.
But in a sense, Costa did live in a war zone, except the combatants were not soldiers or guerilla fighters but gangsters belonging to rival camorra clans.
"I have lived with that word 'camorra' since I can remember," he says. "I was born in 1973 and in my early years, I already knew about the dangers. I remember waking up in the middle of the night to bombs going off outside stores because people didn't want to play the protection money."
When Costa talks about his early years, his memories do indeed sound like war stories. "The first big camorra war, between the Cutolo clan [Raffaele Cutolo's Nuova Camorra Organizzata] and the Nuova Famiglia, began in the late 1970s. These two groups were fighting each other, and many times there were dead people in the streets, during the day as well as night." He recalls children taking sides in the "war," with "some kids writing [graffiti] on walls for Cutolo, some for Nuova Famiglia. So I grew up with that reality, it never left me."
After graduating with a degree in sociology from the University of Naples Federico II, Costa moved to the United States in 2001. He earned a doctoral degree in Italian literature, language, and culture from Stony Brook University on Long Island, where he now is a lecturer, teaching language and cinema courses – and seminars on Italian organized crime.
In April of this year, he spoke about the camorra, focusing on how it literally poisons the Campania region with toxic waste, at the "MAFIAs" conference hosted by the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute of the City University of New York.
In his conference presentation, Costa described how, in December 2013, he tried to enter a toxic waste site in Giugliano, a city north of Naples. Police threatened to arrest him. He nevertheless managed to take a few photos before a guard chased him away. "The sad thing," he says, "is that this man who was guarding this place, with a lot of toxic waste, wasn't wearing any protective gear."
The writer Roberto Saviano, in his 2006 book Gomorra, and in the 2008 film adapted from it, brought the issue to Italy's and the world's attention. (This year, an Italian TV series based on Saviano's book became a critical and audience hit.) Since the early 1990s, the camorra clan based in the town of Casal di Principe has dumped millions of tons of toxic waste from northern and southern Italy, as well as nuclear waste from Germany. In addition to dumping hazardous industrial materials, the casalesi burn them in the open air, a practice that lead Saviano to call the affected areas "la terra dei fuochi" – the land of fires.
A recent report by the non-governmental organization Lega Ambiente stated that the camorra has dumped 10 million tons of toxic waste in Campania since the early 90s, and that from January 2012 to August 2013, there were more than 6,000 fires linked to illegal waste.
The burned and dumped toxic material appears to be causing a major public health crisis. The British medical journal The Lancet documented cancer rates in the area that exceed national averages. A World Health Organization report documented clusters of liver, kidney, pancreatic, and other cancers in the areas near dumping sites.
For Giuseppe Costa, the issue has hit close to home. "I lost my little four-year-old cousin to stomach cancer," he says, "and the doctor said it was most likely linked to toxic waste. So I take it very seriously."
With landfills in southern Italy either full or close to it, garbage disposal has been a perennial crisis, one that organized crime has exploited for huge profits. Manufacturers prefer to use the camorra's services rather than pay the high costs of legally disposing of waste, and camorra bosses employ intimidation to squelch any opposition to their lucrative trade.
The crisis, says Costa, also stems from efforts by the Italian government to respond to Naples' garbage problem. "In 1998, the government of Prime Minister Romano Prodi proposed a plan to burn garbage for electricity, which would address the problems of garbage disposal and of high energy costs. The plan included separating the garbage to be burned for electricity from garbage that would go to dump sites. The garbage to be burned was compressed into 'ecoballe,' balls of trash each weighing about a ton. But the plants that were supposed to burn the ecoballe were never built, so they accumulated in storage sites. The ecoballe have to be disposed of within a few weeks, otherwise they will leak, and produce toxic sludge and gases. But they have remained, and there are so many now that they don't know what to do."
The camorra, he says, continues to produce ecoballe, which they illegally dispose. So, the camorra exacerbates the problem of the existing, undisposed ecoballe with its dumping of hazardous materials.
"The dumpsite in Giugliano is in the midst of the most fertile area of Campania," he adds. In the storage sites, "There is only a thin layer of cement between the ecoballe and the ground, and gases from the toxic waste are percolating into water reserves used in agriculture."
Costa mentions a 2013 cover story in the news magazine L'espresso, titled, "Bevi Napoli e poi muori" – "drink Naples and die " – a darkly ironic play on the famous saying, "Vedi Napoli e poi muori (See Naples and die)." The story reported that the US Navy's research on toxic waste and its effects in Campania found high levels of water contamination, with some areas posing "unacceptable risks." The Navy's research report also stated that because environmental conditions were so dangerous, American service members should be stationed in certain areas of Campania for no more than two years at a time. Moreover, the Navy does not permit its personnel to buy or rent ground level apartments in such areas as Giugliano, Terracina, and Capodichino because of toxic gases emanating from the ground.
Costa says that the Italian government has begun to address the issue only recently, in large part because of the exposes by Saviano and others. Public opposition – to the camorra's toxic waste dumping and to organized crime in general – is a relatively recent phenomenon. Costa says he wasn't aware of any organized opposition to the camorra when he was growing up; fear of camorristi violence was too pervasive. He recalls his parents advising him, "If you see anything don't say anything, if something is going on, just run away, don't talk to the police."
"Only more recently, in the past 20 years, have things started changing a bit. But not when I was growing up," he says.
He compares Campania to Sicily, where the crimes of Cosa Nostra, including its brazen murders of public officials, have spawned a civil society anti-Mafia movement. In the early 90s, while serving in the Italian Army, he was one of the soldiers from all over Italy sent to Palermo in the "Vespri siciliani" operation, following the 1992 assassinations of magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino. His assignment was to guard the home of a prosecuting magistrate.
"When I got to Palermo, I noticed right away that the city was changing, that people were happy to see us," he recalls. (Costa says that while stationed in the Sicilian capital, he experienced a strong affinity with the city and its people: "I never felt so at home outside Napoli as I did in Palermo.") "Naples is getting there 25 years after Sicilians got to that point. And it's because camorra is killing not only with weapons but also with toxic waste, and the lives of hundreds of thousands of people are affected by this. Just now people are opening up to [cooperating with] the government, but there is still a lot of mistrust of the institutions, which, unfortunately, is justified."
"Some local nonprofit organizations, like one in Giugliano that a friend of mine runs, are going into the schools, and talking to the kids, showing them what camorra has done and is doing, that it is not a career, if you have a problem you should talk to the police, if you see something you have to talk." These efforts, he says, are similar to what organizations such as Addiopizzo and Libera are doing in Sicily. "I think this is the only way we can defeat camorra. On the other hand, you have the weakness of the local institutions…organized crime becomes more powerful where the government is weak. If you can't trust the state, you turn to somebody else. If the government is not creating jobs, the [camorra] organization will."
"Southern Italy has highest youth unemployment rate in country," he observes. "So one of the few ways to make money is to work for the clan, starting as a 'moschillo' [a little fly] who checks who's coming in and out of neighborhood so the guys can sell drugs. You can work your way up from a moschillo to becoming a lower-level boss. That unfortunately is what some kids do. If we don't change the economy, if you don't provide jobs, what do you expect?"
Costa, like Roberto Saviano, believes that the first step in fighting camorra is exposing its crimes and talking candidly about them. But not all Italians agree. "I visit Napoli two, three times a year, and in talking with my family and friends, it's clear not everyone is happy about what Saviano has done. "'Why is Saviano talking to the world and bringing all this shame on us,' they say. 'This isn't fair, now we're all associated with camorra, with Gomorra, with 'the land of fires.' But there also are many people like me who are glad he was able to bring to the world the problem of camorra."
It's not only Italians in Italy who would rather not pay too much attention to organized crime, as Costa discovered at Stony Brook. "I'm having issues with some colleagues who really oppose my Mafia class," he says. "Some of them can't wait to get rid of me. What I study, research and write about – according to them, I'm just poisonous." These colleagues, he says, mainly are Italian-born academics who immigrated to the United States when they were young.
"They believe," he says, "that talking about Mafia reinforces stereotypes and harms the image of Italians and Italy." He says that when he put up a poster announcing the Calandra Institute's MAFIAs conference outside his office door, someone tore it down. "And I know who did it," he says.
One of my colleagues said to me, 'You don't need an entire course about organized crime. You don't need an entire semester. I talk about Mafia in my contemporary history of Italy course, in an hour and twenty minutes, and that's enough.' But how can you explain the entire Mafia phenomenon in an hour and twenty minutes?"
During the regular semester, Costa teaches Italian language courses. "I have more freedom to teach what I really like in seminars." He teaches two: the history of Italian organized crime and another on the camorra. He says that despite the opposition of some professors, the students appreciate the courses. "There had never been these courses at Stony Brook," he notes. "The students love them."
"Bringing attention to the problem is necessary," Costa insists. "I have had enough of Dante and Petrarch conferences. I want to know what is going on now in Italy, my students want to know, and they have the right to know. What is the major problem today in Italy? It is organized crime, and the liaison between organized crime and politics."
Costa's concern for the environmental disaster in Campania is personal as well as scholarly, and he is sensitive to the issue of perception. "It breaks my heart," he says. "Just now, after finishing my summer class about Mafia, I had to tell my students, it's not all bad, it's a beautiful place, and not everybody is camorra. At the end of the class, I show a video about the beauty of Naples."
But Giuseppe Costa doesn't see himself as a Neapolitan teaching in America but as an immigrant now settled in the United States. "I am part of the new wave of immigrants who come here not with the valigia di cartone [cardboard suitcase]" of the late nineteenth-early twentieth centuries "but with books in our knapsacks."
* George De Stefano is a writer and critic whose work has been published in The Nation, Newsday, The Advocate, Film Comment, the Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, PopMatters, The Examiner and other print and on line publications. He is the author of the non-fiction book, An Offer We Can’t Refuse: The Mafia in the Mind of America (Faber and Faber/Farrar, Straus, Giroux)