The Mafia’s New Front Men

Garbage piled up in Naples. The illicit disposal of waste is bringing billions of dollars a year to organized crime. /Photo by REUTERS

“You throw garbage in and you get gold out.” The famous sentence pronounced by a mafia associate and wiretapped by investigators more than 20 years ago must have sounded particularly familiar to Antonello Pianigiani.

Pianigiani is an Italian business titan, president of the company Pianigiani Rottami and of the Poggibonsi Calcio football club. But last March, he found himself in handcuffs, arrested in one of the latest and largest investigations into illegal waste trafficking in Italy.

Pianigiani’s operation cut a wide swath across central Italy, from Tuscany to Emilia Romagna to Molise. The businessman was not accused of trafficking in ordinary waste, but of using the detritus of junked automobiles to produce refuse-derived fuel (RDF).

RDF is loaded with substances toxic to human health and to the environment, but Pianigiani Rottami  is accused of classifying the waste as non-hazardous. The outcome, according to investigators, was a $6.6 million (€5 million) trade that deposited 50,000 tons of untreated hazardous waste in landfills all over Italy.


Eco-crimes represent a broad array of illegal shortcuts that damage the environment or the health of people, animals and plants: the dumping and trafficking of waste, illegal construction of roads, bridges and buildings, fraud in food products or control of the food market, crimes in the clean energy business, arson, trafficking of animals and archeological items–all fall under the definition of eco-crimes.

Over the last 20 years, such crimes have become the third most lucrative source of cash for Italian organized crime syndicates,  after  drug and weapons trafficking, filling mafia coffers to the tune of  $394 billion (€ 300 billion).  Money is not  the only attraction:  the risk of arrest and prosecution for environmental crimes is far lower than it is for, say, drug-trafficking, and penalties are lighter.

The illegal trafficking of waste brings easy money.  Large parts of Italy are filled with waste that municipalities are unable to manage, or that unscrupulous businessmen do not intend to treat properly. Some complain openly that the law is too complicated and too expensive to obey. A mafia clan, they say privately, operates quicker and at much lower costs.

The business is so widespread that crime syndicates have started to export Italy’s waste. Western Africa, Eastern Africa, the Middle East, South America and Southeast Asia are the preferred destinations. With the complicity of local governments, this massive export of untreated waste poses a tremendous danger to the global community.

The “mafia entrepreneur”

The charges against Pianigiani include illegal traffic of hazardous waste and criminal association. However, wasn’t the garbage business supposed to be the exclusive prerogative of mafia clans?

Investigators and prosecutors call the new front men in the $22 billion-a-year trade in illicit waste “mafia entrepreneurs:” seemingly legitimate business executives who manage legally registered companies and pay taxes regularly. They pay their workers and have — for the most part — transparent budgets.

Behind the scenes, however, they have been changing the very nature of the market in waste treatment. Prosecutors say that Italy’s financial crisis, or the prospect of enormous profits, have opened the way for organized crime syndicates to infiltrate and enlist legitimate entrepreneurs, whose “clean” companies are now essential for running underworld activities.

The “mafia entepreneur” is “at the complete disposal of a certain clan,” the famous mafia informant Gaetano Vassallo once said.

“Whereas until twenty years ago it was the mafioso who would turn himself into a businessman, we now face people who formally have no ties with organized crime,” said Maria Cristina Ribera, deputy state attorney in  Naples. “The relationship between the two is very complex and is often extremely hard to demonstrate in a court room.”

Such a shift of roles makes the fight against organized crime in the economic sphere more difficult. Many companies have decades of experience in the sector and have obtained the anti-mafia certificate, a mandatory attestation by the company that it has no ties to the mafia.

New Actors

In extreme cases, Italians are seeing all three  roles– mafioso, businessman and politician—in a single person. The borders between the three positions blur and one person can set in motion an almost perfect criminal system.

In August 2010, for example, Nicola Cosentino, then a member of parliament, an undersecretary at the Ministry of Finance and an independent entrepreneur in the hydrocarbon sector, faced charges of associating with the mafia. According to investigators, Cosentino is very close to the Casalesi mafia clan and was able to funnel public contracts to his own companies or to the Casalesi family.

Italian mafias play a relevant and essential, but no longer exclusive, role in eco-crimes, investigators report. Organized crime syndicates increasingly count on white collar connections–entrepreneurs, engineers, lawyers, public figures and notaries whose know-how and web of relations in the political and industrial worlds are vital.

As protagonists change, so have their methods. The Rapporto Ecomafia 2011 by the civic group Legambiente, widely considered the most authoritative report on eco-crimes in Italy, has shown how the typical north-south route for dumping waste is now being replaced by a more circular course, engulfing nearly all Italian regions..

Evolve or Die

All these signals suggest that despite enormous profits and over 346,000 tons of hazardous waste confiscated in 2011, a metamorphosis is taking place within the eco-mafias: evolve or die.  Criminal syndicates are increasingly abandoning the use of mega-landfills to dump untreated waste, and are investing in recycling. Informants report that media and social attention over waste trafficking has grown too intense. As news of illegal landfills grows, fueling widespread concern over health consequences for local  residents, they attract attention that criminals do not want.

With entire areas of Italy filled with hazardous waste and damaged forever, organized crime syndicates are  now moving to export toxic cargo abroad. Cargo ships filled with waste take off from the ports of Taranto, Venice, La Spezia, Naples, Trieste and Ancona—to name just a few– where customs officials seized over 7,400 tons of illegal waste in 2011 alone.


In 2002, Italy passed Article 260 of the penal code, one of Europe’s toughest laws to combat mafia involvement in the trade in illegal waste. Last year alone, 305 people were arrested, 33,817 crimes registered (four every hour) and 8,765 assets were seized in connection with eco-crimes.

Article “260 is the only crime that allows criminals to be arrested for environmental-related crimes,” said prosecutor Donato Ceglie, on the front-line in the fight against eco-crimes for years. He praised the law as highly effective, saying its seriousness is on a par with statutes against mafia association.  “Hitting companies’ money and capital is vital for an efficient counterfight,” he said. The European Union has yet to produce a similar law, he noted.

Ribera, the Naples prosecutor, said that, “From a simple administrative response against environmental crimes, we can now use wiretapping, we can perform preventive arrests and even order international arrests.”

However, much remains to be done. Ceglie hopes for better coordination between public prosecutors, whereas Ribera laments the statute of limitations on eco-crimes and the lack of resources to enforce the law. In addition, the certficates showing that a company has no ties to the mafia are based on self-reporting, making them easy to falsify.

“The investment necessary to open a legal business in this sector is far greater than any possible future income, so the temptation for entrepreneurs to skirt the law is very high,” Ribera said.   


Diana Jean Schemo

Diana Jean Schemo

Diana Jean Schemo is president and executive editor of 100Reporters, and the founder and co-director of the Double Exposure Film Festival and Symposium, the United States' only investigative film festival.


  1. Terrorism and Organized Crime does not care if human life lives or dies….we have no
    future if we fail to value human life over $…..look at our dire conditions, lack of ethics, morals, rules, regulations, laws or enforcement One voice can make a difference the dead have no voice. Stand up, protect human life or we will have no life to live.