Behind the facade of Italian city after riots

ROSARNO, Italy — The official figures show there are 1,600 agricultural
workers in this town, all but 36 of them Italians. The reality, exposed by the
raw and violent riots here in early January, was far different: Some 1,200 foreigners,
most of them Africans, earned about $30 a day, unrecorded, picking oranges and
clementines. Now that the town is largely cleared of foreign labour, the fruit
remains on the trees.

          In other places, $30 is not a living wage.
But this is one of the poorest parts of Italy, and many local people do not
earn much more, even if most will not pick fruit.

          “Who is taking care of us?” asked
Maria Amato, 39, a homemaker. “Until days ago, we didn’t exist.”

          In a broad sense, the worst immigrant rioting
ever seen in Italy — shocking here not only because of the anger of migrants,
some of whom clashed with local residents, but also for the attacks on them by
townspeople — cuts to the heart of the nation’s difficult evolution from a
place of emigrants to one of immigrants.

          But it is also a story fixed to this place.
The economy is so weak here that locals and immigrants are competitors. In a
town where people are reluctant to reveal their last names and often their
first, a mysterious element complicates any full understanding of the riots:
the ongoing strength of the Calabrian Mafia, or ‘Ndrangheta, which has deep
roots in agriculture. The son of a local organized crime boss was arrested and
accused of wounding a policeman in the riots, suggesting that the Mafia may
have orchestrated the locals’ response to the immigrants’ violence.

          “It’s a very, very complicated
situation,” said Francesco Campolo, a police prefect who is one of three
interim commissioners appointed by the region to govern Rosarno since the
arrest last year of the mayor, who was charged with having organized crime

          The absence of the immigrants, 1,200 of whom
were whisked by bus and train to detention centres over the weekend of January
9-10, was clear. On January 12, fire-fighters demolished a former factory that
served as seasonal housing for many migrants. It stood, just barely, a long
roofless space of tin shacks, dirty mattresses, handed-down clothes, mud and

          Authorities are investigating these central
questions: How did the protests become so violent? Who, if anyone, orchestrated
the citizens’ retaliation? And who benefits from the immigrants’ temporary or
perhaps permanent disappearance from the area?

          Alberto Cisterna, who oversees Calabria at
Italy’s National Anti-Mafia Commission in Rome, called Rosarno the Corleone of
Calabria, where clans of the ‘Ndrangheta exert “extraordinary control.”

          Official estimates indicate that the ‘Ndrangheta
did 44 billion euros, or more than $60 billion, in 2008, in international drug
and arms trafficking, public works fraud, usury and prostitution.

          Many authorities say that in a town where the
‘Ndrangheta is strong, the presence of the immigrant workers must have been
welcome, or at least convenient.

          They note that agriculture is not profitable
if transportation and labour costs are high and producers pay about 75 cents
for a carton of fruit.

          In any case, most agricultural outfits may
have Italians on the official rolls, but they clandestinely pay migrant workers
to harvest the fruit — if it is harvested. For years state authorities have
not cracked down on the arrangement.

          Calabria, like other southern Italian regions
rich in agriculture, has long benefited from hefty European Union agricultural
subsidies. To prevent fraud in which few hectares yielded puzzlingly large
harvests, in 2007 the European Union changed its rules to base subsidies on the
number of hectares planted rather than the tons produced.

          The result, some authorities hypothesize, is
that it may be more lucrative for some Calabrian landowners to let their
harvests rot on the tree and collect the subsidies than to pay pickers. In
theory, the migrants may have become less useful and, possibly, less tolerated.

          Still, over nearly two decades, their
presence had become part of the fabric of Rosarno, whose 16,000 residents
included an estimated 2,500 immigrants.

          Some local shops were hurting for the migrants’
business. “Before Christmas I baked a whole batch of sandwich rolls just
for them,” said Letizia Condulucci as she worked the counter at her
family’s bakery.

          Like many Rosarno residents, she defended
what the townspeople had done over the years to help the migrant workers and
was outraged that they had wounded residents. “Ninety-nine percent of us
helped them,” she said. And in the riots, she said, “they destroyed
the town.”

          On January 11, Rosarno residents held a
peaceful protest, marching through the city’s flat concrete grid with a sign
that read: “Abandoned by the state, criminalized by the media. Twenty
years of cohabitation isn’t racism.”

          But conversations with residents revealed a
more complex reality. Many used an oft-heard phrase in Italy: “We’re not
racist, but … “Ultimately, they tended to say that maybe things were better
without the immigrants, since it was hard enough for the Italians to make a

          The city commissioners say that the riots
were fuelled by wild rumours on both sides. The immigrants had heard that local
residents killed an immigrant, while local residents had heard that immigrants
had wounded a pregnant woman so badly that she lost her baby. Both rumours were
false, the commissioners say.

          Still, the violence was dramatic. After immigrants
struck residents and shops with sticks and burned and smashed cars, residents began
responding with violence. By late night on January 9, most immigrants feared
for their safety and voluntarily boarded buses and trains that took them to immigrant
detention centres elsewhere in southern Italy, Rosarno authorities said.

          Those with residency permits, which Doctors
Without Borders says could be as many as half, were free to leave. Alessandra
Tramontano, the director of Doctors Without Borders’ seasonal workers program
in Italy, said the group was “worried” about where the immigrants would
go and “how they will manage the winter, which historically had been spent
in Rosarno.”

          Meanwhile, early in the morning of January
12, a special team of Italian fire-fighters was using demolition equipment to
take down the factory where many had been squatting in conditions widely
denounced as inhumane.

          Campolo, one of Rosarno’s commissioners, said
that even before the riots, the city had received state money to remove the
immigrant encampment, which sits next to a middle school, and build a playground
and sports fields.

          It also plans to build a meeting centre, with
some health care facilities and dormitories, for the migrant workers. Campolo
said the city planned to go ahead with the project. “Of course,” he
said, “for the immigrants, when they come back.”