Last Saturday got weird.
First we had to cross the Strait of Messina from Sicily into Calabria, the Southernmost province of mainland Italy. I had a small language-barrier crisis at the cafe that nearly caused me to miss the ferry. In the rush to leave I knocked my freshly-poured cappuccino onto the ground. Anyone who has had a cappuccino in Italy will recognize how tragic that is. If I believed in omens I would say this was one, but I don’t, so whatever.
We had a nice day of riding, including an enormous hill that Thomas wrote about in his last post. It was only at the top of that hill that Thomas realized he had lost his iPhone, and that he had probably left it on the beach back at sea level. He decided to go back and look for it. Cristina and I were not so courageous. It was already mid-afternoon, and the weather was wet and cold. We decided that we’d meet at a designated point a little further down the road. After a cursory glance at the map, we settled on a town called Rosarno.
The ride was pleasant enough. The road descended gently between neatly-planted olive orchards, each dotted with little white and yellow flowers. But as we drew closer something started to feel a little… off. Maybe it was the giant mounds of stinking trash that were dumped along the otherwise scenic road. Maybe it was just the weather.
We rode into Rosarno just before sunset. The town is hard to describe, but I’ll try to sum it up in two words: dismal and sinister. It’s hard to say why the vibe was so dark. The road was in rough shape, and there were a lot of abandoned storefronts, but there was something else that we couldn’t quite put our finger on. Maybe it was the obvious racial inequality. The population seemed to be divided into two distinct groups: white people in cars and black people on rickety old bikes. What was that about?
In any case, the town was creepy and we were not about to sleep there. Thomas still hadn’t arrived, so Cristina and I took off into the countryside to find a campsite. By this time it was getting dark. At one point we stopped at a rusted iron gate that opened onto an abandoned warehouse. “Should we sleep in there?” It could have been a scene from a horror movie.
We pressed on, passing dozens of inexplicably creepy orchards until we got to the beach. Its vast sandy expanse would have been lovely without all the garbage. And the large, stray dog. “Yeah, maybe not.”
On our way to the beach we had seen a sign pointing toward a campsite. We wound around on tiny country roads until we found it. When we rang the intercom, the gate opened onto another world.
The campsite looked like the 90s. The decor was tiki-bar chic. The promotional postcards were obviously faded, as though they’d been printed a generation ago and never used. The only other guests were a handful of Germans. Everything was a little bizarre, but it didn’t matter. What mattered was that we felt safe.
After we set up our tent, we rode back into town to find Thomas. The rural roads had only grown creepier in the dark, but we got back to town and found Thomas at the designated meeting place. It took us all of five seconds to get to the burning question: What is the deal with this creepy ass town? So we googled it.
First we learned about the race riots.
Calabria is home to thousands of African immigrants. Most are in the country legally. Many are not. Often these immigrants pay to come to Calabria on the pretext that they’ll be given a legitimate job. Instead, they’re forced into itinerant agricultural labour. They get paid under the table at rates that are well below Italy’s minimum wage.
In Rosarno, hundreds of Africans live in squalid conditions in an abandoned agricultural facility just outside of town. They sleep in crowded conditions without heat or running water. (It may be the same abandoned warehouse that Cristina and I declined to enter, though I wasn’t able to confirm that suspicion.)
In January of 2010, an immigrant from Togo was shot with a pellet gun in a nearby town. Hundreds of African immigrants took to the streets of Rosarno in protest. The protest turned into riots. Immigrants torched cars, broke shop windows, and clashed with police. The riots also sparked retaliatory attacks in which immigrants were beaten and shot with pellet guns.
In the aftermath, Italian authorities rounded up all of the town’s African immigrants and removed them from the area. Those who were in the country illegally were detained for identification and deportation. Makeshift dwellings were bulldozed. The Guardian referred to the incident as an ethnic cleansing.
Even after that bloody episode, African immigrants have an obvious presence in Rosarno. Whether the local Italian population likes it or not, the region’s economy is dependent on cheap labour. The region hasn’t made much international news recently, but I think it’s safe to assume that conditions remain dire and tensions remain high.
The second thing we learned was that Rosarno is a major hub of activity for the ‘Ndrangheta. In case you’re not familiar with this jolly bunch, here are some fun facts:
- The ‘Ndrangheta are the Calabrian version of the Mafia. They are by most accounts Italy’s most powerful crime syndicate, eclipsing the Sicilian Cosa Nostra and the Neapolitan Camorra.
- Rosarno services the nearby Port of Gioia Tauro, a major commercial shipping facility. The ‘Ndrangheta are alleged to maintain control of the port, which they use as an entry point for much of Europe’s cocaine imports (I’ve read estimates between 30 and 80%).
- Rumour has is that the ‘Ndrangheta became the preferred partners of the Colombian cartels by being more reliable and professional than the Sicilian Mafia.
- The drug trade is their bread and butter, but the Ndrangheta is involved in a host of other activities. Some of these are classic mafia fare: running extortion rackets and rigging public works contracts. They’re also involved in illegal garbage disposal, which might explain why so many of Calabria’s roads and towns are strewn with rubbish.
- In the 1970s they expanded into the kidnapping business. The most famous case was the kidnapping of John Paul Getty III, the grandson of a wealthy oil tycoon. A ransom was eventually paid, but only after the captors mailed the family a package containing a lock of hair and an ear.
- They’ve also branched out into some more exotic activities, including the dumping of toxic and radioactive waste. Most of the waste is allegedly loaded onto ships, which are either sunk off the coast or shipped to places like Somalia, where poor governance allows for the waste to be dumped with impunity.
- There have been at least two major internecine conflicts within the organization. The First ‘Ndrangheta War in the 1970s led to approximately 300 murders while the second, from 1985 to 1991, killed an estimated 700 people.
- The ‘Ndrangheta are bound together by close family ties, which are consolidated through intermarriage. These family bonds may be the reason that the gang has produced notoriously few informants, making them exceedingly difficult to prosecute.
We also learned (to bring things full-circle) that the ‘Ndrangheta controls most of the agriculture around Rosarno. They’re suspected of acting as enforcers of the region’s appalling agricultural labour market, keeping the migrant labourers in check in order to preserve the profitability of the orchards.
As we left Rosarno the next day, we couldn’t help but wonder what we’d gotten ourselves into. What if the entire province of Calabria ended up being a crime-infested, trash-strewn shambles? Had we ventured into some kind of wasteland?
Read our next post to find out!