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Moment that mattered: A 6.2-magnitude earthquake destroys Amatrice

This aerial photo shows the historical part of the town of Amatrice, central Italy, after an earthquake, Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2016. The magnitude 6 quake struck at 3:36 a.m. (0136 GMT) and was felt across a broad swath of central Italy, including Rome where residents of the capital felt a long swaying followed by aftershocks. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

An aerial photo of the historic part of Amatrice after the earthquake

The ground started shaking at 3:36am on Wednesday morning and almost immediately the buildings started crumbling. The earthquake struck the Apennine regions of central Italy at a magnitude of 6.2 on the Richter scale and throughout the night the aftershocks – some nearly as strong as the first tremor – kept coming. The villages of Accumoli and Pescara del Tronto suffered severe damage, with rescuers searching the debris for survivors and bodies for days. But the hardest hit was Amatrice, which has a permanent population of about 2,000. “The town is no more,” Amatrice mayor Sergio Pirozzi told reporters. “Half the town no longer exists.” On 15th November, the total death tally of the earthquake across the affected areas rose to 299 when a 74-year-old woman from Amatrice died from the injuries she had sustained nearly three months earlier, bringing the total number of victims from her hometown to 238.

Dr Anna Sergi, deputy director at the University of Essex’s centre for criminology was in London when she heard the news. Her immediate reaction was panic. “I have family members who live in the area,” she says. “I called my sister. She wasn’t affected, but she knew people who were.”

Having made sure her family was safe, Dr Sergi’s interest in the case became professional. Knowing that previous reconstruction in the region had been tainted by mafia involvement, she started asking how to keep crime syndicates out of the rebuilding efforts this time. She wasn’t alone. On the Sunday after the earthquake, Italy’s anti-mafia prosecutor Franco Roberti spoke to the Italian newspaper La Repubblica. “Post-earthquake reconstruction is historically a delicious morsel for criminal groups and business interests,” he said. Back in 1980, a large earthquake in Irpinia had killed more than 2,400 people, and Roberti holds mafia construction work partly to blame. “Behind those thousands of dead was reckless building and [mafia] clan affairs,” Roberti said. “And without wishing to rush judgment I see that also in 2016 many buildings crumbled, [including] public buildings. Too many.”

Amatrice is an old town, with many of its structures dating back to medieval times. But some of the buildings that were devastated should not have come down. The Romolo Capranica primary school, for example, had received a state-funded €700,000 upgrade in 2012 to comply with anti-earthquake safety standards. The earthquake reduced parts of it to rubble, leading anti-mafia investigators to ask police to seize documentation on how the government’s money had been spent.

While Roberti expressed hope that lessons would be learned from previous disasters, Dr Sergi is pessimistic about keeping the mafia out of reconstruction in Amatrice. “The likelihood of dirty money or investments made in the construction sector and the relief system after an emergency crisis – especially after a natural disaster – is directly proportional to the level of corruption that was there before,” she says. And when in 2009 nearby L’Aquila was struck by a 6.3-magnitude earthquake, “the presence of mafia clans in the reconstruction and the rebuild was massive.”

“People believe that at some point you will see someone coming with a bag of cash, but these things happen because there are already relationships in place”

The mafia’s ties to Italy’s construction business are “a relationship as old as time,” says Dr Sergi. Clans can cash in on earthquakes by winning contracts and paying subcontractors under the odds to do a substandard job. “They can get
authorisation for buildings which might not match required quality standards because they know someone who knows someone who knows someone at the office – they get the signature anyway,” she says. Emergency rebuilding work is particularly prone to this scheme, says Dr Sergi, because due diligence on the finance of construction companies is often relaxed for the sake of a
speedy start to construction.

In Italy, emergency government reconstruction work is funded in part by Italian drivers through the accisa system, by which small charges are added to petrol prices in response to incidents. Today, Italians are still paying accise for the 1980 Irpinia earthquake, the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake – and Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia. Public money can thus sometimes be filtered to mafia construction companies – and as Italy is one of the most seismically active countries in the world, their shoddy construction can cost lives.

On 29th August, CNN reported that special police officers of the finance ministry had been sent to the region surrounding Amatrice to monitor reconstruction. But Dr Sergi thinks it’s too early to tell if they will be able to stop criminal organisations from getting involved. “It depends on what they’re looking for. I think there’s a misunderstanding about how mafia infiltration works,” she says. “People believe that at some point you will see someone coming with a bag of cash offering you something, but that’s not quite right. These things happen because there are already relationships in place and networks already working in a certain manner. Most likely [tackling corruption will mean] checking transactions in a very, very deep way. It’s not just about asking the person in front of you, ‘Who did this money come from?’ – it’s about asking the person before him, and before him.”

What’s important to bear in mind, Dr Sergi adds, is that organised-crime involvement is not just a matter of the mafia versus the rest. “These things are usually done with the blessing of politicians and businesspeople. This is something that the state needs to acknowledge through imposing anti-corrupt practices,” she says. “An anti-corruption system starts with the acknowledgment that there is a grey area where everyone benefits from this, not just mafia people. It can also be local politicians who advance their careers out of these relationships.”

Dr Sergi concedes that Roberti’s declaration is a step forward. “It’s a statement which others before him didn’t quite make,” she says. But she adds that awareness of the potential for mafia infiltration will need to be greater than ever. “There have been other earthquakes since Amatrice was destroyed”, she says. “We all need to remain vigilant.”

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