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Italian Police Bust Mafia Ring In Large Refugee Center


Europe's largest migrant center is in southern Italy. For thousands of people fleeing war, it is their first stop after a harrowing journey by sea across the Mediterranean. Now investigators say the center has been run by the mafia for a decade. Police arrested 68 people this week, including a priest and the head of the association that runs the center. Fabrizio Gatti is an investigative reporter for L'Espresso and he's covered the center over the years. He joins us now via Skype from Italy. Welcome.

FABRIZIO GATTI: Hi. Hi to everybody.

SHAPIRO: Tell us what these 68 people who were arrested are accused of doing.

GATTI: They're accused of supporting mafia organization and being members of mafia organization. The priest was the spiritual assistant of the camp. And he was paid back. He got about 3 million and a half euro in the last 10 years, which is about $4 million, just to give praise and spiritual assistance to the refugees. Others were managers of the charity that was running the camp, and the other were simple gangsters.

SHAPIRO: If this organization was skimming millions of dollars off the top of funds that were supposed to have been used for refugees at the camp, what impact did that have on the services that were supposed to have been going to the refugees?

GATTI: Well, they host the refugees. It's a former huge army base. It was air force base, actually. It's a big one. And there are shacks where the refugees are held. And also, they are supposed to give clothings and teaching languages - Italian, English - and also food. As for the food, investigators found out that they gave the food which is used to be given to the pigs and not to the persons, and very, very bad food in very bad condition. This is just a way to save up money.

The state gave the contract. The state gave the money. But the state did not control, not check on the way this charity - and the name of the charity is Mercy, but was quite merciless - the state didn't control how the charity spent the money and what they did inside the camp.

SHAPIRO: I understand the Misericordia association that runs the center has actually sued you over your reporting, and you won the lawsuit because you were able to prove all of your claims. How does the organization respond to these latest allegations?

GATTI: Well, now they'll try just to hide away because nobody's responding there. It's like a federation. And Misericordia is all over Italy. And in other places they are harnessed and they do their job properly. There is also support by the church also because it's very linked to the church. And what they're saying is that the problems in the south were just the linked to the south, and not all the federation is involved in this mafia supporting.

What - I have to say that when I was sued I was not sued only by the local Misericordia, but I was also sued by the national federation of Misericordia. That means that they were on the same side. Now they are pretending they didn't know and, of course, it used to be like that.

SHAPIRO: Do you think this corruption goes much deeper than the arrests this week?

GATTI: I think so. I think so because it's not possible that the state pretended not to see, not to know and has been giving the contract to this charity for 10 years. We also - under Berlusconi government, some lawyers denounced it and the lawyers went under trial. Now everybody's pretended I didn't know, but everybody knew, unfortunately.

SHAPIRO: Fabrizio Gatti is an investigative reporter for L'Espresso in Italy. Thank you for joining us.

GATTI: Bye-bye.

(SOUNDBITE OF GROUNDISLAVA'S "THE DIG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.