CASTEL VOLTURNO, ITALY —
Father Carlo Ladicicco, a 65-year-old Catholic priest, could be enjoying retirement after 35 years as a missionary in a remote region of Peru. Instead, he is using his pension to subsidize his pastoral outreach to some of the poorest and most exploited African migrants in Italy — just a 40-minute drive from his birthplace in the country’s southern region of Campania.
Sitting in his cramped, sparsely furnished rented bungalow, decorated with keepsakes from his decades in the Peruvian jungle, the bustling silver-haired priest with an easy laugh says, “The mission is the same. Here is where I can really help.”
“Here” is Castel Volturno, one of Italy’s most infamous municipalities, once earmarked by the Camorra, the main Mafia syndicate of Campania and Naples, to become a lavish Italian resort to rival the French Riviera. The ambition was never realized — it wasn’t advanced by the Camorra’s waste companies also dumping toxic waste in the countryside between the cities of Naples and Caserta, earning the area the nickname “Death Triangle.”
What remains of the Camorra’s French Riviera vision is a bedraggled, squalid coastal town, 30 kilometers north of Naples, where many houses built illegally were sold to bamboozled working-class families who bought into the mafia’s grandiose sales pitch.
Now Castel Volturno is one of Italy’s ground-zeros when it comes to a migration crisis that’s roiling Italian politics, straining the country’s resources and trying the patience of Italians. Anti-migrant sentiment, fanned by populist parties, is mounting fast. Italians increasingly are infuriated by the influx of mainly economic migrants from sub-Saharan African countries — an increasing number coming the past two years from Nigeria.
On Wednesday, in dramatic moves to try to curb the migration flow, Italian authorities deployed for the first time a patrol boat in Libyan waters to start a naval effort to block migrants from even hazarding the journey across the Mediterranean Sea. And Sicilian prosecutors ordered the seizure of a German migrant-rescue vessel for breaching a new code of conduct restricting what humanitarian vessels are allowed to do.
It is high summer now and some Italian families who’ve maintained their seaside homes in Castel Volturno against the grain of history present an incongruous picture trooping toward Death Triangle’s beach in their swimwear with kids clutching buckets and spades.
Vacationing families don’t spare a glance at the migrants they encounter as they walk in the sweltering heat past abandoned decaying villas and jungles of vegetation that once were carefully nurtured gardens.
Some houses deserted by despairing owners are now occupied by migrants — the latest generation to buy into the illusion of a promised land. Among their number are hundreds of Nigerian women trafficked into Italy by Nigerian crime syndicates. Italian and European authorities estimate as many as 16,000 Nigerian women have entered Italy the past two years to work as street prostitutes.
“Yes, they’re shocked at how hard life is here for them,” says Father Carlo of the migrants in the town. The men, mainly from Ghana, “tell me they didn’t realize how difficult it would be to get work, find somewhere to live and to get documents.
"They thought Europe would be easy," he adds. "But when they call home, they lie and say everything is fine. They don’t admit things are falling apart because they’re ashamed."
One of the key drivers pushing Africans to migrate, says Father Carlo, is the goal to make money to improve the lives of families back home. Other migrants wanted to flee the confines of a life proscribed by traditional rules and limited by crushing poverty. But poverty is what they find in Italy, too.
For the men, there are scant work opportunities, except poorly paid, back-breaking labor as virtually enslaved agricultural workers for mafia-linked recruiters and landowners.
Recent Ghanian and Nigerian migrants settle in Castel Volturno once they’re allowed to leave reception camps in Sicily or Bari because previous generations of migrants from their countries ended up here — some more than 20 years ago. Many of the older generation of migrants still live in Italy without legal documents — and their children even when born here remain in a legal limbo.
The town — divided into two parts, the abjectly poorer known as Destra Volturno — has seen its population swell in recent months from 16,000 to at least 40,000. “This is a place where you can stay even if you don’t have the proper documents or have been denied asylum or refugee status, and the police won’t bother you,” says Father Carlo.
Castel Volturno isn’t an actual no-go area for law enforcement, but it is a municipality police prefer to oversee gingerly. That’s a reflection of not wanting to stir things up in a town that can erupt into abrupt homicidal violence and angry street protest. Castel Volturno was the scene of an infamous 2008 Camorra massacre of seven African migrants. The slayings sparked violent protests from local migrants.
“It was the Camorra sending a message to Nigerian drug-runners and pimps,” says Filippo Portogese, commander of a province-wide mobile police squad specializing in combating organized crime. “The message was, ‘Hello, be respectful, you’re on our territory and have to reach agreements with us,’” he says.
Portogese says the main Camorra clan in the area isn’t interested in running drugs or operating prostitutes— its focus is mainly major construction scams and waste. But he believes the clan receives tributes from Nigerian syndicates.
Casual violence is common here, prompted by petty squabbles, arguments over drugs or as an expression of despair. Dr. Mariano Scaglione, a radiologist at a local private hospital the government pays to provide public services for an area without a public clinic, sees the evidence regularly. He shows me radiology images of the wounds sustained by migrants caught up in violence — including a 35-year-old Nigerian woman who died when her small bowel was punctured in a knife attack, and a man who suffered three knife wounds to the lower abdomen.
Another migrant who was shot was more fortunate and managed to survive a bullet that lodged in his neck perilously close to the spinal cord.
“I am an emergency resource,” says Father Carlo. He complains about how the authorities in Rome neglect the town. “I am here to help migrants connect to charities, to help them get a lawyer or doctor.” He opens up a sideboard cabinet full of bags of pasta that he gives to those desperate for food — often trafficked women either too sick to work or who’ve been unable to earn enough on the streets to pay their traffickers.
Two years ago, you would see a migrant prostitute every 200 to 300 meters on the highways outside town, he says. “Now there’s a woman every 50 meters,” he sighs. “We are all trying to normalize an absolutely abnormal situation.”