Italy’s Secret Ships of Poison

The colors of the Mediterranean are strong at this time of year on the border of Calabria and Basilicata. The sun shines brightly and low in the sky. The mountains and the sea are beautiful here and rich in traditions of organic agriculture, music and art that date back to the findings of paleolithic man and the Magna Grecia civilization before the Roman Empire. But all is not well.  The Mediterranean Sea, calm at times and agitated at others, holds the wrecks of “secret ships,” as it whispers and roars the hidden history of its revolutionary past. These ships are known here as the Navi Dei Veleni (ships of poison), and their contents are kept secret from the population and the world by the Italian Mafia/State. This Berlusconi led Mafia/State with its unconstitutional decrees  that violate Article 32 (see note) of the Italian constitution along with others, puts the health of the population at risk through a legacy of toxic and radioactive dumping now coming to light across the sea and landscape.  People are worried: about the economy, the flu, the poor conditions of the hospitals, schools constructed with contaminated building materials that poison the young, and a sea full of ships whose cargos lie unknown and uninvestigated on the sea floor.

In the city of Amantea, Calabria, on October 24, there was a mass International demonstration. Simultaneous actions were held in solidarity in France and Spain as well. Over 400 organizations, local and from all across the Italian peninsula joined together to call for an end to the intentional poisoning of our lands and waters by a criminal/political caste submersed in scandals of sex, prostitution, and  corruption, both on the left and the right. The October 24th demonstration in Amantea was called by the local organizing committee which takes its name in memory of the former commander of the Italian Navy, Natale De Grazia, who died in 1995 under very mysterious circumstances at the age of 39.  Commander De Grazia was at the forefront of the investigation into the trafficking of radioactive and toxic wastes and was the key point person in the investigation of the lost Ships of Poison.  The 24th of October rally brought over 30,000 citizens together with buses from all across the region and as far away as Rome. On a day in Amantea where the sea roared loudly, the people voiced their anger in unison at a State that represents the interests of business and criminals before the health of its citizens and the environment.

Italy’s environment minister, Stefania Prestigiacomo,
on a recent sea cruise.

Much contamination has poisoned the land and water throughout Calabria and Basilicata, with illegal dumpsites and government documentation of elevated levels of cancer-causing substances in the environment. These substances were mixed  with building materials in the city of Crotone and toxic  materials were discovered on the site of an abandoned textile factory on the shores of the sea in Praia a Mare. There is a profound lack here of effective water treatment facilities along the Calabria’s Tyrrhenian coast, and especially in the summer during high tourist season, tons of raw sewage are dumped directly into the sea.  There are thought to be ships with radioactive and toxic waste sunk off the coasts of Cetraro and Maratea, a wild coastline still teaming with sea life that stretches from Calabria to Baslilicata in the north.  The ship off Cetraro is though to be the Cunsky and that off of Maratea the Yvonne A. There are many others.The Italian public prosecutor says there are 40 Ships of Poison, Loyds of London says 24 ships, while Bruno Branciforte, the former head of Italian intelligence SISMI (now AISE) on the 25th of September confirmed 55 ships.

In the week following the passionate cry from Amantea, the Italian national government went to work on an investigation of a shipwreck off the coast of Cetraro. This investigation was a follow-up to one already initiated by the region of Calabria. The region’s investigation discovered and filmed a shipwreck that included what seemed to be iron drums on the sea floor. The ship was covered in fishing nets and was in the same area where analyses of fish done by the local health authority ASL (Aziende Sanitarie Locali) showed high levels of arsenic, chrome and other heavy metals.  This Regional investigation was initiated in part due to the testimony of Mafia Pentito (turncoat) Francesco Fonti, and in part because fisherman had actually fished out waste drums from the sea’s depths.

The national government’s investigation was led by the National Public Prosecutor’s Anti-Mafia division  and the Environmental Minister, Stefania Prestigiacomo. A research ship called the Mare Oceano was hired.  The Mare Oceano is the property of a company called Geolab from Naples that is controlled by the Italian Petroleum and Mining Industry Association.  Geolab is being paid 43,000 euros a day for the work of Mare Oceano by the Italian Mafia/State as this is being written.  The national government’s research has been conducted with no transparency. Local and regional officials, including Calabria’s Assessor of the Environment Silvio Greco – a marine biologist – , were excluded from this investigation as were representatives of national environmental organizations Legambiente and the World Wildlife Federation.

Some of the now “state secret” findings of this investigation called “Operation Cetraro” were reported in the Italian daily La Repubblica on October 29.  The Environmental Minister, Prestigiacomo, and Piero Grasso, public prosecutor and head of Italy’s Anti-Mafia division, reported their findings to the media. Equipped with photographs and a short video, they revealed: that the ship under investigation was a passenger ship called the Catania that was sunk in 1917 by a German submarine, that there was no radioactive or toxic cargo, that the mafia pentito (turncoat) Francesco Fonti who said he sank a ship off of Cetraro’s coast was an unreliable source, that the regional government had caused undue alarm in the population and that all is well beneath the waters of Cetraro. They said that the “case is closed.” This same Piero Grasso admitted for the first time this October that the Italian State has negotiated and made agreements with the Mafia to save the lives of government and judicial figures, generating a wave of condemnations and criticism of a State and Mafia working together hand in hand.  The revelations of “Operation Cetraro” are not sitting well with the local population here as many discrepancies have arisen and many questions remain as to where this Mafia/State’s real intentions lie.

Italy’s Environmental Minister Stefania Prestigiacomo has a questionable past. She comes from the town of Siracusa in Sicily and was part owner of a company there called Sarplast s.p.a.. This company went into bankruptcy in 1997 as a result of diseases and injuries among its workforce from exposure to toxic chemicals and hazardous working conditions. An investigation by police into the practices of the company documented violations of worker safety regulations. Three of the workers had children with birth defects. During the investigation of this company’s bankruptcy, fraudulent activities were discovered that included the embezzlement of billions of the old Italian monetary unit, the lire.  The bankruptcy investigation into this company was halted by the Public Prosecutor of Siracusa because of a law called the maxi amendment, that was made by the Berlusconi government in 2003 and which suspended punishments for these types of corporate legal infractions.  Now Prestigiacomo is responsible for protecting Italy’s lands and seas.

After a couple days of media reports that all was well with the sea in Cetraro, this story still hadn’t convinced local, regional and national environmental activists and organizations, the local and regional authorities, Calabria’s Environmental Assessor Silvio Greco, or the leadership of the opposition parties in Italy. Also at the level of the European Parliament, concerns are being raised by the European Green Parties, the European Commission on the Environment and others about the Italian government’s handling of this situation. Government insiders in Rome tell me that the government is playing politics with the health of the people and environment and has only worked to obstruct the truth on the story of these ships.  The spokesperson for the Environmental Minister became very defensive and incredulous when I posed the possibility of State and Mafia collusion, but could give me no clear responses to any of my questions. He ducked around the question of whether or not the minister believed that any of these ships really exists, by repeating that they didn’t find any waste on the ship they investigated.  Calabria’s Environmental Assessor Silvio Greco is hoping that this story gets out across  the world and that the Italian state is followed closely in this investigation by the international community.

On Saturday, October 31,  a press conference was held in Cetraro by representatives of the coalition that organized the October 24 demonstration in Amantea. They outlined their concerns about the discrepancies and doubts left by the Italian Mafia/State’s “Operation Cetraro” investigation. There concerns included: notable differences in the videos of the ships from the region and the state, different coordinates for where the research was conducted, and a complete absence of transparency on the part of the national authorities. One notable difference in the State’s video is that the fishing nets are no longer visible and nor are the iron drums.  They voiced perplexity as to why the Ministry of the Environment would want to throw water on this and other burning environmental emergencies across the region instead of working on solutions to the grave health risks that face the population here in Calabria. The participants in this press conference included environmental expert Francesco Cirillo who has followed these issues for over a decade, Mauro de Marco of the organization Zero Rifiuti (i.e., Zero Garbage), and Gianfranco Posa representing the Natale de Grazia committee among others.

The health risks here are caused by serious and documented ecological emergencies.  In the city of Crotone a school, roads and other buildings were built using materials mixed with toxic wastes.  Analyses administered by the local health authorities revealed high levels of cancer causing heavy metals in blood samples taken from children that attend the school, now known as the “School of Poisons” in Crotone. In Praia a Mare near the border of Basilicata and Maratea, an abandoned textile factory sits on lands contaminated by toxic dumping, also on sea coast. In Aiello Calabro near Amantea and along the river Oliva, radiation levels 6 times higher than normal have been measured and a population plagued with cancerous tumors seeks the truth about the cargo of the Jolly Rosso. The Jolly Rosso beached on the shore of Amantea in 1990 after a failed attempt to sink it at sea and then disappeared after two days.  Numerous other stories were documented, as well as the analysis of the fish off the coast of Cetraro.  The analysis of the fish off  Cetraro was done by the regional health authorities ASL and showed levels of heavy metals like arsenic, cobalt and chrome at higher than levels considered safe by Italian standards. In April of 2007, based on the findings of these analyses, the regional health authorities and the head of the Port of Cetraro banned fishing in certain areas. Then in August of 2008 this ban was mysteriously lifted despite the fact that no other analyses of the fish were taken. At the October 31 press conference the participants asked that the entire population of Calabria be given a health screenings to determine the risk factors posed by the environment.

On the first of November, the first major reports of problems with the Italian government’s “Operation Cetraro” began to surface in the regional media. Domenico Micelli reported in the daily newspaper Calabria Ora that there are at least three ships sunk off the coast of Cetraro and the coordinates of the ship investigated by the region did not match those of the ship investigated by the state. On the November 2, the World Wildlife Federation of Italy asked for the case of the ship off Cetraro to be re-opened by Minister Prestigiacomo and Piero Grasso.   WWF also pointed out discrepancies in the videos made by the region and the state. They asked for an explanation as to why the coordinates of the area investigated by the Region and the State are over 6 kilometers apart.  They call on the government to carry out their investigation with transparency and involvement of independent researchers from national environmental  organizations and regional and local governments.

On November 3, this sequence of discrepancies was reported in the national press. The Italian daily La Repubblica reports that a secret document has come to light from 2006 that confirms at least 3 different shipwrecks off the coast of Cetraro, thus bringing into question the State’s quick investigation and closing of the case. There are also serious questions being posed by Environmental Assessor Silvio Greco about the research methods employed by the Mare Oceano, he points out that the research vessel does not have the correct equipment to measure certain types of radionucliedes. There are also discrepancies about the timing of Prestigiacomo’s revelations to the media. She said that the ship was not the presumed Cunsky even before the robot was sent down to shoot the images of the Catania, giving the Mafia/State’s version a prefabricated veneer.

Italy is facing difficult times. The economy shows no signs of rebound and the stagnancy of wages keeps the majority of people struggling to make ends meet. The mass media are dominated by scandalous reports on prostitutes and transsexuals. Berlusconi faces the imminent risk of prison for corruption and fraud and says that even if he is found guilty by the “communist” judges he will not leave his post. On the October 22, after being arrested for having 20 grams of marijuana, a young man named Stefano Cucchi was beaten to death at the hands of state authorities in the Regina Coeli prison in Rome sending shockwaves throughout the peninsula.  Social and ecological justice are hard to find in Italy, and while much of the population seems content with their football games and material distractions, a growing and very well informed mass movement is afoot. Here in Calabria the voices are clamoring for the truth about what dangerous secrets the Mafia/State is hiding beneath the waters of the Mediterranean Sea. The restless citizenry here is also proposing their own investigation into this matter and is coming up with all types of creative solutions to the problems facing this area. There is a strong streak of resistance in the people here as they refuse to allow a corrupt political class to play games with the health of the people and the future of our beautiful mountains and sea.

Note: Article 32  [Health]

(1) The republic protects individual health as a basic right and in the public interest; it provides free medical care to the poor.

(2) Nobody may be forcefully submitted to medical treatment except as regulated by law.  That law may in no case violate the limits imposed by the respect for the human being.

MICHAEL LEONARDI currently lives in Calabria. He teaches English at the University of Calabria in Cosenza and at the Vocational Highschool in Maratea for training hotel and restaurant workers. He can be reached at



Michael Leonardi lives in Italy and can be reached at