by Irene Peano

For a couple of weeks, roughly between 22nd June and 7th July, the otherwise anonymous town of Mondragone, located on the Domitian littoral in the district of Caserta, just north of Naples, became the stage of a socio-political drama that crossed Italian borders and made the international news. What captured attention were the clashes that erupted on 25th June between the Bulgarian community, a decade-long presence that mostly feeds the local farm-labour market, and citizens angered at its members’ violation of the quarantine measures that had been imposed some days before. On 22nd June, 43 people, mostly Bulgarians inhabiting the five, 11-storey blocks known as ‘Palazzine Cirio’, were found positive to COVID-19. Fear of contagion spread like wildfire, especially since the living conditions in the blocks were described as ‘highly promiscuous’. Three days later, dozens among the quarantined dwellers staged a protest in the streets surrounding the blocks, claiming they had been left without food and they needed to get out and go to work to earn their living. But rumours and news of ‘Bulgarians’ violating sanitary prescriptions had already been circulating in the previous days, also relating the chain of contagion to people who had recently arrived from Bulgaria, where a new surge of cases was registered. 

Racist attitudes, long simmering among the local population, found a violent outlet, as in previous instances, and were fueled by politicians and the media, compounded with claims and innuendos, aired in national and international public discourse, that behind the riots were rather unspecified ‘mafia’ interests. The label ‘Roma’ was insistently applied to the inhabitants of the quarantined area. Pictures of people throwing furniture out of the windows of the Cirio blocks made the rounds in newspapers, tv shows, newsreels and social networks, often without contextualisation: before the shots were captured, some of the Bulgarian workers’ minivans had just been attacked, sparking the angry reaction. Later, during the night, another vehicle belonging to a Bulgarian citizen will be set on fire by a Molotov cocktail. Counter-protesters had moved from the town hall to the Cirio blocks themselves, and threats as well as violent attacks against the ‘Roma’ were documented. Demands of immediate expulsion (which some defined as appeals to ethnic cleansing) went hand in hand with accusations against politicians and law-enforcement agents, who were deemed to have adopted too ‘soft’ an attitude towards the ‘foreigners’’ breach of quarantine measures, and more generally against what is described as their ‘degraded’ lifestyle, breeding crime and insecurity. 

Militarisation followed, with 50 army effectives dispatched since the night of the riots to surveil the area, as per the Regional governor’s will. A few days later came the electoral parade of Matteo Salvini, former Minister of Internal Affairs and leader of the notoriously xenophobic Lega party, which in Mondragone seems to reap rather large consensus (30% of votes in the last European elections, albeit with a turnout of 34% only, compared with a much lower 8.3% of preferences in the 2018 general election and only 3% in the 2017 mayoral poll, which both registered almost twice as many voters, a turnout in the order of 60 to 66%). And yet, a vibrant protest met the politician and his acolytes. Dozens of locals (especially youth and anti-fascist groups) together with Neapolitan militants made Salvini retreat from his improvised podium, set up right in front of the blocks where an estimated 1000 Bulgarians live. Once again, the idiom of ‘mafia interests’ was employed instrumentally to discredit protesters, who, despite having been charged at by the riot police who surrounded and protected Salvini’s rally – with elderly people injured -, were also, typically and without ground, accused of being ‘violent’. The Lega leader, who was trying to capitalise on the events to draw votes to his candidate in the upcoming elections for the Regional government of Campania (in whose jurisdiction Mondragone lies), was not put off by such blatant defeat. He returned three days later, this time unannounced, to a yet more militarised setting, in which all forms of dissent were pre-empted. 

Finally, lights seem to have faded on the whole issue since the quarantine was lifted on 7th July – after 60 more people, many of whom farm labourers who had been in contact with those living in the Cirio blocks, or who themselves lived there, were found positive to the virus. A farm in which more than 20 of them worked had to be closed down temporarily by law enforcement, after the owner had refused to do so in compliance with the prescriptions of health authorities. All those who had contracted the virus were moved to an ad hoc structure where they could be isolated and receive the necessary treatment, if needed (most showed no symptoms). News of ‘anti-crime’ raids, carried out by the local police upon the directives of the town’s mayor the day after the end of the quarantine, passed largely unnoticed. In the words of their promoter, the raids aimed at tackling both ‘illegal immigration’ and illicit labour intermediation or caporalato (gangmastership), a catch-all category which in the last decade has come to represent all forms of exploitation of (migrant) labour, especially in the agricultural sector. Again, gangmastership is often, if spuriously, associated with ‘mafia’. During the raids several minivans, which lacked the proper insurance and were judged unfit for circulation, were seized by law enforcement agents. Some Bulgarians are said to have left the town and returned to their home country. Yet, despite all the attention they received, their voice is distinctly absent from public discourse. 

However, this is not the first time ‘Bulgarians’ in Mondragone have been put under the spotlight. In 2018, alarms were sounded on their living and working conditions by several media outlets, corroborated by trade-union inquiries. The 4th report on ‘Agromafie e caporalato’ (agromafias and gangmastership), published by Osservatorio Placido Rizzotto (a research spin-off of one of Italy’s main unions, CGIL) in the same year, dedicates a section specifically to the case of Mondragone, focusing primarily on its Bulgarian ‘Roma’ farm-worker population. 

Catholic national newspaper L’Avvenire, one of the most sensitive on the issue of migration, ran several stories concerning not only the gross exploitation of Bulgarians’ labour in the farms, but also on Bulgarian Roma children’s prostitution on the Domitian littoral.

A criminal investigation followed, which last May led to the conviction of three Italian men to six years’ imprisonment. In 2016, according to the abovementioned report, 5-6 minivans with Bulgarian plates, employed to transport farm workers to the fields, were burned down. This was interpreted as a score settling between local gangs and Bulgarian ones, in relation to the control of workers and the racketeering of farms employing them. An interviewee they cite claims that in the same period a clash involving 2000 people, half Italian and half Bulgarian, took place in the vicinity of the Cirio blocks, also known as ‘the Bulgarian ghetto’. After this, it is thought that the two sides reached some sort of agreement, sharing the cake between them and opting for non-belligerence. The Bulgarian ghetto is here associated also with drug dealing, female prostitution and cigarette smuggling, and it is implied that Bulgarian ‘organisations’ took advantage of the power vacuum that followed the dismantling of the local cartels by the judiciary in 2013.

Episodes of overt racism against the ‘Roma’ of Mondragone are also not new. In 2018, according to a local activist interviewed by Internazionale, a man was shot by a local boy and barely survived, whilst anti-immigrant raids are a frequent past-time for local ‘baby gangs’. And the scene of chairs being thrown out of windows in the Cirio blocks uncannily resonates with another incident, dating back a few years, when the landlord of one of the flats forcibly evicted his Bulgarian tenants, who could no longer afford to pay the rent, disposing of all their furniture through the windows. 

Other spectres also haunt the area, and were evoked in relation to the last incidents: most notably, that of the 1990 slaughter, which has come to be remembered as the ‘strage di Pescopagano’ after the name of the nearby village where the massacre took place. This violent episode was one of a few of its kind (another being that which took place in 2008 in nearby Castel Volturno, which the judiciary recognized as bearing a racist matrix, the only instance of such kind). In Pescopagano, Camorra gangs shot and killed three African migrants, randomly wounding and murdering also another two men (one Iranian and the other an Italian who had previously appeared on national TV asking for the killing of migrants). This was alternatively analysed as a punitive expedition to counter African gangs’ increasing control of the heroin market on the littoral, or as an internal scuffle between two rival Camorra clans, one of which would have killed the migrants as a sort of warning to their opponents. 

Indeed, the Bulgarians are but the last in a series of waves of migrant settlement that began in the 1980s with Northern Africans and intensified in the following decades, when a large contingent of sub-Saharan Africans (among whom large numbers of Nigerians and Ghanaians) found refuge in the area. It was only in the 2000s, and most especially after 2007, that increasing numbers of Eastern Europeans also made their way into this as in many other Italian districts, following their countries’ accession to the EU. It is thought that some Bulgarians (many of whom originate from the city of Sliven and its surroundings, especially Nova Zagora, but also Stara Zagora, Yambol, Varna and the Montana region) had already been present since the early 1990s, giving rise to a sort of migratory chain.

Whilst migrants across the district of Caserta are employed in large numbers in the farming sector (2016 estimates speak of around 49000 Italian farm workers and 22000 non-Italian ones, of whom about 11000 from Eastern Europe, half of them women and 30% hired informally), the agricultural vocation of the area has progressively declined since the 1960s. back then, the Neapolitan middle classes had elected the Domitian littoral as their holiday destination, giving rise to a wild, unregulated ‘construction frenzy’ that eroded much arable land and coastal ecosystems to make space for summer houses and beach resorts. Indeed, it is in this context that the Cirio blocks were erected at the end of the 1970s, on land which had previously belonged to the food giant, Cirio, that owned a tomato processing plants in the vicinity, previously dismantled. One of the construction firms in charge of the works belonged to notorious Neapolitan entrepreneur Corrado Ferlaino, whose claim to fame is associated with signing Diego Maradona in during his presidency at Napoli SCC football team, inaugurating the team’s most glorious era.

This is the setting in which organized Camorra cartels from the area consolidated and internationalized their business interests, associating the drug trade and control of the growing market in sexual services, provided by migrant women along the Domitian route (with a predominance of Nigerian women who were, and still are, held by contracts of debt bondage, threats, and various forms of violence), with illicit waste management. Indeed, farmland and concrete quarries became the dumping ground for all kinds of refuse, including toxic industrial waste. Sea and fresh-water pollution ensued. In parallel, the farming industry became much more capital and labour intensive, converting to high-profit horticultural, industrial and fruit crops, as well as intensifying the production of wine and dairy (especially mozzarella, whose buffalo variety has its EU-certified, protected designation of origin in this district). 

Changes in production methods and outputs also determined the demand for new and large contingents of labourers, whose supply came from outside national borders also following the closure of migratory routes to Northern Europe (Switzerland, France, Germany, the U.K.) starting in the 1970s. In the 1980s, one of the leading and most profitable crops, the tomato, suffered severe losses due to the spread of a viral infection that killed the plants. After more than a century, the production of world-renowned tomatoes for peeling and canning had to shift east, to the district of Foggia, in nearby Northern Apulia. Indeed, much of the farm-worker population in the area follows the seasonal cycles of agricultural production and harvest, and moves between the district of Caserta and many others. A large number of Bulgarian farm workers, mostly from Sliven, is also registered in the district of Foggia, where they previously inhabited a large shantytown, forcibly dismantled by local authorities in 2017.

The degradation of the environment that progressively affected the district was one of the factors contributing to the depreciation and progressive abandonment of real estate. The resettlement of thousands of people who had lost their homes in the earthquakes that hit nearby districts at the beginning of the 1980s in the large number of empty holiday houses gave the final blow, definitively turning the district into the sprawling hinterland of Naples’ metropolitan area, one of the most densely populated in Europe. 

It is in this context that migrants inserted themselves, filling the demand for cheap labour in various sectors: aside from agriculture, the textile industry and the trade in forged goods, drug dealing and the sale of sexual services, employed increasing numbers of foreigners, according to ethnicised and racialised division of labour. Currently, Mondragone as much as other coastal towns in the area are seeking to invest in a renewed tourist industry, promoting the district’s food excellencies whose production must be guaranteed by a cheap and docile labour force. The explosion of underlying contradictions, of simmering tensions created by exclusionary policies and mechanisms that divide migrants from locals, and among themselves into different communities, might threaten attempts to cleanse the image of an already troubled area of dubious reputation.

Irene Peano is a postdoctoral researcher, ERC Advanced Grant ‘The Colour of Labour: The Racialised Lives of Migrants’ (PI Cristiana Bastos), Institute of Social Sciences, University of Lisbon.


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