Why does the Mafia get involved in hauling garbage?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Jan. 11 2008 3:56 PM

Why the Mafia Loves Garbage

Hauling trash and organized crime.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

The Italian government called in the army on Tuesday to clean up the mounting piles of waste in the city of Naples. Residents blame the authorities for not doing more to stop the Camorra, the region's Mafia group, which controls garbage collection and has caused the city's constant waste problem for more than a decade. Organized crime appears to have a hand in trash collection all over the world, from Naples to Tony Soprano's northern New Jersey. Why are gangsters always hauling garbage?

It's Mob Economics 101: Find a business that's easy to enter and lucrative to control. Criminal organizations make lots of money from drugs, human trafficking, and counterfeit goods, but creating a monopoly on garbage collection is attractive because the business itself is legal, and public contracts return big profits. Compared with something like running a casino or grocery store, the logistics of taking trash from Point A to Point B are a no-brainer. Anyone with a truck and a couple of strong guys can make good money, and there's always a demand for the service.

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Here's how it works: The mob organizes the trash-hauling businesses in a given city to prevent competition from driving down prices. They fix prices, rig bids, and allocate territories in such a way that customers can't choose who picks up their garbage. The Camorra, a larger and older group than the Sicilian Mafia, have controlled the industry in Naples for about 25 years. The mob harasses non-Camorra garbage collectors and extorts money from them; meanwhile, its own companies do a shoddy job. The country's Mafia groups have also illegally dumped toxic, industrial waste in Naples and other parts of the country.

Criminal organizations elsewhere in the world also find profit in trash schemes. In parts of Taiwan, gangs dig into the riverbank for gravel and sell it to construction companies. Then, they fill up the holes with waste they've collected. Georgian crime bosses swooped in when the city of Tbilisi privatized waste transport (PDF). In New York City, La Cosa Nostra more or less dominated trash collection from the 1950s until Rudy Giuliani seized control of the industry as mayor in the 1990s. It all started when members worked their way into the Teamsters union, which included garbage truck drivers; this allowed the mob to dictate which companies the drivers would work for, effectively pushing out non-Mafia operations. (The Mafia also controlled the construction sector through unions.)

For a large crime organization, the garbage racket provides relatively little in the way of revenue compared with traditional criminal enterprises like gambling, loan-sharking, and narcotics. This is especially true in Italy, where the mob operates in many industries. The Camorra is thought to make $70 billion a year, much of it from drugs, contraband cigarettes, and DVDs, as well as public sector contracts in construction and cleaning. Another Italian group, the 'Ndrangheta, traffics 80 percent of Europe's cocaine. The Mafia is so pervasive in Italy that, according to a large trade association, it controls one out of every five businesses in the country.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Howard Abadinsky of St. John's University, Jay Albanese of Virginia Commonwealth University, Tom Behan of the University of Kent, James Calder of the University of Texas at San Antonio, Ko-lin Chin of Rutgers University, and James Jacobs of New York University.

Michelle Tsai is a Beijing-based writer working on a book about Chinatowns on six continents. She blogs at ChinatownStories.com.

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