Inside Europe’s most dangerous city plagued by carjackings and drug cartels
On the surface, Catania, Italy makes for a striking Mediterranean city with ancient piazzas and vibrant Baroque buildings.
But nestled in the shadow of Mount Etna, Sicily’s “Black City” is in the grips of a crime epidemic with street muggings and carjackings on the rise.
The spike in street crimes comes amid a drive by the Italian police to curb the influence of Sicily’s famed Mafia families who have long-standing connections to the island.
A massive drug haul took place earlier this year off the coast of Catania in which Italian police swooped on two tonnes of cocaine floating in the sea.
The seizure was the largest in Italy’s history pointing to the growing significance of Sicility and the port of Catania to drug cartels operating in the Mediterranean.
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Catania was given the nickname the “black city” due to the fact many buildings have turned black due to the accumulation of volcanic soot and ashes, leading to their darkened appearance.
Tourists flock to marvel at Catania each year at Mount Etna’s frequent eruptions are often rich pickings for street gangs.
The rise in thefts has led visitors to be advised not to walk the city’s streets at night.
Travel safety site Travesafe-abroad advised tourists visiting Catania: “Don’t wear expensive jewellery. Be sure your bags (purse and camera) are slung across your body and do not carry a lot of cash with you.
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“Be alert and aware of pickpockets, and motorcycle-riding snatch thieves targeting handbags, wallets, and mobile phones. Generally avoid walking at night and take a taxi, like around the train station.”
Visitors to Catania this summer have reported the town looks like a “dump” with “dubious-looking people” standing on street corners.
A recently returned tourist posted a scathing travel review on social media, writing on LinkedIn, holidaymaker Paul Topping wrote: “Our 4-star hotel is in a minus 4-star area and we set out at night for dinner ensuring all that we carry only 100 euros in case we get mugged. The hotel staff tell us to be careful.
“Graffiti walls, dirty streets, garbage, more abandoned cars and lots of undesirables whom you avoid making eye contact with. It makes us feel like we are on some sort of movie set.”
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After a dinner out at a restaurant he reports: “We reroute our trip back to the hotel, staying under street lights. If we are going to get mugged at least we can see what’s going on.”
Low-level street crime in not the only concern, Catania is also blighted by organised criminals linked to the powerful ‘Ndrangheta’ mafia clans.
The ‘Ndrangheta’ is largely regarded as Italy’s most powerful organized crime gang.
They are accused of money laundering, criminal tax evasion, drug dealing and arms smuggling.
The gang is centred in Calabria, southern Italy, and is regarded as one of Europe’s largest and most powerful crime syndicates, having surpassed the Sicilian mafia in recent decades by delivering tens of billions of euros worth of cocaine from South America to Europe.
Back in May Police in Italy arrested 108 people in a huge operation targeting the crime group in an operation code-named Eureka.
Raids took place in Catania as well as in Rome, Milan, Salerno, bologna, and eight other cities.
The mafia is suspected of smuggling massive amounts of cocaine from South America to Europe via cargo ships docked in Antwerp, Rotterdam, and the Calabrian port of Gioia Tauro.
Catania has emerged as a major destination for massive drug shipments, as well as a critical location for sea and air routes connecting South America, North Africa, and Sicily.
In the case of drug transit by sea, packages of drugs are left floating in the open sea, and coordinates defining the specific location of the cargo are given to those in charge of retrieving it.
Antonello Cracolici, the Regional Anti-Mafia Commission, addressed the issue of criminal groups and gangs operating in the province during a meeting at the Prefecture of Enna. The commission gathered with the Committee for Order and Security, twenty mayors of the province, and other institutional leaders.
Mr Cracolici stated that in Sicily, there exists a powerful organization known as “Cosa Nostra”.
He said: “I don’t think we can say, in Sicily, that there is a territory that is immune from the mafia presence, what has emerged so far is that, albeit with different characteristics, in Sicily there is a superstructure, which exerts its conditioning, called Cosa Nostra.”
Additional reporting by Maria Ortega.
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