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The village in Italy where mafia have 'stolen' the right to vote

The vicious 'Ndrangheta's grip on the south Italian region of Calabria means that few dare to run for public office.

world Updated: May 29, 2015 14:38 IST

Italy goes to the polls this weekend for local and regional elections but not in the village of Plati in the southern region of Calabria, the heartland of the 'Ndrangheta mafia, which controls much of Europe's cocaine trade.

Such is the local grip of the notorious organised crime syndicate that no one dares put themselves forward for office in the settlement of 3,500 residents, many of whom have relatives in Australia, the destination of choice for generations of emigrants.

A walk through the village near the tip of Italy's toe soon sets the scene: grey half-finished or damaged buildings, roadworks and potholes everywhere you look and rubbish containers spilling over onto the streets.

The only splash of colour is provided by the town hall, which is painted in vivid shades of red and yellow, although the initially cheery impact is shattered as closer inspection reveals that the metal shutters on the windows have been riddled by bullets.

There is much that an ambitious young mayor could get his or her teeth into, but a plaque on the facade of the building helps explain why no one wants the job. It pays homage to a former mayor, Domenico Dimaio, "the pride of the honest residents of Plati, victim of his duty, assassinated in barbaric fashion at the hands of criminals."

Killed on March 27, 1985 following a dispute with local mobsters, Dimaio's name also now adorns the village's only piazza. In the absence of candidates to pick up Dimaio's legacy, the village is run by Luca Rotondi, the smartly-dressed and bespectacled administrator appointed by the region of Reggio Calabria.

"I organise all ongoing business, from the recycling of rubbish to school buses, from balancing the budget to building a play park for children," he told AFP.

Rotondi divides his time between Plati and Bagnara, a neighbouring town of 11,000 residents where the municipal council was dissolved in April because of mafia infiltration.

Rarely off the telephone, he smiles at a rumour that Prime Minister Matteo Renzi may visit Plati next Tuesday, June 2, Italy's Republic Day.

Having first offered his visitors a heavily-sugared espresso, he confides: "This village never ceases to surprise me."

Despite the lack of prospects -- one in two adults are out of work -- and the shadow of crime, Plati has a high birth rate and, according to its administrator, "the mums are very involved in village life."

Rotondi adds: "People come and see me to tell me 'I've got no water' but what do they want me to do? Where do I find the cash?"

To illustrate his point, the civil servant pulls out a file stuffed full of letters he has sent to the region requesting experts be sent to address the problems created by a torrent that runs through the village.

"He is a good person," Giuseppe Lentini a former deputy mayor of Plati says of the administrator before showing AFP the gaping hole left after a giant flood in 1951, which killed 18.

After the disaster, which had a profound impact on the local farming economy, many young people headed Down Under and the secretive, clan-based local mafia tightened its grip on the area, raising funds through kidnapping for ransoms before progressively entering the drugs business with such success that it now runs much of Europe's cocaine trade.

"It is true that grave, atrocious things happened here 30 years ago, but is it right that we are still carrying the legacy of them," asks Lentini. "Must our young people still be living with this burden?"

In the streets, the silence is interrupted by the buzz of mopeds driven by helmet-free young men. The old men watch from plastic chairs on the side of the streets while black-clad women hurry past with children in hand.

"You'd be better filming somewhere else," one teenager tells AFP while another comes and gently requests the deletion of images of him and his daughter sitting on his scooter. "It's not authorised, if it should end up in the hands of the police... you understand."

In the bar on the main street, a base for supporters of Italy's football champions Juventus, the owner offers a coffee on the house but is far from forthcoming. "Here, the young have only one option: get out, either to the north or abroad," is as much as he has to offer on the village's plight.

For Domenico Nasone, the regional coordinator of anti-mafia organisation Libera, the absence of candidates for Sunday's vote is no surprise.

"Potential candidates say, 'Why should I risk my life, why would I try to be a hero?' The majority of people here are honest but, in Calabria, being honest is not enough."

First Published: May 29, 2015 10:47 IST