Mafia made money from migrants, but we’re cleaning up the system – Rome Mayor Virginia Raggi

At the forefront of Europe’s refugee crisis, Rome is struggling with a growing number of migrants. Having landed on Italy’s shores, they head north into the capital in search of work and refuge, but instead face the Roman mafia, which aims to profit from their misfortunes. The city’s administration has promised to overhaul the system – but is it succeeding? Can the Five Star Movement win the war against Rome’s criminal gangs? We ask the first woman to head one of Europe’s most important capital cities – a member of Italy’s Five Start Movement and Rome’s mayor – Virginia Raggi is on SophieCo.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Virginia Raggi, mayor of the city of Rome, it’s very great to have you today in our program. Welcome.

Virginia Raggi: Welcome to you.

SS: Thank you. So you’re the mayor of one of the biggest european capitals, and it’s also one of the most popular tourist destinations, at a time when the city of Rome is faced with probably one of the biggest security risks:   I know that ISIS has threatened to ‘conquer Rome’, Italy’s top police chief said that the country should brace itself for an inevitable terror strike. Are you ready for the worst?

VR: We have a security committee that deals with anti-terrorism issues. Municipal authorities in Rome work with the country’s police agencies – the prefecture, questura, and the Ministry of the Interior of course.

The Ministry of the Interior is the agency responsible for the capital’s security, and as mayor I work closely with them.

SS: In your collaboration, what have you come up with? Because we know that ISIS already… one the ISIS cells was busted - one cell which was trying to bomb Vatican. Surely there are others, because when there’s  one, there’s others. We know from Paris, from Brussels.

VR:  Of course anti-terrorism is an important issue, but again the main agency dealing with that problem is the Ministry of the Interior. City authorities can only help law enforcement by doing what we are told.

SS: So 2016 was actually the year when Italy saw a record number of migrants come to its shores and your country is actually the gateway for them to get to Western Europe from Africa. Is the danger of extremism coming from the influx of migrants and refugees?

VR: We are doing everything we can to make sure it doesn’t happen. I support the policy of integration for migrants and refugees and call on other European countries to provide assistance to Italy. Based on mutual agreements, other EU countries are obligated to accept migrants coming to Italy.

SS: I want to talk to you more about your policy of integration and how you view that because this is the most actual news topic right now in Europe. For instance, are you afraid of homegrown terrorism? Because we’ve seen this in France, in Belgium, people who were born and raised there become all of a sudden terrorists, they’re not people who come from outside, but from inside.

VR:  Every person in our city needs to feel welcome, that is the atmosphere of inclusion we want to create. And not just migrants, but all the people who end up in Europe as non-citizens. But we also need to take security measures, the nation cannot just surrender to this influx of migrants. My administration for example made it a point to work in challenging suburbs, because they are the weak link in the security chain. Often residents become actively involved in this work as well. We have locals helping people at refugee centers, some bring kids with them  and they play with the children who live in these migrant centers. That’s how connections and relationships are established, people get to know each other and learn to live as a community.

SS: Can you tell me more about this theory of ‘inclusion’ because Rome has suburbs like any other city and those suburbs are also deprived of social services, transportation. And what we see in other European cities is actually radicalism being fostered in those ghettos, where migrants start to live. How do you --- what do you do differently?

VR: This policy of integration of migrants needs to come from the bottom up. Right now we are working on a cooperation agreement with the prefecture of Rome, which basically represents the Ministry of the Interior. This agreement will allow us to engage migrants, mostly refugees waiting to be granted asylum, in different community projects. So while they are waiting, they will be able to work, to demonstrate their skills and prove that they have the right to get the refugee status. And of course, it will also make them feel like part of the community. 

SS: A high profile corruption case, Mafia Capitale, uncovered that the Italian mafia’s migrant-related schemes are making them much more money than even drug trafficking. With this surge of  migrants and refugees are you afraid the Roman mafia will find new ways to make money, to get personal gain out of this?

 

VR: The Mafia Capitale case uncovered the shady connections between the city authorities and some organizations that helped migrants, or rather claimed to be helping migrants, whereas in reality they made money using migrants. That’s why now I am trying to clean up this system and make sure that all refugee aid agencies follow the law. For example, I want to restart the tender procedures in order to choose organizations that will really help the authorities solve migrant-related problems. Naturally this would cut off all mafia groups that we have unfortunately dealt with previously. 

SS: We’re going to get to the question of how you’re planning to fight the mafia in a little bit, but a little more about the issue of refugees right now. The UN has criticised you and your policy for the refugees in Rome, because they’re flooding the streets, living in abandoned houses. There’s makeshift camps operated by volunteers - why not the city?

VR:  These camps are the result of the unhealthy dealings between the authorities and the refugee aid organizations that turned into corruption schemes. There was no tender process, the guidelines for working with refugees were not followed at all. My administration began to enforce the rules, cutting off mafia groups that had a “special” relationship with my predecessor. In response to our actions these organizations provoked civil unrest, encouraging migrants to take to the streets. But we now have the situation under control, migrants are placed in centers that were set up in full compliance with the law. The fact that we started to get rid of criminal elements in this area is a major win for us.

SS: Madame Mayor, do I understand correctly that you are welcoming all the refugees, your policy is ‘refugees - welcome to Rome’?

VR: Let’s put it this way – Rome would be better off if European states didn’t build walls along their borders, but rather followed through on their obligations and respected the migrant quotas agreed upon by the EU. According to the law, the city of Rome must accept migrants, as Mayor - I have to follow the law and do everything in my power to make sure that people are granted a safe place to stay here. But if other European countries decide to finally follow through on their obligations, we will welcome that decision.  As mayor of Rome I have to accommodate migrants, but I am also responsible for the security of my city and its residents. We cannot ignore either issue. 

SS: So it’s not your personal policy to be welcoming of refugees, but like you say - the law obliges you to. But we see that the borders are closed, the refugees who actually want to go to other countries can’t really do that. So they’re stuck here. You want Europe to take their part in accepting the refugees but they’re not willing. There are not that many cities in Europe who want to welcome refugees - so they’re stuck in Rome, you’re stuck with them...

VR: I have already asked the Ministry of the Interior not to raise quotas for Rome. Newly arriving migrants and people who are detained in attempts to cross the border,must be sent to other cities. Rome has exceeded all possible quotas for migrants.

SS: I understand that actually. But are you getting any assistance, any help with those refugees who are stuck in your city?

VR: I am working on getting that support, we are talking to the government about this issue.

SS: What about other countries? For example, Brussels, are they sending you any help, any assistance, because you have the refugees who are meant to be in other countries?

VR: No... no

SS: ...you’re not getting any help... So now I want to talk now about how you want to fight mafia and how you fight corruption, for instance the Mafia Capitale case uncovered that millions of euros are simply stolen from the city budget, mafia structures are entrenched in the city’s structure - you can’t just make them go overnight. Are you prepared to go to war against the Roman mafia - because this essentially means war with the mafia?

VR: The prosecutor’s office is doing its part of the job, that’s beyond doubt, and the new city administration is doing its part. What does it mean?  It means we need to ensure legitimacy, accountability and transparency of things, starting with the tender process for all sorts of projects. Of course, from the very beginning my administration sticks strictly to legitimate methods of fighting corruption. The fact that it often leads to conflicts with the mafia does not scare us. Rome needs the rule of law in order to win back the citizens’ trust, and that is why I ran for office - and that’s why I am here now.

SS: So you think the mayors before you didn’t apply the law because they didn’t want to, or they were afraid? Why has no mayor before you tried to fight corruption and actually follow the law?

VR: Well, to get an answer to that question you’d need to ask those who served as city mayor before me. As for me, just like other people I can see what is happening, and I am a witness to everything that has been going on here. Until my election as a mayor, before me  no one made enough effort, but I will.

SS: So, because the whole world is watching you, and you’re a young, pretty woman who is a political outsider, you’re not even part of the establishment and you come and say I’m going to fight the corruption, I’m going to fight the mafia. What gives you the confidence?

VR: Just a small sidenote, as one woman to another. If I were a man, the very fact that I am still young enough - I’m not even 40 - and attractive, would be of no concern to anyone. So let’s leave it at that. I am determined to fight the mafia in the city, Mafia Capitale. I am determined to seriously improve the relations between the city administration and the city residents - that was why I wanted to become mayor in the first place, and that’s what gives me strength to continue fighting. First and foremost I am a resident of my city, and I want to restore peace and order in Rome, and make it a beautiful and safe city again. That’s what I’m fighting for, and that’s what I aim for in my everyday work. True, our objective is to restore the rule of law and order in the city, and to forge a healthy relationship between the residents and the authorities. That’s what was always lacking in Rome, and I intend to fix it.

SS: Alright but the fact that you’re an outsider, that you’re not part of the establishment, in your case, whether you like it or not, you’re still a woman in a very sexist society, you’re still young so people watch you very carefully to see where you can go wrong. I admire you but everyone’s like ‘what is she going to do next’? So the fact that you’re not part of the establishment, is it an asset for you or on the contrary, a hinderance? 

VR: I’d say it’s an opportunity. I represent the position of the city residents which is very specific and pragmatic. My focus is on problem-solving. The result of the policies that were pursued by my predecessors, those who are considered “experienced players”, is that a good deal of our cities and our country are in a disastrous condition, which is why it’s probably time for some “inexperienced” players to improve the situation. I’ll give you one example. I recently visited Bastogi, a district in the western part of Rome, where city authorities haven’t set  foot in about 20 years. And all these years, people were getting permits to settle there even though no one knows their legal status, or who they are. There are illegal dump sites there; water supply and wastewater pipelines are unfit for operation. Starting November I gave instructions for the administration to keep track of everything there; repairs and maintenance works have already begun, and we are not going to stop. After 20 years of neglect on the part of the authorities, I am trying to improve the situation.

SS: Talking about practical things I know that Rome has withdrawn from its Olympic bid under your watch - because you said you want to focus on ‘rubbish collection and corruption’. But wouldn’t the investment that would be made in the city actually help you better clean up the city?

VR: The example of Rio 2016 is still vivid, and it highlights very well what problems hosting the Olympic Games creates. Besides, the situation in Turin after the 2006 Winter Games is still a disaster; the city is in a terrible financial shape. Rome hosted the World Aquatics Championships several years ago, and we are still paying for it. The city residents are paying for all the losses; they are forced to pay the highest possible taxes. On top of that, construction was never finished for some of the contest venues, and now they just sit there abandoned, ruining the city’s landscape.

SS: Ok so we’ve been talking earlier about whether it's a good thing that you’re not part of the political establishment or not, and you said that even helps you that you’re not tied to the government. But you have big plans, you’ve come here to basically turn everything upside down. So one of your biggest plans is to actually fight the city’s staggering debt and the interest rates - you want to renegotiate that. You need the government’s support for that - do you have it?

VR: Yes, city officials are already working directly with the ministries, and I presented my city development plan to the Prime Minister. There is a lot of work ahead of us, and since we are talking about Rome, a major capital city, naturally we do need the government’s support.

Don’t forget that Rome is one of Europe’s most densely populated cities and its largest city in terms of area – it spans roughly 1285 square kilometers, has 8,000 km of highways and roads, and 300,000 trees. These are huge capacities, and their development requires cooperation between the city authorities and the central government. We are ready to do our part of the job in order to restore our city’s glory. But today Rome is forced to deal with the refugee crisis – the number of migrants on Rome’s streets is unprecedented.

SS: People always compare you to your predecessor and the previous mayor also wasn’t a politician - and he had to leave following corruption allegations. What makes you think a NONprofessional is actually better than a politician who comes to this job?

VR: Let me point out that my predecessor, ex-mayor Marino was a Senate member. By now the number of cities with the representatives of the Five Star Movement in power, like myself, has grown. The situation in Turin is getting better; in Rome, we are also tackling the problems step by step, and I must say there are a lot of legacy problems that I inherited with the office. In smaller cities and towns, such as Livorno and Pomezia, the Five Star Movement is also taking a pragmatic approach, finding solutions to specific problems and stepping beyond the partisan interests. What makes the Five Star Movement special is that it is not involved with various lobbies. We can address the citizens’ needs directly, and we are good at it.

SS: You know, once you get to where you want to be, for instance you being a mayor - it’s different from what you imagine. Now that you’re mayor is everything how you imagined it would be or there are things you couldn’t imagine you’d have to handle and fight?

VR: It is difficult. I had to find out that the decision-making process within the city administration was a complete mess, which certainly slows down our effort to improve the life of city’s residents. Nonetheless, I rolled up my sleeves to fix that problem as well.  Let’s put it this way – it’s one of the problems we had to face and are trying to solve.

SS: I want to talk a bit about your party  - the Five Star Movement - do you in any way feel that your mayorship of Rome is also a test for them - ‘is she going to make it or not’? Because you do hold one of the highest positions among your party members - do you feel the pressure?

VR: I am wrapped up in work for the benefit of Rome, just like all other members of the administration, advisors and heads of municipalities. We all work for the good of Rome, giving all our resources to the city. Certainly, if I and my team manage to succeed it will be an additional argument in favor of the Five Star Movement, but there are other figures in our movement besides me, who work very well in other cities and towns of Italy proving the fact that our party is capable of providing good management.

SS: So you don’t feel any pressure, any extra pressure - ok. In Parliament your party is just behind the Progressive Democrats and it's also leading in nationwide polls. What are traditional politicians doing wrong? People don’t trust them, they trust you - why? 

VR: People trust the Five Star Movement because we work well. We have never made any election promises; instead we pledged to our voters to deliver on specific tasks, and we are keeping our word. It’s very important to do things right away. For example - there was a referendum held in Italy that effectively cancelled the practice of reimbursing the election costs to the parties – which was in essence about financing the political parties; and people vote against it. But other parties re-introduced it under another name, in clear breach of the people’s will. During the election campaign, the Five Star Movement declared that it will discontinue this practice even before the relevant law is passed. We are calling on other parties to follow our example, but they are refusing to. What makes us different from the traditional parties is the fact that we can be trusted, we have proven it by delivering on the tasks we are committed to. We have succeeded in forging a healthy relationship between citizens and politicians. 

SS: Let’s talk about this in a broader sense - where your party fits in European politics. Do you feel there’s a momentum in Europe for non-traditional politicians, non-traditional parties like yours? Because we see the Front National popular in France, we see the AfD in Germany, etc etc.

VR: The Five Star Movement has won the trust of the voters by solving specific problems and honoring its commitments. When we see new, non-traditional parties and political figures spring up in other European countries, it means that these countries are facing new challenges. As for Italy, I just want to restore people’s trust in politicians. And this is what our movement aims to do.

SS: I understand that but I’m wondering if you as part of the 5 Star Movement feel like you’re part of a European-wide wave of change - or you’re just purely Italian?

VR: The reason our movement has emerged in Italy is because it was the only party that could answer the call of the people, the only party that would ensure rule of law and make politics ethical. The traditional division of parties into right-wing and left-wing is no longer relevant, we have gone beyond these boundaries, and we don’t care at all if they consider us right-wing.

 

When we talk about security, they say we are right-wing, but when it comes to taking in migrants – we suddenly become leftist. We are right-wing when we defend certain values, and we are left-wing when we talk about public schools and their problems. Left-wing and right-wing are outdated categories, things of the past – they are irrelevant to the Five Star Movement.

SS: I see that but if you could just put in a few words - more precisely - what exactly is the 5 Star Movement about except promising and keeping its promise? Because any party whether it's right or left or middle - doesn’t matter - says we’re keeping the promises we gave the people and we want to defend the law. Any party would say that. So what is it so different precisely about you movement?

VR: We are a grassroots movement, because we are actively trying to involve the citizens. It’s not just about coming to the polling station to cast your vote, it’s also about using our party as a means to participate in the political life of your country. We discuss such things as renewable energy sources and sustainable energy... we talk about simple things like improving public transport and developing our companies – things that Italy hasn’t seen for years. People want sustainable development, they care not only about our cities being clean – they also want to save the planet, to conserve resources. This is why we are trying to adjust our future development to our own capabilities and this is why we talk about realistic development. All that came before us led to our impoverishment, and the Five Star Movement simply wants to increase the incomes of our citizens, to restore the dignity of our people. Ordinary citizens must be at the heart of any program of political reform. This is what it is all about.

SS: Do you feel like in a traditional society, like the Italian society we could see a Prime Minister from your movement?

VR: Certainly. We are now getting ready for the elections, and if our party wins, we will form a new government.

SS: Good luck with everything and thank you very much for this interview Madame Mayor.

VR: Thank you.