21 June 2016

Want to know what’s wrong with Italy? Look at Sicily’s burning cats


Hashtag #CatsAgainstBrexit is currently trending on twitter, with users posting images of their kitties accompanied by deep musings about the future of Britain’s relationship with the EU. Counter hashtag #CatsForBrexit also seems to be doing well. But a far more macabre feline-based story ran in The Times this week. Tom Kington writes how the Mafia in Sicily are setting fire to cats and sending them into parks to start fires.

According to the park manager interviewed in the report:

“One of the mob’s arson techniques is to tie a petrol-soaked rag to the tail of a cat and set fire to it. As its tail burns, the cat flees in terror into the undergrowth in the woods, setting fire to everything it touches.

That makes it harder for investigators to figure out where the fire was started and since the cat is eventually incinerated, they never find what caused the fire.”

Once the shock and horror at such unrepentant cruelty has worn off, the immediate response is: why? Not why are the Mafia using cats (though grisly, it seems an effective means of arson), but why are they so interested in starting forest fires?

The answer, it appears, is business. The Mafia may have an interest in reforestation companies, or be planning to build on the land now cleared by the fires. In addition, this could be retaliation against officials who have stopped the Mafia from renting out the public land and claiming EU farming subsidies.

At the end of the article, Kington reveals another startling fact:

“About 23,000 forestry staff are employed in Sicily, more than in Canada despite the lack of large forests. Hired over the years by politicians looking for votes, the workers are suspected of starting fires to make their work appear more essential.”

So to sum up:

1) The Mafia start the fires.
2) Forestry workers also start fires to justify their jobs in putting them out.
3) Local politicians employ the forestry workers to gain votes.
4) There are more forestry workers than in Canada although no large forests.
5) The mafia obtain EU subsidies by pretending to work the land.

This toxic mix of cronyism, organised crime, rent-seeking and subsidisation is part of the reason Italy cannot get a hold of its economy. The youth unemployment rate in southern Italy is 75 percent and politicians seem helpless to do anything about it – no wonder, when resources are spent employing redundant workers and siphoning off funds to criminal gangs who destroy public property.

Government corruption and organised crime are the kind of deep-rooted problems that politicians refuse to tackle, preferring flashy rhetoric of the kind that got Virginia Raggi elected as mayor of Rome. But be warned: Sicily’s dead cats are the canary in Italy’s economic coal mine.

Rachel Cunliffe is Deputy Editor of CapX.