ROME, Italy — Gioia Tauro is one of the most dangerous port towns in all of southern Italy, but when 700 metric tons of Syrian chemical weapons and their precursors arrive there on Wednesday, it may briefly be perilous on an apocalyptic scale no one ever anticipated.
For one or two days, mustard gas and the active ingredients of sarin and VX nerve gases will be transferred slowly, delicately, from one ship to another in the port. The international agencies involved say there is no reason to worry about the pervasive presence of the Calabrian mafia known as ‘Ndrangheta in Gioia Tauro. They say the port handles hazardous materials 365 days a year. But the sensitivity of what’s going on there now is hard to overstate.
The good news is that the shipment marks the end—or almost—of the drama about Syria’s chemical weapons that began so horribly last August, when hundreds of men, women and children died in nerve gas attacks near Damascus. After U.S. President Barack Obama threatened military action and the Russians stepped in to mediate, Syrian President Bashar Assad agreed to declare all the chemical weapons he had and allow them to be destroyed.
The process of eliminating the arsenal was long, complicated, and risky in the middle of a country at war. But the special representative of the United Nations secretary-general and the experts from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) who took on the job are now satisfied that everything Assad said he had in his possession has been neutralized in Syria, put on board the Norwegian ship Taico, which is steaming toward a disposal facility in Texas, or, if it was really, really lethal stuff, loaded on the Danish ship Ark Futura, which is headed for Gioia Tauro.
What the U.N. team and the experts are not entirely sure about is whether Assad really did provide a complete inventory. In the course of collecting the weapons and their precursor chemicals from various sites around Syria and interacting with the authorities in Damascus, “discrepancies were identified in the initial declarations that Syria gave to us,” OPCW spokesman Michael Luhan told The Daily Beast. Luhan would not supply any details about what those discrepancies may be.
Intelligence from unspecified outside countries also has raised questions. (One might speculate it’s from Israel, but that’s just a calculated guess.) The team assigned to the mission by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has sought clarifications with trips not only to Syrian locations but to Iran.
Meanwhile, the destruction of the chemical weapons that were declared and located continues. On Wednesday, 560 of the 700 metric tons aboard the Ark Futura are to be transferred to the U.S. Navy ship Cape Ray, which will then sail out into international waters and spend about 60 days turning the weapons and their components into conventional industrial waste that will be disposed of, finally, by specialized companies in Germany and in Finland.
But before that happens, we have to hope nothing goes wrong in Gioia Tauro. The Italian government is closing off the port and claims that the work of transferring the chemicals, originally scheduled for two days, will now be done in one.
It is hard to imagine that the local crime bosses would see any reason to interfere with the operation or try to exploit it, but, then again, the ‘Ndrangheta is one of the most ruthless and one of the more imaginative crime syndicates around.
The whole city of Gioia Tauro on the Calabrian coast is a mass of illegally constructed buildings, some cobbled together from shipping containers. The city council has been dissolved a half-dozen times for corruption and mafia infiltration. At one point, more people were murdered in the town, which has a population of just over 17,000 people, than in New York City. In the 1970s, more than 1,000 people were killed in one year alone when the ‘Ndrangheta crime syndicate’s clans were fighting over lucrative contracts to build a state-of-the-art steel plant. The steel plant plans eventually were abandoned because of the ‘Ndrangheta infiltration.
According to Italy’s Parliamentary Anti-Mafia Commission, more than 80 percent of Europe’s cocaine is handled by the ‘Ndrangheta, and much of it enters the continent through this badly patrolled port. In February 2014, seven people affiliated with the Gambino crime family were arrested in New York and 17 in Gioia Tauro in a sting operation that averted plans to smuggle cocaine in frozen fish and pineapple crates to the United States. Gioia Tauro is also a hub for the illegal arms trade.
If the officials involved with the chemical weapons shipment are worried about the criminal surroundings, they are not showing it. According to Pentagon press secretary Navy Rear Admiral John Kirby, there is no danger that the chemical weapons could spill into the sea. “Neutralization will be conducted in a safe and environmentally sound manner,” Kirby said in a statement. “Nothing from this operation will be released into the environment.”
The mayor of nearby San Ferdinando, Domenico Madafferi, says he has asked for a specific list of chemicals being transferred at the port, but the request has been ignored. There has been no comment from the mayor of Gioia Tauro, who recently was arrested.