The poisoned captain
On the cold winter night of December 12th, 1995, navy’s lieutenant commander Natale De Grazia, Marshal Nicolò Moschitta and lance corporal Rosario Francaviglia of the Italian Army were travelling undercover along the E-45 highway.
On board of a very ordinary car (a FIAT Tipo) and dressed in plainclothes, the three agents were rushing from Reggio Calabria towards Liguria, when suddenly around midnight they had to stop: Natale De Grazia had died of poisoning.
Italian navy lieutenant commander Natale De Grazia.
Who did kill the lieutenant? What these men were so secretly up to?
They were members of a task force whose top-secret mission was reaching the harbor office of La Spezia and investigating several suspicious shipwrecks occurring around the Italian peninsula — in almost 20 years, from 1979 to 2002, more than sixty ferries sank in the Mediterranean Sea.
They were old cargo vessels, whose loads were sometime toxic – dealing with heavy metals (12 cargos) or chemical wastes (8 cargos) – and sometime unidentified (33 cargos), since the documents at the harbor offices are lacking information or have been lost.
Furthermore, the declared sea-lanes sometime did not correspond to the ones tracked down from the land radars and the boats sank in similar areas, where the water is deep (more than 500 m) and the seabed muddy, so that recovering the wrecks is impossible.
These evidences and other unclear details have been gathered and pointed out from the financial companies that insured the sunk ferries, and that should then pay massive prizes to the ship-owners.
The complaints from these firms made the Italian courts start some enquiries, yet with little success, until something big happened.
The toxic shipwrecks
On the morning of December 14th, 1990, the Italian merchant ship “Rosso” was sailing off the Calabrian coast, when its captain, Luigi Pestarino, broadcasted an S.O.S. claiming the ferry was sinking.
Fortunately, a guard coast helicopter succeeded in reaching and rescuing the whole crew, but just a few hours later, the boat inexplicably regained stability and remained afloat until the waves brought it to the shore – Scogli delle Formiche, near Amantea (CS) – where it stranded like a big red whale.
The Rosso ship, stranded on the beach. The breakage in the hull (in the picture, the one under the cabin) seems to be man-made.
The fact immediately triggered fears among the population, because two years before the Rosso had been transporting highly toxic waste to be disposed, and its bad fame even made it known as “la nave dei veleni” — the ship of poisons.
According to the ones who examined the official registers, this time there was nothing to worry about, since just some tobacco and general goods were on board.
Anyway, Italian authorities promptly took action: the police evacuated and surveyed the shipwreck area while some staff from the local dump collected and brought away the leftovers, so after just one week the beach was cleaned.
However, some testimonials reported about shady nighttime traffics dealing with trucks moving from the beach to the junkyard, and towards the countryside of Serra d’Aiello (CS), near the Oliva River, that was later found out polluted with polychlorinated biphenyls, various dioxins and granulated marble.
Again, on September 21st, 1987, Michael Vassiliadis, captain of the “Rigel” Maltese ship, made a phone call to the harbor office of La Spezia, declaring that the ferry had just sunk and that a boat luckily passing by had rescued and brought in Tunis the entire crew.
However, that day no S.O.S was broadcasted, even if – according to the accident reconstruction – it took the Rigel about ten hours to sink, and when the captain was asked to point where the shipwreck occurred, he answered nonsense coordinates.
As stated by some dockworkers’ witnesses, Rigel’s containers were filled with 3000 tons of concrete blocks and granulated marble.
Furthermore, some days before the shipwreck, the police tapped a mysterious phone call conversation, «This ship is also carrying shit», and on the shipwreck morning another one: «The baby is born. It’s a boy».
Yet again, on November 7th, 1995, the freighter “Coraline” sank off the Sicilian island of Alicudi. Five containers out of 139 remained afloat, until the sea currents made them strand on Ischia island shores.
When the environmental safeguard service analyzed them discovered strong traces of the radioactive isotope thorium 234, which – as well as other nuclear fuels – is concealable by concrete and marble.
Filling the gap
After these “wicked” happenings people started worrying, so an Italian environmental NGO, Legambiente, started gathering testimonials and witnesses supporting the following hypothesis.
Some ruthless entrepreneurs made a secret deal with parties of undeveloped countries (governments or terrorist organizations) and with ’Ndrangheta, the Calabrian mafia, in order to get rid of chemical and radioactive garbage.
The former filled the old boats with wastes to have them sunk in the latter’s seas. Thus, both ’Ndrangheta – which took charge to sink the boats – and the third world nations – who accepted the litter – were paid back with money or weapons.
An interactive map shows the shipwreck spots and other data about the suspicious freighters.
A dossier submitted from Legambiente to the Italian government showed not just the huge amount of junk lost in the sea (almost 150,000 tons), but also that big shady forces were trying to occult the whole matter — otherwise it would have been impossible having so many relevant data cancelled from the lists of every harbor, including the ones outside Italy.
In 1994, a magistrate from the city of Reggio-Calabria, Francesco Neri, decided to create a task force with the specific aim to investigate upon the so-called “navi a perdere” (“the ships to-be-wasted”) affair. The task force would have been led by Natale De Grazia, the lieutenant commander from Reggio Calabria.
«Since childhood», tells his wife «Natale was keen on the sea, fond of every kind of boat, and his greatest dream was to become a ship captain. He was idealist and stubborn, strongly determined to safeguard the environment. Whenever he decided to solve a problem, he always got the good result. He just had a nose for whatever dealt with the sea».
That is the reason why he was appointed leader of the pool: even if the official files were missing, by listening to custom officers and longshoremen, by examining maps, docks, shipyards and the shipwreck spots, De Grazia was every time able to take some steps towards the truth.
Gradually, the team reconstructed data about vessels that were not even mentioned in the registers and after one year of hard work, cooperating with the Italian intelligence, the enquiry reached a breakthrough.
The man of mysteries
On October 26th, 1995, an informer of the ranger corp of Brescia – a task force focused on tracking environmental criminals – revealed that a conspiracy was going to sink another ferry, named “Latvia”, which was moored in La Spezia harbor.
Following the spy’s advices, the rangers arrested a man carrying a briefcase filled with documents about radioactive waste disposal, and among these sheets they spotted the name of a mysterious engineer and entrepreneur already known to the Italian police: Giorgio Comerio.
Giorgio Comerio’s passport picture.
According to the Italian senator Carlo Giovanardi, Comerio is a «notorious arms dealer related to Argentinian secret services», and maybe to the Italian ones, as it was stated from his ex-partner, Maria Luigia Nitti.
Furthermore, Francesco Fonti, ex-member of ‘Ndrangeta, revealed that Comerio had a flat in Montecarlo where he have been hosting Licio Gelli, boss of the secret masonic lodge P2, while the police was seeking him.
Comerio is also suspected for having sold satellite-controlled missiles to Iran and Libya, for having sold several dinghies to the refugees who tried to reach Italy from North Africa, and for having tried to buy the Rosso ship on June 1988.
Therefore, on November 1996, rangers’ commander Rino Martini and Calabrian magistrate Francesco Neri planned together a special mission having De Grazia joining the Brescia corps.
The Martini-Neri task force, led by De Grazia, searched the manor of Giorgio Comerio, in San Bovio di Garlasco (PV), where they discovered more than thirty folders containing documentation about the third-world counties ( mostly african), who probably agreed to have toxic wastes disposed in their lands.
Among those files there were maps indicating the regions “sold” for the dumping plus VHSs illustrating how the litter can be stuck into muddy seabed, using a particular engineering technique dealing with the so-called “free fall penetrators”.
Here is how it works: some missile-shaped containers are filled with about 280 tons of radioactive waste, loaded on board of a mercantile ferry and then dumped into the sea were the water is deep (more than 500m) and the seabed muddy, thus the rocket gains enough speed to penetrate the soft soil, where it remains, planted like a huge toxic carrot.
This method was originally developed by the ISPRA (Superior Institute for Protection and Research on the Environment), to find a definitive solution for the radioactive wastes storage.
In the end, the scientists stated it was too dangerous, and the government feared people would not tolerate such a risky technology, especially after the Černobyl’ accident, so the project was disbanded…at least officially.
Investigators hypothesized that engineer Comerio has set up its own company, the ODM (Oceanic Disposal Management), in order to covertly build and sell the penetrators to the intelligence agencies of the still-interested countries and even to some terrorists’ network.
In those folders, the rangers found three very disturbing clues: an agenda from the year 1987, a naval map and a death certificate.
First, in the agenda, on page September 21st, the Rigel’s shipwreck date, only one sentence was written: «Lost the ship».
Second, on the map, concerning the southern part of Italy, there were marks indicating the shipwreck place of the other sunk ships. A copy of that map was recovered on board of the Rosso, when it stranded on the shore.
Third, the death certificate is about Ilaria Alpi, an Italian journalist investigating in Mogadishu during the Somali War, together with her camera operator, Miran Hrovatin; both were found killed inside a car on March 20th, 1994.
They were on the trail of an underground trafficking of wastes and arms between the Somali government and abroad parties, maybe the one Natale had just uncovered.
Ilaria Alpi and Miran Hrovatin, Journalist and camera operator from the Italian Television channel “Rai Tre”.
The ones who seek the truth
While many attorneys in Italy began to examine the documents retrieved in Comerio’s house, magistrate Neri and Commander Martini decided to go for broke.
According to their informer’s tip, the freighter Latvia would have been the next ship to be sunk. Thus, surveilling its docks in La Spezia, it was the perfect chance to tail and uncover the entire organization behind the “ships-to-be-wasted business”.
However, since Comerio was then aware about the pool’s activities, he certainly had forewarned the other businessmen in the deal, hence, De Grazia and his men had to act undercover, or the Latvia shipwreck would have been canceled and the criminals would have fled.
Here came the hurry to reach La Spezia before December 14th, and the need to travel in secret, at night, in plainclothes, on board of a subcompact car.
Unfortunately, De Grazia was already spyed on and the criminals, instead of running away, murdered him putting some venom in the dinner he had on the road to Liguria.
On December 13th, 1995, Natale died, poisoned (probably with the help of secret services) by the ones who did the same to the Mediterranean Sea.
The coroner who did the autopsy declared that De Grazia’s death was caused just by infarct, even if he never suffered from such symptoms before. Even though the corpse was analyzed twice, the doctor did not changed his mind.
The Latvia did a little travel around Italy and afterwards it disappeared, officially demolished in Ariga harbor (Turkey). Hower, some testimonials stated it was used to dump on the sea several tons of radioactive red mercury.
Giorgio Comerio escaped from Italy and lived as a fugitive until 2012, when the charges pending on him were dropped for prescription; so far he has been rejecting all the accuses, claiming to be the victim of a plot.
In 2005, Francesco Fonti admitted he and other members of ‘Ndrangheta have sunk at least thirty ferries carrying toxic and radioactive wastes, and in 2009 published a book dealing with his story; however, on May 2009, the magistrate Francesco Greco from the attorney of Paola (CS), decided to shut down the whole enquiry, due to lack of evidences.
In spite of the fact that no justice have been done yet for Natale De Grazia, Ilaria Alpi, Miran Hrovatin and all the ones who died by seeking the truth, as long as we keep questioning ourselves with their doubts, the ones who seek the truth will never die.