In a broad sense, the worst immigrant rioting ever seen in Italy cuts to the heart of the nation’s difficult evolution from a place of emigrants to one of immigrants.

The official figures show there are 1,600 agricultural workers in Rosarno, Italy, all but 36 of them Italians. The reality, exposed by the raw and violent riots last week, was far different: some 1,200 foreigners, most of them Africans, earned about $30 a day under the table picking oranges and clementines. Now that the town is largely cleared of foreign labour, the fruit remains on the trees. In other places, $30 is not a living wage. But this is one of the poorest parts of Italy, and many local people do not earn much more, even if most will not pick fruit.

In a broad sense, the worst immigrant rioting ever seen in Italy -- shocking not only because of the anger of migrants but also for the attacks on them by townspeople -- cuts to the heart of the nation’s difficult evolution from a place of emigrants to one of immigrants.

But it is also a story fixed to Rosarno. The economy is so weak here that locals and immigrants are competitors. In a town where people are reluctant to reveal their last names and often their first, a mysterious element complicates any full understanding of the riots: the ongoing strength of the Calabrian Mafia, or `Ndrangheta, which has deep roots in agriculture. The son of a local organised crime boss was arrested and accused of wounding a policeman in the riots, suggesting that the mafia may have orchestrated the locals’ response to the immigrants’ violence.

“It’s a very, very complicated situation,” said Francesco Campolo, a police prefect who is one of three interim commissioners appointed by the region to govern Rosarno since the arrest last year of the mayor, who was charged with having organised crime ties. This week, the absence of immigrants, 1,200 of whom were whisked by bus and train to detention centres over the weekend, was clear. On Tuesday, fire-fighters demolished a former factory that served as seasonal housing for many migrants.

Authorities are investigating these central questions: How did the protests become so violent? Who, if anyone, orchestrated the citizens’ retaliation? And who benefits from the immigrants’ temporary or perhaps permanent disappearance from the area? Alberto Cisterna, who oversees Calabria at Italy’s National Anti-Mafia Commission in Rome, called Rosarno the Corleone of Calabria, where clans of the `Ndrangheta exert “extraordinary control.”

Official estimates indicate that the `Ndrangheta did €44 billion, or more than $60 billion, in 2008, in international drug and arms trafficking, public works fraud, usury and prostitution. Many authorities say that in a town where the `Ndrangheta is strong, the presence of the immigrant workers must have been welcome or, at least, convenient. They note that agriculture is not profitable if transportation and labour costs are high and producers pay about 75 cents for a carton of fruit. In any case, most agricultural outfits may have Italians on the rolls but they pay migrant workers under the table to harvest the fruit — if it is harvested. For years, state authorities have not cracked down on the arrangement.

Calabria, like other southern Italian regions rich in agriculture, has long benefited from hefty European Union agricultural subsidies. To prevent fraud in which small acreage yielded puzzlingly large harvests, in 2007 the EU changed its rules to base subsidies on the number of hectares planted rather than the tonnes produced.

The result, some authorities hypothesise, is that it may be more lucrative for some Calabrian landowners to let their harvests rot on the tree and collect the subsidies than to pay pickers. In theory, the migrants may have become less useful and, possibly, less tolerated. Still, over nearly two decades, their presence had become part of the fabric of Rosarno.

This week some local shops were hurting for the migrants’ business. “Before Christmas, I baked a whole batch of sandwich rolls just for them,” said Letizia Condulucci as she worked the counter at her family’s bakery.

Like many Rosarno residents, she defended what the townspeople had done over the years to help the migrant workers and was outraged that they had wounded residents. “Ninety-nine percent of us helped them,” she said. And in the riots, she said, “they destroyed the town.” On Monday evening, Rosarno residents held a peaceful protest, marching through the city’s flat concrete grid with a sign that read: “Abandoned by the state, criminalized by the media. Twenty years of cohabitation isn’t racism.”

But conversations with residents revealed a more complex reality. Many used an oft-heard phrase in Italy: “We’re not racist, but ...” Ultimately, they tended to say that maybe things were better without the immigrants, since it was hard enough for the Italians to make a living.

The city commissioners say the riots were fuelled by wild rumours on both sides. The immigrants had heard that local residents killed an immigrant, while local residents had heard that immigrants had wounded a pregnant woman badly. Both rumours were false, the commissioners say.

Still, the violence was dramatic. After immigrants struck residents and shops with sticks and burned and smashed cars, residents began responding with violence. By late Saturday night, most immigrants feared for their safety and voluntarily boarded buses and trains that took them to immigrant detention centres, Rosarno authorities said.

Those with residency permits, which Doctors Without Borders says could be as many as half, were free to leave. Alessandra Tramontano, the director of Doctors Without Borders’ seasonal workers programme in Italy, said the group was “worried” about where the immigrants would go and “how they will manage the winter.”

Meanwhile, early Tuesday morning, a special team of Italian fire-fighters was using demolition equipment to take down the factory where many had been squatting in conditions widely denounced as inhumane. Campolo, one of Rosarno’s commissioners, said that even before the riots, the city had received state money to remove the immigrant encampment, which sits next to a middle school, and build a playground and sports fields. It also plans to build a meeting centre, with some health care facilities and dormitories, for the migrant workers. Campolo said the city planned to go ahead with the project. “Of course,” he said, “for the immigrants, when they come back.”

(Gaia Pianigiani contributed reporting from Rome.)— © 2010 The New York Times News Service

More In: Comment | Opinion