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Italy probes mob link with sunken ships

  • Story Highlights
  • NEW: Calabria official calls on government to help clean up radioactive sites
  • Divers found one ship last week just where a police informant had said it would be
  • Prosecutor: Informant says local mob, 'Ndrangheta, was hired to rid the vessel
  • Toxic dumping lucrative for 'Ndrangheta, prosecutor says
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ROME, Italy (CNN) -- Italian authorities are investigating dozens of sunken ships, possibly containing toxic waste, that may have been submerged by a local crime syndicate.

As many as 32 shipwrecks with illicit and highly toxic cargo could be lying on the seabed and polluting the Mediterranean Sea, Italian authorities said.

Divers found one ship last week just where a mob informant had said it would be -- 15 miles (24 kilometers) off the coast of Cetraro, a southern Italian town in northern Calabria along the Mediterranean Sea.

The informant referred to the ship as the Cunsky, the head prosecutor in the region, Bruno Giordano, told CNN. Underwater cameras showed rusty parts of the ship settled 487 meters (1,598 feet) deep. Prosecutors said they think it's been there since 1992 -- when the ship was blown up.

The local crime network, called the 'Ndrangheta, was hired to get rid of the vessel and its cargo, Giordano cited the informant as saying. The informant, Francesco Fonti, also admitted to being one of the people who sank the ship, Giordano said.

The scuttled ship could have more than 100 barrels of "probably radioactive waste," according to a statement from the Calabrian regional government. But officials have yet to identify the material onboard, the statement said.

The deep-sea revelations have prompted officials to request that the national government identify two other sites that the informant said held the remains of scuttled ships, according to the statement.

Calabrian regional President Agazio Loiero also called on the government's involvement in cleaning up any radioactive sites.

The impact of the alleged dumping on public health is Loiero's biggest concern, he said. He also noted that tourism to the region could suffer.

Although it is not clear who hired the 'Ndrangheta to get rid of the ship, Giordano said, he speculated that they may have been seeking to avoid paying the high fees necessary to dispose of its cargo properly.

As a result, the crime syndicate's involvement in toxic dumping was lucrative, he said.

The people that drove the "getaway" boat for the explosives team were paid more than $100,000, Giordano said.

The waste business generates billions of dollars for the mob, author and parliament member Leoluca Orlando told CNN. Although he stopped short of blaming the government outright or any specific government officials, he said people in the "political system" aided the criminal network.

"Can you imagine that it is possible to happen without persons inside the system, inside the political system, inside the bureaucracy, inside the state, not being connected with these criminals?" he said. "I am sure that inside the official system there are friends, there are persons who have protected this form of criminality."

It's not clear who would have wanted to get rid of the toxic waste in this way, said Francesco Neri, an official who works with the local anti-mafia directorate.

"This is the answer we want to have with the investigation," Neri said. "It's not just Italy that is interested, but many countries, including from the developing world, or even countries from the north that are also interested in this type of illegal disposal."

CNN's Gisella Deputato and Paula Newton contributed to this report.

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