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Italian mothers battle the mafia and toxic waste

Claudio Lavanga / NBC News

A group of Italian mothers who claim their children died of cancer after being poisoned by tons of toxic waste dumped by the local mafia gather outside Italy's presidential palace in Rome Wednesday.The man with them is Father Maurizio Patriciello, a priest from the Naples area, who accompanied the women to Rome.

ROME – A group of 13 women who claim their children died of cancer after being poisoned by tons of toxic waste dumped in their region by the local mafia met with Italy's president Wednesday.

They traveled to Rome from their towns around Naples as representatives of some 150,000 mothers who sent Italian President Giorgio Napolitano postcards with photos of their dead or cancer-stricken children in the hope that he might put an end to the environmental crimes that have been perpetrated in their region for decades. 

“We are want truth and justice,” said one of the mothers, Pina Leana, at the presidential palace Wednesday. "We want facts, not empty words."

The illegal dumping of industrial waste in Italy's southern region of Campania has been a lucrative dirty business for the Camorra, the mafia-type crime syndicate based in the region and its capital Naples, since the 1970's.

Investigators in Italy have long known that millions of barrels of toxic by-product from industries in Italy and Europe were given to the Camorra, who charged a fraction of the official disposal rate.

With complete disregard for the poisonous effects it would have on the environment, the Camorra have buried the dangerous waste in makeshift landfills in the countryside for years, posing a health hazard to the ecosystem and the tens of thousands of people living in the area.

“We want to see those responsible in jail,” said another mother Raffaella Arena. “We want justice for our land, our region and our children.”

The extent of the problem only became clear last November when previously secret testimony by a former mafia boss was made public by the Italian government.

In a statement to prosecutors in 1997, former crime boss Carmine Schiavone said of the people living near the landfills: “They are all at risk of dying from cancer within 20 years; I don't think they will survive.”

Now, years later, his predictions seem eerily accurate. Residents living near the landfills and local doctors blame the unusually high cancer rates in the area on the toxic dump landfills, claiming the number of people diagnosed with cancer there is four times the national average.

The mothers of thousands of the impacted children are petitioning the president to kick-start the clean-up and reclaim the area.   

The women have proved to be among the bravest and most vocal critics in a land where the conspiracy of silence is still regarded as the best way to stay out of trouble.

Last December they even faced Schiavone during the Italian talk-show “Servizio Pubblico.”

“You poisoned generations to come,” Tina Zaccaria, a woman whose daughter Dalia died at 13, said to Schiavone from across a table in the television studio. “Your regret won’t bring back our loved ones.”

“You are all destined to die anyway,” Schiavone told her, before storming out of the studio.

During the meeting the mothers asked the president to prosecute those responsible, strengthen environmental laws and visit the impacted area in the next three months. But they also asked him why, as he was an interior minister in 1997, when Schiavone confessed, he didn't say or do anything about it.