For Jan and Martina

I have wanted to dedicate a post to Jan Kuciak, an investigative journalist from Slovakia, since he and his fiancé Martina Kurnirova were gunned down in their home in late February of this year. This Washington Post article gives a good summary of what is known about the murders. Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico, linked to Kuciak’s final, unfinished fraud investigation, stepped down along with his entire cabinet after weeks of protests. His successor Peter Pellegrini seems to be cooperating with the opposition party president Andrej Kiska to create a more trustworthy government, though Slovaks don’t seem convinced. The criminal investigation of the killings is ongoing, with little information shared with the public so far.

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So what does this have to do with immigration and food systems?

Plenty. Kuciak’s last report was looking into links between Slovakian politicians and the Italian Mafia. In particular, he found multiple, convoluted business ties between members of the ruling SMER party and Italian immigrants tried in their home country for Mafia activity. Ironic that Fico and his fellow politicians have been quite vocal in recent years about the dangers of immigration… from Arab countries. But in 2016, only 600 non-EU member citizens immigrated to Slovakia, compared to 3,000 EU member state citizens. Where is the real danger?

Let me be clear, I am not saying Italian immigrants are dangerous. I am pissed that my Italian husband is still considered a tourist in my home country because barriers to immigration are high. I don’t like the connotation that he might be a criminal or in some way undesirable. What I AM saying is that immigrants from anywhere are NOT inherently bad… but nor are they inherently good. They are people, plain and simple. As with a native population, some will take part in criminal activities and some will not. Some will act honestly and with kindness and others will not. So if you want to select which immigrants to accept, do so on the basis of something actually related to risk of criminality, like a past criminal record or ties to local criminal organizations. Another option: allow immigrants to stay so long as they do not conduct certain types of crimes (parking tickets might not be a deportable offense, as opposed to, say, possession of an illegal weapon or drug trafficking). Just about anything would be more effective than relying on country of origin. You may as well flip a coin.

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The other reason Kuciak’s last story is relevant to this blog is that he and his colleagues at the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) were investigating criminal activity in the agricultural sector. While tampering with cow’s ear tags does not immediately bring to mind the mafia like the trafficking of drugs or weapons might, it is estimated that Italian mafias enjoyed a turnover of 21.8 billion euros via agriculture in 2017. Some of this comes from EU farm subsidy fraud, which Kuciak was working to uncover in Slovakia. Some comes from extortion – threatening restaurants to buy baked goods from Mafia controlled bakeries, for instance. Yet another angle is caporalato, a modern chain gang system run by the Mafia to squeeze profit from people working in food production and processing under conditions of slavery. Aside from destroying lives and free market competition, this activity risks the safety of our food and food systems.

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I am so thankful to Jan and other journalists around the world who risk their lives to uncover the truth, something that seems increasingly elusive in our complex, connected world. Thank you to the people and organizations who work to protect journalists and to help them maintain their independence, including the Committee to Project Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, and many others. Thank you to organizations like OCCRP for really drilling down on this problem and proposing concrete solutions. Let us work together to protect the press, to protect the integrity of the information we need to make sense of our world, and let us never, ever forget.

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