The long read: Earlier this year, the remains of a teenage girl were found near Hotel House, a crumbling building largely occupied by recent immigrants, which many Italians regard as a den of drugs and violence. Did prejudice hamper the search for justice?
It was raining heavily on 28 March 2018, as Alessandro Albinis officers were raking over rough ground on the outskirts of an abandoned building. The police were looking for stashes of drugs or money, because they knew the shack was being used by dealers.
At first glance, this might have seemed an unlikely location for a drugs bust. Porto Recanati is a small seaside town on Italys Adriatic coast. It has perpendicular streets with low, pastel-coloured palazzi between palms and maritime pines. Its all very neat: there are often mini-diggers on the sand, raking the beach flat as if it were a Japanese garden.
One of Albinis men called him over. Theres something strange here, he said. The rain had washed away the loose soil and what looked like a golf ball was sticking out of the ground. Albinis colleague took a cloth and wiped away the mud so that he could see the thick bone of what appeared to be a femur.
Forensic experts were called in, and for two weeks Albini, the towns vice questore (the deputy chief constable), oversaw the sifting of 15 cubic metres of ground, which contained a lot of buried garbage and animal bones, but also other remains that seemed human.
The abandoned building was five minutes inland from the sea, close to the towns tiny stadium with its single west stand. But it was only a field away from what is possibly the most fascinating and perplexing building in Italy: Hotel House, a semi-derelict tower block that has become synonymous, in the Italian imagination, with drug dealing, prostitution and clandestine migrants.
Given that reputation, there was press speculation that this might be a mass burial site. Every day local, then national, journalists came to lean over the red-and-white tape to shout questions to the forensics crew.
Hotel House is shaped like a Y, with three red-coloured wings, each 17 stories high and covered by the rusting sequins of satellite dishes. There are 480 apartments, but nobody knows how many people live here. In the summer, when large numbers of Bangladeshi and Senegalese people come to the area to work as beach vendors, the number probably surpasses 3,000. There are only a handful of Italians still living in the block. All eight of its lifts are broken, there is no piped drinking water, the sewage is backing up and there are holes in the walls and floors on every level.
Hotel House has been compared to Scampia the famous Naples estate featured in the film Gomorrah and the former Olympic village in Turin: high-concept architectural projects that have, over time, become dystopian citadels for drug dealers and an Italian and immigrant underclass. These are places where honest destitution mixes with criminal wealth, and where the Italian state often appears to have lost control completely.
For almost a century, Italy was one of Europes largest sources of emigrants. But by the early 1990s, immigration to Italy had accelerated rapidly, and some places with high immigrant populations developed serious problems with crime which in turn provoked outrage among many Italians. Matteo Salvinis far-right Lega party swept to power this spring by exploiting anti-immigrant sentiment, even posing for a photo opportunity a few years ago at Hotel House.
Italys various law enforcement agencies do attempt to police Hotel House, but with so many flats and people, plus multiple stairwells and underground garages, finding evidence of criminal activity is almost impossible. By the time we get to the top of one stairwell, one officer told me, the stash has been moved to another wing. Theyre very sly.
There are occasional busts, after which photos of clingfilmed bricks of hash or torpedo-shaped wraps of heroin or cocaine will be proudly shown off. One recent investigation discovered that about 450,000 was being transferred to Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan every month from a wire service on the ground floor of Hotel House. Often there were multiple transfers to the same person in one day, indicating that it was a restocking exercise. The drug trade inside Hotel House is estimated to be worth between 5m and 10m a year not huge figures, but in a building in which poverty and degradation are everywhere, still pretty astonishing.
Given the buildings reputation, few were surprised by the grim discovery of human remains nearby. But Hotel House isnt simply the key to understanding a murder. Its also a way to glimpse how parts of Italy have responded to immigration. Thirty years ago, this rural region half-way down Italys east coast, Le Marche, was a homogenous society. It is now 6% non-Italian, and in little Porto Recanati, the figure is 23%. Hotel House, in many ways, reveals how bewildering these changes have been not just for Italian society, but for those hoping to become a part of it.
Almost every week theres a major incident at Hotel House. Recently these have included a suicide attempt, a Moroccan man beaten into a coma on a Saturday night, a fire, a police bust that turned up 28,000 items of counterfeit clothing, and another that found 120g of cocaine. The discovery of human remains so close to the building was just the latest in a long line of bad news.
Despite constant horror stories in the press, Hotel House doesnt feel particularly edgy at first. As you approach the block from the sea, you walk through a shady boulevard of mature lime trees, and sunflowers poke their manes above a wheatfield. Next to the building is a large car park and car cemetery, containing dozens of dented, unmarked white vans. There is a constant stream of cyclists and pedestrians walking to and from town, and as you get closer you hear screams of laughter from children playing.
Beyond the pedestrian barriers, Pakistani men sit on the concrete benches, and around the corner North Africans occupy plastic chairs. One time when I visited, a white woman with a grey crew-cut was shouting amiably at Tunisian labourers working to fix some pipes in a trench. The air all around smells of grey water and rotting food.
The porters lodge has a mirror window. The porters arent official, because the building has been in the hands of a judicially appointed administrator since 2015. But Luca, Ibrahim, Abid and Moustaffa sit in their office gruffly watching the comings and goings. Their powers are limited, but not insignificant: they liaise with the press and police, and hold various keys.
All around the ground floor are notices in Urdu, Punjabi, Bengali and Arabic: appeals to raise money to repatriate a corpse, or posters asking residents to fork out for repairs. You can glimpse faded grandeur in the beige marble flooring, which is now covered by cigarette butts, cotton buds and empty bottles.
Survival means minding your own business. Enzo, a Tuscan glass-blower who has lived here since 2001, says: I dont look, but just pass by. Many apartment doors are posted with repossession orders, but others have been prettified with stencils or shells and pieces of driftwood. Most of the landings are full of rubbish: dirty mattresses, rusting fridges, ripped bin liners, plastic toys. At the end of each corridor is a view that gets more spectacular the higher you go.