The Pandemic Changed Where Americans Live – By Arian Campo-Flores, Paul Overberg, Joseph De Avila and Elizabeth Findell April 27, 2021 11:13 am ET

Big cities lost residents, as younger households left for the suburbs and older people accelerated retirement moves, while fewer newcomers came to take their places

The pandemic has spurred a burst of mobility that is accelerating changes in where and how Americans live. 

Some young people are leaving cities earlier than is typical, while some older people are speeding up retirement moves. Fewer newcomers are giving cities a try, meaning the people moving out aren’t being replaced by fresh residents.

Suburbs are emerging as the winners from these changes, marking the end of a decadelong growth trend for big cities. Companies intent on lowering overhead and retaining talent are opening offices there, and developers are adding amenities to keep entertainment dollars local.

In the largest cities, the changes are helping erase billions of dollars of annual property tax revenue and fueling double-digit decreases in rents. In 2020, higher-income neighborhoods lost more residents to migration than lower-income neighborhoods. 

With many companies signaling a new openness to remote work after the pandemic ends, cities are bracing for a future where spending on public transportation, lunches and other drivers of the urban economy don’t return to pre-pandemic levels.

Nationwide, the South, especially Florida and Texas, added households, while the Northeast lost them. Early results of the 2020 census, pegged to April 1, 2020, and released this week, don’t reflect most of the coronavirus pandemic’s effects. The Census Bureau’s American Community Survey will provide a detailed demographic profile covering all of 2020 when it is released this fall.

A Wall Street Journal analysis of U.S. Postal Service permanent change-of-address data through 2020 provides the clearest picture yet of how millions of domestic moves during the pandemic supercharged demographic shifts. 

From coast to coast, Americans migrated toward less-dense, more-affordable areas as they sought more space and, in some cases, became untethered by the ability to work from anywhere. 

Big cities including New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Boston saw hundreds of thousands more residents move out than in, in changes they labeled permanent, causing the net loss of households from migration to widen by 71% in 2020 from the previous year. New York City saw more net moves out last year than it did during the two prior years combined.

The suburbs of large metropolitan areas captured much of the outflow. Net new suburban households from migration rose 43% in 2020 from the prior year, helping swell the counties surrounding Dallas, Indianapolis, Nashville, Tenn., and Charlotte, N.C., among others.

Smaller metro areas, including Salisbury, Md., Colorado Springs, Colo., Allentown, Pa., and Boise, Idaho, also experienced sharp net increases in newcomers. So did vacation destinations from the Grand Strand of South Carolina to the red-rock mountains of southwestern Utah.

In big-city suburbs—which added more new households than smaller metros and towns combined—developers are capitalizing on the shift. They are investing in walkable “surban” master-planned communities that feature fresh-air spaces, fitness facilities, local food and other amenities that ease newcomers into suburban living, said Chris Porter, chief demographer at John Burns Real Estate Consulting in Irvine, Calif.

Masha Lavie, a 33-year-old marketing consultant, thought she was years away from trading her one-bedroom Manhattan apartment for a home in the suburbs. But after she and her fiancé hunkered down in her grandparents’ summer house in the Poconos at the start of the pandemic, the couple realized their priorities had shifted. They rented a more-spacious condo in Cliffside Park, N.J., and grew accustomed to having their own space to work from home. Ms. Lavie bought a car to have more freedom.

Net flow of households between regions

Net loss to

other regions

In 2018 the Northeast lost 64,367

households while the South gained 58,708

In 2020 the Northeast lost 109,572

households while the South gained 140,600

Source: U.S. Postal Service

In October, they purchased a three-bedroom unit in that same building with views of the Manhattan skyline. “The city looks prettier from the Jersey side,” Ms. Lavie said.

California’s exodus also gained steam, extending losses in the Pacific West and contributing to increases in the Mountain West. The Midwest saw a modest net loss from migration that was smaller than prior years.

The figures don’t capture the arrival of new immigrants, which was damped by the pandemic, and exclude births and deaths. The Journal included in its analysis only households that indicated their change of address was permanent.

Even before the pandemic, a boom in city living was weakening in the face of soaring real-estate prices and the aging of millennials, who reached peak periods for family formation and home buying. Covid-19 accelerated the trend.

What started to change in the past year is who lives in cities. Stephan Whitaker, a policy economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, used credit-record data to analyze urban mobility patterns. He found that in earlier years, the net migration out of urban neighborhoods involved more people from neighborhoods with below-median income than from neighborhoods with above-median income. That reversed in 2020, with wealthier neighborhoods seeing the biggest losses from migration.

Net population losses in and around large cities were driven, even more than departures, by a decline in the number of people moving in, data from the postal service and Mr. Whitaker’s research show. The outflow was greater among metro areas with more Covid-19 deaths and those with more jobs that allowed for remote work, according to Mr. Whitaker’s analysis.

The postal service data showed a sharp reversal in migration, which had hit a record low before the pandemic, census figures show. Americans logged 7% more permanent moves between counties in 2020 than in 2019, after a drop of 2% from 2018 to 2019. Year-over-year increases topped 10% in each of the last four months of 2020, peaking at 28% in December.

The patterns in 2020 generally followed those in 2019, but were amplified, as losing states gave up more and gaining states received more.

The exodus from New York City has been a boon for New Jersey. The state more than doubled its new households from migration in 2020 from the prior year. In 12 suburban New Jersey counties, net growth from relocating New York City residents rose to more than 35,000 households in 2020, up 76% from the prior year.

That, along with low interest rates, set the housing market in Bergen County, N.J., on fire. Located just across the Hudson River from Manhattan, the county drew three times as many net new households from migration in 2020 compared with the prior year as families seeking more space and short commutes poured in.

Children play at a luxury home development in Mahwah, N.J., in Bergen County. Below, a street of restaurants, and Palisades Park, also in the county. 


Photo: Cassandra Giraldo for The Wall Street Journal

Civic leaders say they are excited about the opportunity to capture more of their dining and entertainment spending, and they are building housing that caters to people who will telework beyond the pandemic.

Bergen County plans to break ground in Hackensack as early as this spring on a nearly 100-unit housing development with income restrictions aimed at attracting young professionals at the start of their careers, said Bergen County Executive James Tedesco. The apartments will be built with desk spaces attached to the walls and inside closets to appeal to people who need to work from home.

About 1,150 building permits for single-family homes were issued in the county in 2020, a 43% jump from the prior year and the most permits in over a decade.

“We’ve had homes get 50, 60 offers,” said Joseph Tamburo, a branch vice president for a Coldwell Banker office in Fort Lee, N.J.

Maridel and Mitchell Quesada were living in a two-bedroom apartment in Queens with their infant son when the pandemic hit. When playgrounds reopened, they watched their son bask happily in the sunlight. “He needs to be outside,” said Mr. Quesada, a 37-year-old on-site manager for a medical device company that provides technician services to hospitals.

In December, they bought a four-bedroom, side-hall-colonial home with a large deck set above their backyard in the Bergen community of Waldwick, close enough to commute into Manhattan. “If we have to hunker down and become hermits again, at least we can all have our own space,” Mr. Quesada said.The Quesada family moved from New York City to Waldwick, N.J. PHOTO AND VIDEO: CASSANDRA GIRALDO FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Such departures, along with more people working from home, have taken a toll on New York City’s economy. The city’s property tax revenues for the coming fiscal year are projected to decline by $2.5 billion compared to an earlier forecast, the largest drop since 1996, as the values of office buildings and hotels have sunk. Median asking rent for Manhattan apartments fell 21% in March compared with the previous year as demand fell, according to real-estate site StreetEasy. The city has recovered less than half of all the jobs it lost since the start of the pandemic.

The state of New York lost a net of about 150,000 households from migration last year, more than any other state and double the amount from the previous year, the postal service figures show. Florida drew more New York transplants than any other state besides New Jersey, capturing a net of 23,000 new households that migrated from the Empire State.

Some younger baby boomers accelerated moves to retirement destinations because they anticipate being able to telework for a few years before fully retiring, said Nadia Evangelou, senior economist and director of forecasting at the National Association of Realtors. For others, the pandemic hastened their retirement and changed their priorities.

Bob Biller, a 70-year-old podiatrist, was living in Oceanside, N.Y., on Long Island and teaching medical staff at a nursing home when the pandemic hit. His wife, Joanne Biller, 73, had long resisted leaving New York and its cultural life. Fearful of his Covid-19 exposure at work, and frustrated with high New York taxes, Mr. Biller decided it was time to retire and head south.

Homes in Land O’ Lakes, Fla., where Bob and Joanne Biller moved. Bottom, a new development in Wesley Chapel, Fla.
Photo: Zack Wittman for The Wall Street Journal

He persuaded Ms. Biller to move to Land O’ Lakes, Fla., where they bought a home in the Del Webb Bexley retirement community in January. Now he has a big garage to tinker with cars, and she has an art room to paint. “You can have a better quality of life down here,” Mr. Biller said.

They are part of an influx of new residents into Pasco County, a fast-growing suburban area north of Tampa. The county drew a net of more than 7,000 new households last year, a 57% increase from the prior year, according to the change-of-address data.

Developers are turning swaths of former ranchland into master-planned communities offering recreation centers, artificial lagoons and biking trails. New construction is abundant, with gleaming shopping centers, a growing array of restaurants and signs advertising “New Homes from the $200s.”

Building permits for single-family homes jumped 89% in January, 81% in February and 116% in March, compared with the same months a year earlier, said county administrator Dan Biles. Some big employers recently have built facilities in the county, or announced plans to, including manufacturers, a financial company and a cancer treatment and research center.

County leaders are working to ensure the growth doesn’t erode the quality of life. Traffic has become gridlocked along major thoroughfares at times. Road expansions are under way across the county to accommodate the influx.Bobby Boyer sold his house in Virginia and moved to Wesley Chapel. PHOTO AND VIDEO: ZACK WITTMAN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Bobby Boyer, 43, had lived in Winchester, Va., for eight years when he was furloughed from his job as a building automation programmer early in the pandemic. He began panicking about making his house and car payments and reached out to a recruiter, who told him about an opening in Tampa.

Mr. Boyer got the job, sold his house in Winchester and in July moved to Wesley Chapel, one of the fastest-growing areas of Pasco County, with sprawling new developments and malls. He bought a four-bedroom house for $260,000, about $60,000 less than what he sold the smaller Winchester property for. Although his new job pays about 20% less than his previous one, the lower cost of living, from reduced taxes to cheaper leisure and entertainment costs, made up for that, while his lifestyle gained an upgrade.

“I really wanted to get down here,” said Mr. Boyer. “It’s a change of scenery—the palm trees, lakes everywhere, all the wildlife.”

Share Your Thoughts

Have you permanently relocated because of the pandemic? Join the conversation below. 

Nationally, there are signs that employment is rebounding more strongly in suburbs than in cities. After job losses bottomed out in April, the employment growth rate in suburban areas slightly outpaced that of the overall U.S. through September, the most recent month available, while urban areas have recovered at a slower pace, according to an analysis of federal employment data by John Burns Real Estate Consulting.

In Texas, which drew more transplants from migration than any other state last year, the counties surrounding Dallas and Fort Worth are using the influx of residents to lure employers. The outlying counties gained a net of about 43,000 new households from migration last year, a 28% increase from the prior year.

More than a quarter of that growth was in Denton County, where the development is sprawling out along the highways that run north to Amarillo, Colorado and Oklahoma, and down along the southern side of the county, near the Grapevine and Lewisville lakes. The city of Denton, a college town known for its art and music scene, in October approved its first two city grants to technology startup companies, said Jessica Rogers, the city’s director of economic development. A cold storage and a food distributor also opened during the pandemic.

Around the small town of Argyle, north of Fort Worth, where several planned communities are under way, large homes on sprawling acreage cluster around a gun club, and longhorns graze next to a construction site.

“We have two major universities,” said Denton County Judge Andy Eads, the county’s elected executive. “We have an educated workforce. We have three lakes and plenty of open space. We have a diversified housing market, so you can find high rise condos overlooking Lake Grapevine all the way to ranches.”

Gerard Hudspeth, the mayor of Denton, Texas, said the city is working to keep up with all the newcomers. Photo: Nitashia Johnson for The Wall Street Journal

Denton Mayor Gerard Hudspeth said the city met its pre-pandemic projections for sales tax revenue last year, and that parks and schools have scrambled to keep up with newcomers. Many of the new residential developments are outside of city limits, putting them out of range of city services from infrastructure to emergency response. That has caused some tension when water systems are undersized or the county’s first responders try to cover a widespread area.

“You don’t think about it until something happens when ‘Hey, I’ve got to call the police’ and you think the city police is going to come and it gets rerouted to the sheriff’s department,” Mr. Hudspeth said.

Some builders have gone to a lottery system to sell their homes, said Chrissy Mallouf, a local real-estate agent. Bloomfield Homes, which has dozens of developments around the Dallas-Fort Worth area, is now using a wait list, and the increased demand, in addition to an unusual winter storm, caused delays and shortages of windows, air conditioning units and lumber, according to company executives.

Melanie Molinaro, a 37-year-old speech pathologist, and her husband wanted a less-hurried lifestyle that didn’t include sitting in traffic in Houston, where their daughter was outgrowing the small backyard their townhome shared with a neighbor. They had attended the University of North Texas in Denton and had long wanted to move back there. After her husband lost his job as an arts director when the pandemic hit, they decided it was time to do it.Melanie Molinaro moved to Denton from Houston with her husband and daughter. PHOTO AND VIDEO: NITASHIA JOHNSON FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

The couple set out to buy a house within walking distance of Denton’s town square, where bars, cafes and boutiques ring a historic courthouse, and quickly got discouraged. “I would see something I loved and the next day it was under contract,” Ms. Molinaro said.

In August, they clinched a 100-year-old farmhouse on a half-acre lot between the university and the square, with a big backyard, screened-in porch and old-growth trees. The family is happy, although Ms. Molinaro laments that Denton feels less like an independent small town and more like part of the big city than when they were in college.

“I’m a little sad because I feel like Denton and Corinth just blend together and that blends to Lewisville and then it’s Dallas,” she said. “Before, there was differentiation.”

Write to Arian Campo-Flores at, Paul Overberg at, Joseph De Avila at and Elizabeth Findell at

Why are American workers becoming harder to find? – The Economist

Labour shortages are rising even though unemployment remains high

Apr 29th 2021

THE PANDEMIC has led to all sorts of weird economic outcomes. The latest oddity is the growing chorus of complaints in America about a shortage of labour, even though 8m fewer people are in work today than before covid-19 struck. In early April Bloomberg reported that Delta Air Lines had cancelled 100 flights for lack of staff. People are so hard to find that one café in Florida has turned to robots to greet customers and deliver food. A branch of McDonald’s is paying potential burger-flippers $50 just to turn up for a job interview.

The data back up the anecdotes. Total vacancies are running at their highest level for at least two decades (see chart), indicating that firms have plenty of unfilled positions. Furthermore, job openings are leading to fewer hires than you would expect based on the historical relationship between the two. And even accounting for changes in the composition of the workforce, wage growth, at about 3%, has been surprisingly robust, suggesting that firms are offering bigger pay packets to tempt workers. If they persist job shortages could eventually fuel inflation, threatening the economic recovery.

There are three potential explanations for the puzzling shortages: over-generous benefits; fearful workers; and a reallocation of labour between industries. Start with America’s huge fiscal handouts. The latest stimulus cheques, posted in the spring, were for up to $1,400 per person. Seemingly every American knows of a neighbour’s cousin’s boyfriend who received a “stimmy” cheque, then quit his job in order to sit on the sofa. A federal supplement to unemployment insurance (UI), currently $300 a week, ensures that four in ten unemployed people earn more from benefits than they did in their previous job. Economic research has long concluded that more generous benefits blunt incentives to look for work.

Yet this relationship appears to have weakened during the pandemic. The fact that increases in UI payments have been time-limited may make workers reluctant to turn down a job with longer-lasting rewards. In the early part of the pandemic the UI supplement was even more generous, at $600, but its expiry in the summer had “little effect on overall employment”, according to a paper published in February by Arindrajit Dube of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Likewise, in the areas where the current $300 is a relatively larger boost to income, employment growth has not weakened since January, when that uplift was introduced.

This suggests that the second factor, fear, may be important in explaining America’s shortage of staff. Nearly 4m people are not looking for work “because of the coronavirus pandemic”, according to official data. And consider which industries are experiencing the most acute worker shortages. Jobs in health care, recreation and hospitality report the highest level of job openings, relative to employment. Many of these involve plenty of person-to-person contact, making their workers especially vulnerable to infection (a study from California earlier this year found that cooks were most at risk from dying of covid-19). By contrast, in industries where maintaining social distancing or being outside is often easier, labour shortages are less of an issue. The number of job openings per employee in the construction industry is lower today than it was before the pandemic.

The final reason for worker shortages relates to the extraordinary reallocation of resources under way in the economy. The headline growth in vacancies represents the rise in opportunities in some industries—say, clerks in DIY stores—as others decline, reflecting changing consumer demands. Analysis by The Economist of over 400 local areas also finds a wide variation in job churn across geographies: the gap between jobs growth in the most buoyant areas and that in struggling ones is twice as wide as it was before the pandemic. Workers may take time to catch up with this creative destruction. A former bartender looking for work in downtown Manhattan, for instance, may not quickly spot and secure a position as a delivery driver in farther-out Westchester.

As vaccinations continue to reduce hospitalisations and deaths from covid-19, and limit the spread of the disease, Americans’ fears about taking high-contact jobs should fade too. But if shortages are to dissipate fully, and the threat of inflation is to be contained, some of the unemployed will also have to take up work in sectors and areas that are new to them. ■

A version of this article was published online on April 27th, 2021

This article appeared in the Finance & economics section of the print edition under the headline “Help wanted”

Pro-Trump and anti-vax sites urging people to forge COVID-19 vaccination cards, says CDC –

By Christian Spencer | April 30, 2021

Some former President Trump supporters and anti-vaxxers are forging vaccine cards using a government-issued template to falsely state they received their shots.

NBC News reports that people are making their own vaccination cards using an online template and flashcards.

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“It’s a cardboard paper card,” said Alyssa Miller, a cybersecurity expert. “There’s absolutely nothing about it that would prevent you from reproducing it.”

Using high-resolution PDFs from the websites on the Wyoming and Missouri health departments, conspiracy and anti-government forums give graphic templates on how to make a convincing vaccination card.

Certain websites, like, formerly known as, instruct how thick the cardstock needs to be and how some vaccination centers attach stickers on cards to indicate the date. Some websites have printed labels for dates.

The CDC has informed both the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services and Wyoming’s Health Department, both of which were aware of the misuse a month ago.

“It would be best for states to no longer have that material available online as some were using the card/file for fraudulent use,” a spokesperson for the Missouri Department of Health said.

“The initial goal for posting the document was to make things a little easier for community providers,” the Wyoming department spokesperson said.

The cards, handwritten and containing very little information, are being exploited by right-wing forums that challenge President Biden’s vaccination mandates.

The Biden administration said it was not interested in creating a federal vaccination passport, saying some might have privacy concerns. New York is the only state to have a verification application called Excelsior Pass or the vaccine passport, as reported in Black Enterprise.

The FBI released a public warning in March, asserting created or bought fraudulent vaccine cards are illegal.


Migrants from Morocco and Bangladesh wait on an overcrowded wooden boat off the coast of Libya for aid workers from the Spanish search-and-rescue group Open Arms on Jan. 10, 2020. Photo: Santi Palacios/AP

Italy’s Anti-Mafia Directorate and the “Dirty Campaign” to Criminalize Migration

Afana Dieudonne often says that he is not a superhero. That’s Dieudonne’s way of saying he’s done things he’s not proud of — just like anyone in his situation would, he says, in order to survive. From his home in Cameroon to Tunisia by air, then by car and foot into the desert, across the border into Libya, and onto a rubber boat in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, Dieudonne has done a lot of surviving.

In Libya, Dieudonne remembers when the smugglers managing the safe house would ask him for favors. Dieudonne spoke a little English and didn’t want trouble. He said the smugglers were often high and always armed. Sometimes, when asked, Dieudonne would distribute food and water among the other migrants. Other times, he would inform on those who didn’t follow orders. He remembers the traffickers forcing him to inflict violence on his peers. It was either them or him, he reasoned.

On September 30, 2014, the smugglers pushed Dieudonne and 91 others out to sea aboard a rubber boat. Buzzing through the pitch-black night, the group watched lights on the Libyan coast fade into darkness. After a day at sea, the overcrowded dinghy began taking on water. Its passengers were rescued by an NGO vessel and transferred to an Italian coast guard ship, where officers picked Dieudonne out of a crowd and led him into a room for questioning.

At first, Dieudonne remembers the questioning to be quick, almost routine. His name, his age, his nationality. And then the questions turned: The officers said they wanted to know how the trafficking worked in Libya so they could arrest the people involved. They wanted to know who had driven the rubber boat and who had held the navigation compass.

“So I explained everything to them, and I also showed who the ‘captain’ was — captain in quotes, because there is no captain,” said Dieudonne. The real traffickers stay in Libya, he added. “Even those who find themselves to be captains, they don’t do it by choice.”

For the smugglers, Dieudonne explained, “we are the customers, and we are the goods.”

For years, efforts by the Italian government and the European Union to address migration in the central Mediterranean have focused on the people in Libya — interchangeably called facilitators, smugglers, traffickers, or militia members, depending on which agency you’re speaking to — whose livelihoods come from helping others cross irregularly into Europe. People pay them a fare to organize a journey so dangerous it has taken tens of thousands of lives.

The European effort to dismantle these smuggling networks has been driven by an unlikely actor: the Italian anti-mafia and anti-terrorism directorate, a niche police office in Rome that gained respect in the 1990s and early 2000s for dismantling large parts of the Mafia in Sicily and elsewhere in Italy. According to previously unpublished internal documents, the office — called the Direzione nazionale antimafia e antiterrorismo, or DNAA, in Italian — took a front-and-center role in the management of Europe’s southern sea borders, in direct coordination with the EU border agency Frontex and European military missions operating off the Libyan coast.

In 2013, under the leadership of a longtime anti-mafia prosecutor named Franco Roberti, the directorate pioneered a strategy that was unique — or at least new for the border officers involved. They would start handling irregular migration to Europe like they had handled the mob. The approach would allow Italian and European police, coast guard agencies, and navies, obliged by international law to rescue stranded refugees at sea, to at least get some arrests and convictions along the way.

The idea was to arrest low-level operators and use coercion and plea deals to get them to flip on their superiors. That way, the reasoning went, police investigators could work their way up the food chain and eventually dismantle the smuggling rings in Libya. With every boat that disembarked in Italy, police would make a handful of arrests. Anybody found to have played an active role during the crossing, from piloting to holding a compass to distributing water or bailing out a leak, could be arrested under a new legal directive written by Roberti’s anti-mafia directorate. Charges ranged from simple smuggling to transnational criminal conspiracy and — if people asphyxiated below deck or drowned when a boat capsized — even murder. Judicial sources estimate the number of people arrested since 2013 to be in the thousands.

For the police, prosecutors, and politicians involved, the arrests were an important domestic political win. At the time, public opinion in Italy was turning against migration, and the mugshots of alleged smugglers regularly held space on front pages throughout the country.

But according to the minutes of closed-door conversations among some of the very same actors directing these cases, which were obtained by The Intercept under Italy’s freedom of information law, most anti-mafia prosecutions only focused on low-level boat drivers, often migrants who had themselves paid for the trip across. Few, if any, smuggling bosses were ever convicted. Documents of over a dozen trials reviewed by The Intercept show prosecutions built on hasty investigations and coercive interrogations.

In the years that followed, the anti-mafia directorate went to great lengths to keep the arrests coming. According to the internal documents, the office coordinated a series of criminal investigations into the civilian rescue NGOs working to save lives in the Mediterranean, accusing them of hampering police work. It also oversaw efforts to create and train a new coast guard in Libya, with full knowledge that some coast guard officers were colluding with the same smuggling networks that Italian and European leaders were supposed to be fighting.

Since its inception, the anti-mafia directorate has wielded unparalleled investigative tools and served as a bridge between politicians and the courts. The documents reveal in meticulous detail how the agency, alongside Italian and European officials, capitalized on those powers to crack down on alleged smugglers, most of whom they knew to be desperate people fleeing poverty and violence with limited resources to defend themselves in court.

The candidate for southern Italy of the Democratic Party, Franco Roberti, during the press conference in Casal Di Principe for the European elections in Casal Di Principe, Italy on April 29, 2019.

Tragedy and Opportunity

The anti-mafia directorate was born in the early 1990s after a decade of escalating Mafia violence. By then, hundreds of prosecutors, politicians, journalists, and police officers had been shot, blown up, or kidnapped, and many more extorted by organized crime families operating in Italy and beyond.

In Palermo, the Sicilian capital, prosecutor Giovanni Falcone was a rising star in the Italian judiciary. Falcone had won unprecedented success with an approach to organized crime based on tracking financial flows, seizing assets, and centralizing evidence gathered by prosecutor’s offices across the island.

But as the Mafia expanded its reach into the rest of Europe, Falcone’s work proved insufficient.

In September 1990, a Mafia commando drove from Germany to Sicily to gun down a 37-year-old judge. Weeks later, at a police checkpoint in Naples, the Sicilian driver of a truck loaded with weapons, explosives, and drugs was found to be a resident of Germany. A month after the arrests, Falcone traveled to Germany to establish an information-sharing mechanism with authorities there. He brought along a younger colleague from Naples, Franco Roberti.

“We faced a stone wall,” recalled Roberti, still bitter three decades later. He spoke to us outside a cafe in a plum neighborhood in Naples. Seventy-three years old and speaking with the rasp of a lifelong smoker, Roberti described Italy’s Mafia problem in blunt language. He bemoaned a lack of international cooperation that, he said, continues to this day. “They claimed that there was no need to investigate there,” Roberti said, “that it was up to us to investigate Italians in Germany who were occasional mafiosi.”

As the prosecutors traveled back to Italy empty-handed, Roberti remembers Falcone telling him that they needed “a centralized national organ able to speak directly to foreign judicial authorities and coordinate investigations in Italy.”

“That is how the idea of the anti-mafia directorate was born,” Roberti said. The two began building what would become Italy’s first national anti-mafia force.

At the time, there was tough resistance to the project. Critics argued that Falcone and Roberti were creating “super-prosecutors” who would wield outsize powers over the courts, while also being subject to political pressures from the government in Rome. It was, they argued, a marriage of police and the judiciary, political interests and supposedly apolitical courts — convenient for getting Mafia convictions but dangerous for Italian democracy.

Still, in January 1992, the project was approved in Parliament. But Falcone would never get to lead it: Months later, a bomb set by the Mafia killed him, his wife, and the three agents escorting them. The attack put to rest any remaining criticism of Falcone’s plan.

The anti-mafia directorate went on to become one of Italy’s most important institutions, the national authority over all matters concerning organized crime and the agency responsible for partially freeing the country from its century-old crucible. In the decades after Falcone’s death, the directorate did what many in Italy thought impossible, dismantling large parts of the five main Italian crime families and almost halving the Mafia-related murder rate.

And yet, by the time Roberti took control in 2013, it had been years since the last high-profile Mafia prosecution, and the organization’s influence was waning. At the same time, Italy was facing unprecedented numbers of migrants arriving by boat. Roberti had an idea: The anti-mafia directorate would start working on what he saw as a different kind of mafia. The organization set its sights on Libya.

“We thought we had to do something more coordinated to combat this trafficking,” Roberti remembered, “so I put everyone around a table.”

“The main objective was to save lives, seize ships, and capture smugglers,” Roberti said. “Which we did.”

Migrants stand in line in the morning waiting for daily work in Zuwara, Libya, on Sept. 15th 2015.

Our Sea

Dieudonne made it to the Libyan port city of Zuwara in August 2014. One more step across the Mediterranean, and he’d be in Europe. The smugglers he paid to get him across the sea took all of his possessions and put him in an abandoned building that served as a safe house to wait for his turn.

Dieudonne told his story from a small office in Bari, Italy, where he runs a cooperative that helps recent arrivals access local education. Dieudonne is fiery and charismatic. He is constantly moving: speaking, texting, calling, gesticulating. Every time he makes a point, he raps his knuckles on the table in a one-two pattern. Dieudonne insisted that we publish his real name. Others who made the journey more recently — still pending decisions on their residence permits or refugee status — were less willing to speak openly.

Dieudonne remembers the safe house in Zuwara as a string of constant violence. The smugglers would come once a day to leave food. Every day, they would ask who hadn’t followed their orders. Those inside the abandoned building knew they were less likely to be discovered by police or rival smugglers, but at the same time, they were not free to leave.

“They’ve put a guy in the refrigerator in front of all of us, to show how the next one who misbehaves will be treated,” Dieudonne remembered, indignant. He witnessed torture, shootings, rape. “The first time you see it, it hurts you. The second time it hurts you less. The third time,” he said with a shrug, “it becomes normal. Because that’s the only way to survive.”RelatedItaly Imprisons Refugees Who Were Forced to Pilot Smuggling Boats at Gunpoint

“That’s why arresting the person who pilots a boat and treating them like a trafficker makes me laugh,” Dieudonne said. Others who have made the journey to Italy report having been forced to drive at gunpoint. “You only do it to be sure you don’t die there,” he said.

Two years after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi’s government, much of Libya’s northwest coast had become a staging ground for smugglers who organized sea crossings to Europe in large wooden fishing boats. When those ships — overcrowded, underpowered, and piloted by amateurs — inevitably capsized, the deaths were counted by the hundreds.

In October 2013, two shipwrecks off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa took over 400 lives, sparking public outcry across Europe. In response, the Italian state mobilized two plans, one public and the other private.

“There was a big shock when the Lampedusa tragedy happened,” remembered Italian Sen. Emma Bonino, then the country’s foreign minister. The prime minister “called an emergency meeting, and we decided to immediately launch this rescue program,” Bonino said. “Someone wanted to call the program ‘safe seas.’ I said no, not safe, because it’s sure we’ll have other tragedies. So let’s call it Mare Nostrum.”

Mare Nostrum — “our sea” in Latin — was a rescue mission in international waters off the coast of Libya that ran for one year and rescued more than 150,000 people. The operation also brought Italian ships, airplanes, and submarines closer than ever to Libyan shores. Roberti, just two months into his job as head of the anti-mafia directorate, saw an opportunity to extend the country’s judicial reach and inflict a lethal blow to smuggling rings in Libya.The meeting minutes give an unprecedented behind-the-scenes look at the events on Europe’s southern borders since the Lampedusa shipwrecks.

Five days after the start of Mare Nostrum, Roberti launched the private plan: a series of coordination meetings among the highest echelons of the Italian police, navy, coast guard, and judiciary. Under Roberti, these meetings would run for four years and eventually involve representatives from Frontex, Europol, an EU military operation, and even Libya.

The minutes of five of these meetings, which were presented by Roberti in a committee of the Italian Parliament and obtained by The Intercept, give an unprecedented behind-the-scenes look at the events on Europe’s southern borders since the Lampedusa shipwrecks.

In the first meeting, held in October 2013, Roberti told participants that the anti-mafia offices in the Sicilian city of Catania had developed an innovative way to deal with migrant smuggling. By treating Libyan smugglers like they had treated the Italian Mafia, prosecutors could claim jurisdiction over international waters far beyond Italy’s borders. That, Roberti said, meant they could lawfully board and seize vessels on the high seas, conduct investigations there, and use the evidence in court.

The Italian authorities have long recognized that, per international maritime law, they are obligated to rescue people fleeing Libya on overcrowded boats and transport them to a place of safety. As the number of people attempting the crossing increased, many Italian prosecutors and coast guard officials came to believe that smugglers were relying on these rescues to make their business model work; therefore, the anti-mafia reasoning went, anyone who acted as crew or made a distress call on a boat carrying migrants could be considered complicit in Libyan trafficking and subject to Italian jurisdiction. This new approach drew heavily from legal doctrines developed in the United States during the 1980s aimed at stopping drug smuggling.

European leaders were scrambling to find a solution to what they saw as a looming migration crisis. Italian officials thought they had the answer and publicly justified their decisions as a way to prevent future drownings.

But according to the minutes of the 2013 anti-mafia meeting, the new strategy predated the Lampedusa shipwrecks by at least a week. Sicilian prosecutors had already written the plan to crack down on migration across the Mediterranean but lacked both the tools and public will to put it into action. Following the Lampedusa tragedy and the creation of Mare Nostrum, they suddenly had both.

Italian police stand next to a migrant suspected to be a smuggler (up-R) as they disembark off rescued migrants from the Italian Guardia di Finanza vessel Denaro at the Sicilian harbour of Catania on April 23, 2015.

State of Necessity

In the international waters off the coast of Libya, Dieudonne and 91 others were rescued by a European NGO called Migrant Offshore Aid Station. They spent two days aboard MOAS’s ship before being transferred to an Italian coast guard ship, Nave Dattilo, to be taken to Europe.

Aboard the Dattilo, coast guard officers asked Dieudonne why he had left his home in Cameroon. He remembers them showing him a photograph of the rubber boat taken from the air. “They asked me who was driving, the roles and everything,” he remembered. “Then they asked me if I could tell him how the trafficking in Libya works, and then, they said, they would give me residence documents.”

Dieudonne said that he was reluctant to cooperate at first. He didn’t want to accuse any of his peers, but he was also concerned that he could become a suspect. After all, he had helped the driver at points throughout the voyage.“I thought that if I didn’t cooperate, they might hurt me.”

“I thought that if I didn’t cooperate, they might hurt me,” Dieudonne said. “Not physically hurt, but they could consider me dishonest, like someone who was part of the trafficking.”

To this day, Dieudonne says he can’t understand why Italy would punish people for fleeing poverty and political violence in West Africa. He rattled off a list of events from the last year alone: draught, famine, corruption, armed gunmen, attacks on schools. “And you try to convict someone for managing to escape that situation?”

The coast guard ship disembarked in Vibo Valentia, a city in the Italian region of Calabria. During disembarkation, a local police officer explained to a journalist that they had arrested five people. The journalist asked how the police had identified the accused.

“A lot has been done by the coast guard, who picked [the migrants] up two days ago and managed to spot [the alleged smugglers],” the officer explained. “Then we have witness statements and videos.”

Cases like these, where arrests are made on the basis of photo or video evidence and statements by witnesses like Dieudonne, are common, said Gigi Modica, a judge in Sicily who has heard many immigration and asylum cases. “It’s usually the same story. They take three or four people, no more. They ask them two questions: who was driving the boat, and who was holding the compass,” Modica explained. “That’s it — they get the names and don’t care about the rest.”

Modica was one of the first judges in Italy to acquit people charged for driving rubber boats — known as “scafisti,” or boat drivers, in Italian — on the grounds that they had been forced to do so. These “state of necessity” rulings have since become increasingly common. Modica rattled off a list of irregularities he’s seen in such cases: systemic racism, witness statements that migrants later say they didn’t make, interrogations with no translator or lawyer, and in some cases, people who report being encouraged by police to sign documents renouncing their right to apply for asylum.“So often these alleged smugglers — scafisti — are normal people who were compelled to pilot a boat by smugglers in Libya.”

“So often these alleged smugglers — scafisti — are normal people who were compelled to pilot a boat by smugglers in Libya,” Modica said.

Documents of over a dozen trials reviewed by The Intercept show prosecutions largely built on testimony from migrants who are promised a residence permit in exchange for their collaboration. At sea, witnesses are interviewed by the police hours after their rescue, often still in a state of shock after surviving a shipwreck.

In many cases, identical statements, typos included, are attributed to several witnesses and copied and pasted across different police reports. Sometimes, these reports have been enough to secure decadeslong sentences. Other times, under cross-examination in court, witnesses have contradicted the statements recorded by police or denied giving any testimony at all.

As early as 2015, attendees of the anti-mafia meetings were discussing problems with these prosecutions. In a meeting that February, Giovanni Salvi, then the prosecutor of Catania, acknowledged that smugglers often abandoned migrant boats in international waters. Still, Italian police were steaming ahead with the prosecutions of those left on board.

These prosecutions were so important that in some cases, the Italian coast guard decided to delay rescue when boats were in distress in order to “allow for the arrival of institutional ships that can conduct arrests,” a coast guard commander explained at the meeting.

When asked about the commander’s comments, the Italian coast guard said that “on no occasion” has the agency ever delayed a rescue operation. Delaying rescue for any reason goes against international and Italian law, and according to various human rights lawyers in Europe, could give rise to criminal liability.

A group of migrants are transferred on December 26 2017, from the Spanish war ship Santa Maria (background) to the non-governmental organization (NGO) Aquarius ship by SOS Mediterranee and Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF - Doctors Without Borders) NGOs.Some 255 migrants were rescued overnight in the Mediterranean off the coast of Libya, just before a front of bad weather hit the area. The Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms picked up a rubber dinghy carrying 134 people, A military ship from the European anti-smuggling operation Sophia also rescued 121 people aboard two other boats. / AFP PHOTO / FEDERICO SCOPPA (Photo credit should read FEDERICO SCOPPA/AFP via Getty Images)

NGOs in the Crosshairs

Italy canceled Mare Nostrum after one year, citing budget constraints and a lack of European collaboration. In its wake, the EU set up two new operations, one via Frontex and the other a military effort called Operation Sophia. These operations focused not on humanitarian rescue but on border security and people smuggling from Libya. Beginning in 2015, representatives from Frontex and Operation Sophia were included in the anti-mafia directorate meetings, where Italian prosecutors ensured that both abided by the new investigative strategy.

Key to these investigations were photos from the rescues, like the aerial image that Dieudonne remembers the Italian coast guard showing him, which gave police another way to identify who piloted the boats and helped navigate.

In the absence of government rescue ships, a fleet of civilian NGO vessels began taking on a large number of rescues in the international waters off the coast of Libya. These ships, while coordinated by the Italian coast guard rescue center in Rome, made evidence-gathering difficult for prosecutors and judicial police. According to the anti-mafia meeting minutes, some NGOs, including MOAS, routinely gave photos to Italian police and Frontex. Others refused, arguing that providing evidence for investigations into the people they saved would undermine their efficacy and neutrality.

In the years following Mare Nostrum, the NGO fleet would come to account for more than one-third of all rescues in the central Mediterranean, according to estimates by Operation Sophia. A leaked status report from the operation noted that because NGOs did not collect information from rescued migrants for police, “information essential to enhance the understanding of the smuggling business model is not acquired.”“It is not possible to carry out this task if the rescue intervention is carried out by ships of the NGOs.”

In a subsequent anti-mafia meeting, six prosecutors echoed this concern. NGO rescues meant that police couldn’t interview migrants at sea, they said, and cases were getting thrown out for lack of evidence. A coast guard admiral explained the importance of conducting interviews just after a rescue, when “a moment of empathy has been established.”

“It is not possible to carry out this task if the rescue intervention is carried out by ships of the NGOs,” the admiral told the group.

The NGOs were causing problems for the DNAA strategy. At the meetings, Italian prosecutors and representatives from the coast guard, navy, and Interior Ministry discussed what they could do to rein in the humanitarian organizations. At the same time, various prosecutors were separately fixing their investigative sights on the NGOs themselves.

In late 2016, an internal report from Frontex — later published in full by The Intercept — accused an NGO vessel of directly receiving migrants from Libyan smugglers, attributing the information to “Italian authorities.” The claim was contradicted by video evidence and the ship’s crew.

Months later, Carmelo Zuccaro, the prosecutor of Catania, made public that he was investigating rescue NGOs. “Together with Frontex and the navy, we are trying to monitor all these NGOs that have shown that they have great financial resources,” Zuccaro told an Italian newspaper. The claim went viral in Italian and European media. “Friends of the traffickers” and “migrant taxi service” became common slurs used toward humanitarian NGOs by anti-immigration politicians and the Italian far right.

Zuccaro would eventually walk back his claims, telling a parliamentary committee that he was working off a hypothesis at the time and had no evidence to back it up.“That smear campaign was very, very deep.”

In an interview with a German newspaper in February 2017, the director of Frontex, Fabrice Leggeri, refrained from explicitly criticizing the work of rescue NGOs but did say they were hampering police investigations in the Mediterranean. As aid organizations assumed a larger percentage of rescues, Leggeri said, “it is becoming more difficult for the European security authorities to find out more about the smuggling networks through interviews with migrants.”

“That smear campaign was very, very deep,” remembered Bonino, the former foreign minister. Referring to Marco Minniti, Italy’s interior minister at the time, she added, “I was trying to push Minniti not to be so obsessed with people coming, but to make a policy of integration in Italy. But he only focused on Libya and smuggling and criminalizing NGOs with the help of prosecutors.”

Bonino explained that the action against NGOs was part of a larger plan to change European policy in the central Mediterranean. The first step was the shift away from humanitarian rescue and toward border security and smuggling. The second step “was blaming the NGOs or arresting them, a sort of dirty campaign against them,” she said. “The results of which after so many years have been no convictions, no penalties, no trials.”

Finally, the third step was to build a new coast guard in Libya to do what the Europeans couldn’t, per international law: intercept people at sea and bring them back to Libya, the country from which they had just fled.

At first, leaders at Frontex were cautious. “From Frontex’s point of view, we look at Libya with concern; there is no stable state there,” Leggeri said in the 2017 interview. “We are now helping to train 60 officers for a possible future Libyan coast guard. But this is at best a beginning.”

Bonino saw this effort differently. “They started providing support for their so-called coast guard,” she said, “which were the same traffickers changing coats.”

Rescued migrants disembarking from a Libyan coast guard ship in the town of Khoms, a town 120 kilometres (75 miles) east of the capital on October 1, 2019.

Same Uniforms, Same Ships

Safe on land in Italy, Dieudonne was never called to testify in court. He hopes that none of his peers ended up in prison but said he would gladly testify against the traffickers if called. Aboard the coast guard ship, he remembers, “I gave the police contact information for the traffickers, I gave them names.”

The smuggling operations in Libya happened out in the open, but Italian police could only go as far as international waters. Leaked documents from Operation Sophia describe years of efforts by European officials to get Libyan police to arrest smugglers. Behind closed doors, top Italian and EU officials admitted that these same smugglers were intertwined with the new Libyan coast guard that Europe was creating and that working with them would likely go against international law.

As early as 2015, multiple officials at the anti-mafia meetings noted that some smugglers were uncomfortably close to members of the Libyan government. “Militias use the same uniforms and the same ships as the Libyan coast guard that the Italian navy itself is training,” Rear Adm. Enrico Credendino, then in charge of Operation Sophia, said in 2017. The head of the Libyan coast guard and the Libyan minister of defense, both allies of the Italian government, Credendino added, “have close relationships with some militia bosses.”“Militias use the same uniforms and the same ships as the Libyan coast guard that the Italian navy itself is training.”

One of the Libyan coast guard officers playing both sides was Abd al-Rahman Milad, also known as Bija. In 2019, the Italian newspaper Avvenire revealed that Bija participated in a May 2017 meeting in Sicily, alongside Italian border police and intelligence officials, that was aimed at stemming migration from Libya. A month later, he was condemned by the U.N. Security Council for his role as a top member of a powerful trafficking militia in the coastal town of Zawiya, and for, as the U.N. put it, “sinking migrant boats using firearms.”

According to leaked documents from Operation Sophia, coast guard officers under Bija’s command were trained by the EU between 2016 and 2018.

While the Italian government was prosecuting supposed smugglers in Italy, they were also working with people they knew to be smugglers in Libya. Minniti, Italy’s then-interior minister, justified the deals his government was making in Libya by saying that the prospect of mass migration from Africa made him “fear for the well-being of Italian democracy.”

In one of the 2017 anti-mafia meetings, a representative of the Interior Ministry, Vittorio Pisani, outlined in clear terms a plan that provided for the direct coordination of the new Libyan coast guard. They would create “an operation room in Libya for the exchange of information with the Interior Ministry,” Pisani explained, “mainly on the position of NGO ships and their rescue operations, in order to employ the Libyan coast guard in its national waters.”

And with that, the third step of the plan was set in motion. At the end of the meeting, Roberti suggested that the group invite representatives from the Libyan police to their next meeting. In an interview with The Intercept, Roberti confirmed that Libyan representatives attended at least two anti-mafia meetings and that he himself met Bija at a meeting in Libya, one month after the U.N. Security Council report was published. The following year, the Security Council committee on Libya sanctioned Bija, freezing his assets and banning him from international travel.

“We needed to have the participation of Libyan institutions. But they did nothing, because they were taking money from the traffickers,” Roberti told us from the cafe in Naples. “They themselves were the traffickers.”

A Place of Safety

Roberti retired from the anti-mafia directorate in 2017. He said that under his leadership, the organization was able to create a basis for handling migration throughout Europe. Still, Roberti admits that his expansion of the DNAA into migration issues has had mixed results. Like his trip to Germany in the ’90s with Giovanni Falcone, Roberti said the anti-mafia strategy faltered because of a lack of collaboration: with the NGOs, with other European governments, and with Libya.

“On a European level, the cooperation does not work,” Roberti said. Regarding Libya, he added, “We tried — I believe it was right, the agreements [the government] made. But it turned out to be a failure in the end.”

The DNAA has since expanded its operations. Between 2017 and 2019, the Italian government passed two bills that put the anti-mafia directorate in charge of virtually all illegal immigration matters. Since 2017, five Sicilian prosecutors, all of whom attended at least one anti-mafia coordination meeting, have initiated 15 separate legal proceedings against humanitarian NGO workers. So far there have been no convictions: Three cases have been thrown out in court, and the rest are ongoing.Key actors from the anti-mafia meetings have risen through the ranks of Italian and European institutions.

Earlier this month, news broke that Sicilian prosecutors had wiretapped journalists and human rights lawyers as part of one of these investigations, listening in on legally protected conversations with sources and clients. The Italian justice ministry has opened an investigation into the incident, which could amount to criminal behavior, according to Italian legal experts. The prosecutor who approved the wiretaps attended at least one DNAA coordination meeting, where investigations against NGOs were discussed at length.

As the DNAA has extended its reach, key actors from the anti-mafia coordination meetings have risen through the ranks of Italian and European institutions. One prosecutor, Federico Cafiero de Raho, now runs the anti-mafia directorate. Salvi, the former prosecutor of Catania, is the equivalent of Italy’s attorney general. Pisani, the former Interior Ministry representative, is deputy head of the Italian intelligence services. And Roberti is a member of the European Parliament.

Cafiero de Raho stands by the investigations and arrests that the anti-mafia directorate has made over the years. He said the coordination meetings were an essential tool for prosecutors and police during difficult times.

When asked about his specific comments during the meetings — particularly statements that humanitarian NGOs needed to be regulated and multiple admissions that members of the new Libyan coast guard were involved in smuggling activities — Cafiero de Raho said that his remarks should be placed in context, a time when Italy and the EU were working to build a coast guard in a part of Libya that was largely ruled by local militias. He said his ultimate goal was what, in the DNAA coordination meetings, he called the “extrajudicial solution”: attempts to prove the existence of crimes against humanity in Libya so that “the United Nation sends troops to Libya to dismantle migrants camps set up by traffickers … and retake control of that territory.”

A spokesperson for the EU’s foreign policy arm, which ran Operation Sophia, refused to directly address evidence that leaders of the European military operation knew that parts of the new Libyan coast guard were also involved in smuggling activities, only noting that Bija himself wasn’t trained by the EU. A Frontex spokesperson stated that the agency “was not involved in the selection of officers to be trained.”

In 2019, the European migration strategy changed again. Now, the vast majority of departures are intercepted by the Libyan coast guard and brought back to Libya. In March of that year, Operation Sophia removed all of its ships from the rescue area and has since focused on using aerial patrols to direct and coordinate the Libyan coast guard. Human rights lawyers in Europe have filed six legal actions against Italy and the EU as a result, calling the practice refoulement by proxy: facilitating the return of migrants to dangerous circumstances in violation of international law.

Indeed, throughout four years of coordination meetings, Italy and the EU were admitting privately that returning people to Libya would be illegal. “Fundamental human rights violations in Libya make it impossible to push migrants back to the Libyan coast,” Pisani explained in 2015. Two years later, he outlined the beginnings of a plan that would do exactly that.

Migrants rescued by Italys' Guardia Costiera rests in the harbor of the Italian Pelagie Island of Lampedusa on July 29, 2020.

The Result of Mere Chance

Dieudonne knows he was lucky. The line that separates suspect and victim can be entirely up to police officers’ first impressions in the minutes or hours following a rescue. According to police reports used in prosecutions, physical attributes like having “a clearer skin tone” or behavior aboard the ship, including scrutinizing police movements “with strange interest,” were enough to rouse suspicion.

In a 2019 ruling that acquitted seven alleged smugglers after three years of pretrial detention, judges wrote that “the selection of the suspects on one side, and the witnesses on the other, with the only exception of the driver, has almost been the result of mere chance.”

Carrying out work for their Libyan captors has cost other migrants in Italy lengthy prison sentences. In September 2019, a 22-year-old Guinean nicknamed Suarez was arrested upon his arrival to Italy. Four witnesses told police he had collaborated with prison guards in Zawiya, at the immigrant detention center managed by the infamous Bija.

“Suarez was also a prisoner, who then took on a job,” one of the witnesses told the court. Handing out meals or taking care of security is what those who can’t afford to pay their ransom often do in order to get out, explained another. “Unfortunately, you would have to be there to understand the situation,” the first witness said. Suarez was sentenced to 20 years in prison, recently reduced to 12 years on appeal.

Dieudonne remembered his journey at sea vividly, but with surprising cool. When the boat began taking on water, he tried to help. “One must give help where it is needed.” At his office in Bari, Dieudonne bent over and moved his arms in a low scooping motion, like he was bailing water out of a boat.

“Should they condemn me too?” he asked. He finds it ironic that it was the Libyans who eventually arrested Bija on human trafficking charges this past October. The Italians and Europeans, he said with a laugh, were too busy working with the corrupt coast guard commander. (In April, Bija was released from prison after a Libyan court absolved him of all charges. He was promoted within the coast guard and put back on the job.)

Dieudonne thinks often about the people he identified aboard the coast guard ship in the middle of the sea. “I told the police the truth. But if that collaboration ends with the conviction of an innocent person, it’s not good,” he said. “Because I know that person did nothing. On the contrary, he saved our lives by driving that raft.”

America’s Newest Destination Restaurants Aren’t Where You’d Expect – By Christian L. Wright April 30, 2021 1:05 pm ET

Some big food-world names have left the major metropolises to take over the kitchens—and kitchen gardens—of country hotels, just as hungry vacationers are ready to gulp up spring


How has the pandemic altered the restaurant landscape in your area? Join the conversation below.

Last spring, when April Bloomfield first saw Mayflower Inn & Spa, the newly renovated 58-acre posh compound in Washington, Conn., she took a deep breath. “It looked so bright and airy, and it was exactly where I wanted to be at that moment,” said the chef, best known for the Spotted Pig and the Breslin in New York City. A four-month residency at the Mayflower, an Auberge Resort, that started in fall 2020 has now turned into a long-term, post-Covid gig—with a kitchen about three times as large as any she’s toiled in since she started cooking at 16 in her native England. “It’s nice for me to be able open the back door, step out and look at the colors, listen to the birds, see the sunset,” she said. “It’s a gift.” 

April Bloomfield and her wife, April Hou, in the Shakespeare Garden at the Mayflower Inn & Spa. Photo: Mayflower Inn & Spa, Auberge Resorts Collection

Parker Brothers could make an excellent board game out of the exodus of city chefs to pastoral hotels—due in part to the pandemic. Call it, say, the Fork Ran Away With The Spoon. The arrangements include full-time posts, three-month residencies and one-off weekends, and they’ve opened up a whole new landscape for people who travel, in some measure, for good food. 

‘When I’m in this paradise, I realize how happy I am. When you’re in the city, you forget.’

Dan Silverman, who started his career under star chef David Bouley, spent years in celebrated New York City kitchens before leaving Minetta Tavern in Greenwich Village for points north. He’s set himself up at Hutton Brickyards, a 31-cabin-and-suite hotel, spa and events retreat on 73 rolling acres in Kingston, N.Y., due to open in May. There he’ll run the River Pavilion, an open-air restaurant that relies solely on wood-burning heat sources and has views of the Hudson unblocked by crowds or tall buildings. “It’s gorgeous, right on the river,” said Mr. Silverman, from the house in Catskill that he and his wife presciently bought in 2019. It’s a 35-minute drive to Hutton Brickyards. “Before, we lived in Brooklyn and I worked in Manhattan. My commute was longer then.”

Mads Refslund, a founder of Noma in Copenhagen, at Shou Sugi Ban House, in New York’s Hamptons, where he oversees the dining room. Photo: Lanna Apisukh for The Wall Street Journal

Mads Refslund, a founder of Noma in Copenhagen who is now based in New York, bounced around between resorts—foraging in Aspen, diving for clams in Cabo—before signing on to oversee the food and conduct workshops at Shou Sugi Ban House, a Japanese-influenced wellness enclave in the Hamptons hamlet of Water Mill on New York’s Long Island. “When I’m in this paradise, I realize how happy I am,” said Mr. Refslund. “When you’re in the city, you forget. I’m very connected to nature—the produce, the farmers and the fishermen. I always come up with new things and cook randomly.” Among the random creations: Mr. Refslund’s roasted lobster with green strawberries and pickled rhubarb.

Hugh Acheson now serves as the executive chef at the Hotel Effie at Sandestin Golf & Beach Resort on Florida’s Gulf Coast.Photo: Hugh Acheson

Hugh Acheson, who helped change the culinary landscape in Atlanta, signed up with Hotel Effie at Sandestin Golf & Beach Resort on the Gulf Coast of northwest Florida. As the executive chef, he goes to the coastal hotel every three or four weeks, with podcasts cued up for the six-hour drive. “The beach was obviously a draw,” Mr. Acheson said. “I am inland in Georgia so the Florida inspiration comes from the abundance of the Gulf, from stone crabs to oysters to tuna and mahi. It is a marine wonder world.”

On the opposite coast, Claudette Zepeda, a Top Chef competitor who’s known for her bold Mexican cuisine, left her hometown of San Diego to open VAGA Restaurant & Bar at Alila Marea Beach Resort in the nearby surf town of Encinitas last month. The indoor/outdoor restaurant takes advantage of its seaside perch at the 130-room resort, while Ms. Zepeda has her pick of avocados, cherimoyas and dragon fruit, as well as ethically raised chickens and other livestock from the farms in the area. 

Wood-fired halibut from Vaga Restaurant, chef Claudette Zepeda’s new eatery at Alila Marea Beach Resort in Encinitas, Calif.Photo: Alila Marea Beach Resort Encinitas

Just before the pandemic, in 2019, the Ojai Valley Inn, sprawled across 220 acres north of Los Angeles, began courting well-known chefs to its Farmhouse, a 50,000-square-foot epicurean event space. L.A. chef Nancy Silverton was brought in as the resort’s “culinary ambassador” to host assorted events, including special dinners and most recently, a Pizzeria Mozza takeout pop-up. With her help, the resort became a refuge over the past year, hosting stars of the gourmet galaxy while their own kitchens were temporarily closed. Among the guests toques: San Francisco’s Dominique Crenn and Christopher Kostow, executive chef of the Meadowood Resort in Napa, Calif.

Landing a name chef can put a hotel on the culinary map, not to mention giving guests gastro bragging rights. At C Lazy U Ranch in Colorado, dinner now rivals riding as a draw for dudes just as interested in the menu devised by the family resort’s new chef, the classically trained Cory Untch, as they are in horses. For the chefs themselves, even a weekend at a beachside or bucolic hotel can seriously improve their quality of life. “Visiting chefs stay on the property,” said Chris Kandziora, general manager of Ojai Valley Inn. “They’re our guests. A lot of people think we’re paying the chefs. Nancy Silverton is not being paid. It’s a vacation. They bring friends and family and have time to enjoy the resort.”

Chef Christopher Kostow during his stint this spring at Southern California’s Ojai Valley Inn. Photo: Ojai Valley Inn

More than a year into the pandemic, we could all use a vacation. Not a single corner of the country has been spared hardship. While many restaurants in New York have been able to spill out onto the street—creating a café-life Mediterranean vibe even in midtown—at least 4,000 have permanently closed. Michael Ferraro, a chef who cooked for 20 years in New York City before selling his restaurant in 2019 and moving to Winter Park, Fla., to be the vice president of food and beverage at Tavistock Restaurant Collection, sees a silver lining. “In the next few years,” he said, “we’re going to see food scenes blossoming all over because of the talent that’s left New York. And the city will be fine. This will give a new generation a chance to shine.”


Without the usual stampede of ravenous tourists, Europe’s famed destination restaurants found novel ways to hang on.

A vegetarian patty made from organic quinoa and tempeh, one of the offerings available at POPL, a new fast-casual restaurant in Copenhagen from the Noma team. Photo: Ditte Isager

RENÉ REDZEPI, the chef behind Noma in Copenhagen, was finishing up his weekly long walk through the woods with members of his team recently. “Today, we’re walking 42 kilometers, just talking about how to be better in the future,” said Mr. Redzepi, reached by phone on the trail. “To have this time to do that has been simply incredible.”

Noma, like every restaurant in Denmark, has been closed since December (restrictions began easing a few weeks ago). But with government help covering staff salaries, Mr. Redzepi hasn’t laid a single person off. He hopes to reopen, with a new vegetable tasting menu, starting in June.

Before the pandemic, Europe’s top destination restaurants, like Noma, were often booked up months in advance by international diners planning entire vacations around a single meal. Though these bucket-list restaurants were hard hit by the border closures and rolling lockdowns of this past tumultuous year, many found novel ways to adapt, and survive.

Last summer, when restrictions eased for the first time, Noma turned into a burger pop-up, serving 1,200 burgers in its garden on opening day. “I didn’t even feel like cooking a tasting menu,” said Mr. Redzepi. The burgers were such a hit they spawned their own fast-casual restaurant, POPL, that opened in December. 

Alain Ducasse, whose Michelin-starred flagships in Paris have been closed since October, launched the city’s most opulent takeout, Meurice à la Maison. In Italy, Massimo Bottura served socially distanced outdoor meals last summer at Casa Maria Luigia, his country hotel outside Modena.

When they’ve been able to open, top restaurants across the continent have all shifted their focus to a local clientele. “We went from having 70% foreigners and 30% French to 80% French and 20% European,” said chef Mauro Colagreco, of three-Michelin starred Mirazur on the French Riviera, which reopened for a few months last summer after the country’s first lockdown ended.

When Mirazur closed for the first time, in spring of last year, Mr. Colagreco escaped into his restaurant’s biodynamic fruit and vegetable garden. From isolation came inspiration, a new menu format, launched last summer, based on the phases of the moon—which drive the very short cycles of biodynamic farming. “We changed everything, and it gave us enormous energy,” said Mr. Colagreco.

After the restaurant closed again in October, as the government required, Mr. Colagreco began experimenting with multicourse meal-kits, shipped overnight across France for Christmas, New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day. “We developed a menu with recipes like for children—you had to be pretty dim to blow it,” said Mr. Colagreco. 

In June he hopes to reopen Mirazur, after eight months shut down, with another frequently changing lunar menu, centered on whatever’s optimal in the garden. Mr. Colagreco also hopes to serve his seasonal cooking in Singapore this summer, in a three-month pop-up at Mandala Club, a private members club.

In Spain, brothers Joan, Jordi and Josep Roca, of Girona’s three-Michelin-starred El Celler de Can Roca, have been especially isolated in their corner of northern Catalonia, with regional, and even provincial, borders closed at times during the darkest days of the pandemic. Diners have been almost entirely local at their flagship restaurant, when it could open, and at the casual offshoot they launched in a former event space last summer, serving greatest hits from El Celler de Can Roca’s last 34 years. Both restaurants have only served lunch, at limited capacity, since January, as per government regulations. 

The Rocas are planning to open another new spot this summer, when they’re cautiously optimistic they might welcome international diners again. The new restaurant, simply called Normal, will serve traditional, market-driven cooking inspired by the pandemic. “These days everyone wants normality, everyone demands normality,” said Joan Roca. “And so, we will open a ‘normal’ restaurant.” —Jay Cheshes


Eight hotels worth a culinary diversion

April Bloomfield and executive sous chef David Nathans in the Garden Room at Connecticut’s Mayflower Inn & Spa.Photo: Mayflower Inn & Spa, Auberge Resorts Collection
Mayflower Inn & Spa, Auberge Resorts Collection

Auberge bought this old New England classic in 2018, enlisted Celerie Kemble to re-imagine the interiors with her Palm Beach elan, and handed the keys to the spa over to the Well, a New York City-based luxury wellness company. April Bloomfield is in the kitchen, serving deviled eggs, country paté and a burger on a locally made bun in the pub-like Tap Room and an elegant four-course supper in the Garden Room. From $760 a night,

Shou Sugi Ban House

Here is a small, secluded place in the Hamptons that opened in 2019 and was designed for communal wellness retreats. Thanks to Covid-19, what was once communal dining is now room-service—albeit cooked up by Noma co-founder Mads Refslund—delivered to tables that have been placed outside each of the 13 wabi-sabi rooms, and for now retreats are limited to six to eight people. Weekend retreats include workshops, farm visits and seasonal dishes in collaboration with Mr. Refslund. Only guests of the spa and the hotel may dine at the hotel. From $1100 a night,

A white asparagus dish with seaweed, ramps, pine tip salad garnished with cherry blossoms prepared by Chef Mads Refslund at Shou Sugi Ban House.Photo: Lanna Apisukh for The Wall Street Journal
The Woodhouse Lodge

A stylishly converted 1960s motel in the Catskills, Woodhouse Lodge offers 10 rooms that open to the outdoors, four wooded acres, fire pits, a bar and finally—after being sidelined by the pandemic—a pizza restaurant. The hotel’s owners have partnered with Steve Gonzalez, who honed his pie skills at Roberta’s in Brooklyn. From $225 with a two-night minimum,

Ojai Valley Inn

North of Los Angeles and east of Santa Barbara, Ojai is lush with fields of lavender and organic agriculture, and the resort (originally opened in 1923) sprawls across 220 acres. There’s a full-service spa, golf course, tennis courts and four swimming pools but it’s the 50,000-square-foot Farmhouse that’s drawing the food crowd. The event space regularly hosts cooking classes and guest chef dinners. From $479 a night,

The Farmhouse culinary center at Southern California’s Ojai Valley Inn.Photo: Ojai Valley Inn
C Lazy U

A hundred-year-old all inclusive dude ranch in the Rocky Mountains, C Lazy U is open year round for spring fly-fishing, summer trail rides, and winter skiing, with plenty of cookouts in between. There are rustic cabins, a spa with six treatment tents, and 180 horses. Last year, the ranch hired Cory Untch—a farm-to-table chef with plenty of Relais & Chateaux experience—to refine the fine dining. From $410 a night,

Hutton Brickyards

Opening on May 12, this vast compound is a collaboration between Karl Slovin—who bought the 1865 brick factory about seven years ago and spent millions to restore it—and Salt Hotels on the banks of the Hudson River. From the Shaker chic cabins with glass walls and knotty pine bathrooms, guests can amble across hills and meadows, by an archery range, a croquet lawn, and fire pits to the Pavilion, an open-air restaurant with wood-fired grill, oven, and hearth. (Or they can hoist a flag to request room service.) The chef Dan Silverman will use mostly hardwood, like oak, and local, organic ingredients from the region’s many farms. From $325 a night,

The entrance to Shou Sugi Ban House in the hamlet of Water Mill, N.Y.Photo: Lanna Apisukh for The Wall Street Journal
Hotel Effie

A new addition to the 2,400-acre Sandestin Golf and Beach resort, the bayside hotel has a coastal chic that spreads across airy rooms and suites, spa, rooftop pool and lounge and the restaurant Ovide. Both the rooftop and dining room are the province of Hugh Acheson whose menus take full advantage of the Gulf Coast—snapper, grouper, shrimp, and oysters galore. From $155 a night,

Alila Marea Beach Resort

Here is a strikingly modern sprawl on a cliff above the Pacific Ocean, about 6 miles from the surf town of Encinitas. With a focus on the views, the 130 eco-designed rooms and suites have a natural palette—stone, wood and the odd fuzzy pillow—while the discreet pool faces the sea. Claudette Zepeda is in the kitchen at VAGA Restaurant & Bar, a handsome spot with an outdoor terrace, and the vast agricultural bounty of Southern California. From $720 a night,

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