The Resurgence of the Camorra in Naples

Antonio Fabrizio, Perugia, Italy, November 22, 2006

A tag reading, "Give us some wings to fly away from this place," adorns a wall in Naples, amid an alarming spike in violence in the southern city. (Photo: Mario Laporta / AFP-Getty Images)

Picture this: gun battles among rival gangs, robberies in central shops and stores, delinquents chasing one another across narrow streets, dozens of murders of criminals, but also innocent people. It is not a Hollywood movie: it is a terrifying real scenario, and the most surprising aspect is that it is happening in Naples, Italy, in the heart of civilized Europe.

An increasing wave of criminal violence has stained the streets of this charming and sunny Mediterranean city with blood. A crime war is pitting major gangs against one another in a fight to gain control of Naples' criminal activities, especially those related to drug trafficking, money laundering, prostitution, and illegal waste management (the so-called eco-mafia). Everyone in Naples and Campania — the region surrounding Naples — knows it as the Camorra, or the local Mafia.

The Camorra is, in fact, both an economic power and a social background. On one hand, it has built over the decades an intricate network of semi-legal and illegal activities, making it a profitable local enterprise, but with a reach that stretches around the world. On the other hand, it forges cultural habits and contributes to shape — in a negative way — the social background of Naples' neighborhoods.

Over the last few weeks, an alarming war bulletin has been diffused by Italian newspapers: 75 murders in Naples from the beginning of the year; 12 people murdered in a wave of mutual vengeances between October and November — in only 10 days.

On Oct. 22, as reported by Naples' daily Il Mattino, killers shot a 37-year-old man in a crowded street. The day after, a local singer allegedly involved in drug trafficking was murdered in an ambush. On Oct. 26, in Acerra, one of the most ill famed places in Naples, a person under police surveillance was killed while driving in his car. On Oct. 31, two young men supposedly related to one of the city's gangs were killed in Torre del Greco, in reply to the murder of a rival gangster.

Criminal bosses are being killed on the orders of other criminal bosses. This war among gangs, says La Repubblica, citing intelligence sources, may cause a "bloody feud … because life, in Naples, has become worthless." Often, not even innocent people caught up in these ambushes are spared.

There is a deep-rooted layer of "micro-criminality," a countless number of common juvenile delinquents, teenagers who have grown up in suburbs where crimes, robberies, and bag snatchings have become activities of their everyday lives. In the Naples hinterland, schools have become a luxury or even a waste of time for some young people: in the streets, they can learn — and earn — much more.

The reappearance of this never-ending crisis has become so significant that the central government finally decided to adopt serious resolutions. Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi visited Naples on Nov. 2 to meet local authorities; on that occasion, he made assurances that his government will study specific responses to the crisis. The day after, Minister of Interior Giuliano Amato presented a "package of proposals" aimed at combating the Camorra. This package provided 1,000 additional police officers, 24-hour video surveillance in nerve centers around the city, more motorbikes to allow agents to patrol the hundreds of narrow streets where cars cannot go.

Meanwhile, the rest of the Italian politicians are leveling accusations at one another and crime experts are arguing about the causes and effects of the current situation. Although the Camorra has always been considered a long-term problem, some people relate its growth to a July 2006 "pardon" that freed thousands of prisoners who had been arrested for "minor" crimes. The pardon aimed at relieving Italy's overcrowded prisons, another emergency altogether. In the Naples area, 2,700 people were released. Some of them have been involved and killed in the recent attacks. However, the pardon may only be an additional factor, not a root cause of the Camorra's resurgence.

Others suggest instead that the increase in criminal activity is due to the lack of incisive actions from local authorities, who sometimes allegedly do little to contrast the powerful Camorra and therefore become responsible for its economic and social growth. Some people also criticized unexplainable decisions taken by judiciary members, such as the release of a 16-year-old who had been arrested for stabbing and killing another young man.

A politician, Roberto Calderoli (of the Lega Nord party), lashed out against the city calling it a "sewer" inhabited by rats that must be reclaimed. His party — and Calderoli especially — are well known for their verbal attacks against Southern Italy. Some of their allies criticized Calderoli's words as "unacceptable."

The proposal from some members of the government to send the Italian army to Naples has not been taken into consideration by Prodi, who highlighted that military troops can do little at the moment. Criminality, he said, derives from the "pollution of the economic life, of the world of business, of the reiterated violations of the law." Instead of sending troops, he added, the government has to insist on the "restoration of legality," based on the involvement of the whole of civil society. Prodi claimed that the Camorra is the greatest obstacle to the development of Southern Italy; it is therefore necessary to break the circle of illegality, by carrying out cooperation between central and local authorities.

A common viewpoint is that new generations must be educated to respect legality. Minister of Education Giuseppe Fioroni said he is working on a plan to eradicate "scholastic dispersion" in local schools, so teenagers who spend their time on the streets instead of attending school will no longer learn the dangerous lesson that living among criminals is normal and obvious. If any army is needed in Naples, he added, it is an "army of teachers." He was citing an expression used by a magistrate, Giovanni Falcone, who was killed by the Mafia some years ago.

Any solution to the emergency, however, cannot take place without the involvement of local people. They have to refuse the logic of omertà, the conspiracy of silence. They should follow the examples of courageous people like Roberto Saviano, a young writer from Naples who recently denounced, in his best-selling book "Gomorra," how the "system" of Camorra works, and named names of criminals. After the book's publication, he received anonymous threats. Now he travels with escorts and lives in a secret place. His experience shows that local people are unwilling to submit silently to criminal abuses. Some are even ready to risk their lives to stop Camorra.

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