The Mafia feeds on unemployment and economic despair

For over a hundred years the Mafia has had a huge influence on life in and around Naples, mainly due to the poor economic situation that the region is in. Fighting it is difficult, as it today has infiltrated almost every part of society.

By Emil Arenholt Mosekjær
There are so many stories about the Camorra; the name of the Mafia in the southern Italian region of Campania, that it’s hard to separate fact from fiction. As one story goes, the Casalesi clan in the small town of Casal di Principe used to dispose of their killed enemies by putting them in cement. And as they controlled the construction business, local legend has it that the very fabric of Casal di Principe is built on rotting corpses.

One of my local contacts, Emiliano D’annolfo, said over pasta, wine and cigarettes one night, that he didn’t know if the story was true – but it would explain why the houses there “looked so shitty”.

What is true though, is that the Camorra is very real in Campania, and its main city Naples, which is nestled in the shadow of the volcano Mount Vesuvius, where the city of Pompeii was wiped out some 2000 years ago.

“If you’ve grown up on these parts, you know who the Camorra is. You see them on the street, and you know who to avoid. It’s not like they wear a sign, though. So for an outsider they’re invisible. But if you’ve walked through Caserta or Casal de Principe, then you have most definitely met them without knowing it,” Emiliano says.

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Casal di Principe is mainly known for the export of buffalo mozzarella. And for being the headquarters of the powerful Casalesi clan. Photo: Emil Arenholt Mosekjær

Blew up an office building
It is not only on the street level that the Camorra is a presence in people’s lives. All the way up through the society they have established themselves to a level where they are very much a part of almost everything.

“In Italian we say that the Camorra is ‘vischioso’, meaning its viscous and sticky and has attached itself to the nerve centers of every social category – even those that don’t appear immediately related. With the profits they have made from narcotics trade, they have been able infiltrate many sectors of the legal economy,” professor Marcello Ravveduto from the University of Salerno writes in an email reply.

He has done extensive research on the Mafia and has written several books on the subject.

According to him some of the things that characterize the Neapolitan Camorra, and distinguishes it from for instance the Cosa Nostra-Mafia in Sicily, is a flatter hierarchal structure. Here there are no “boss of the bosses”, but instead a lot of smaller clans that, like a jellyfish, seep into every part of society.

For the biochemist Duilio Verardi, his first encounter with the Camorra happened at the age of 12, when they blew up his father’s office building in Naples after he refused to pay them protection money. No one was hurt, but the family was forced to move to Caserta.

“Growing up with the Camorra can make you feel really alone. It seems the government only cares about us when they want our tax money. But when it comes to the Camorra, then it’s our problem – and then we’re on our own,” Duilio says.

Campania has a population of about 6 million people. Around 975.000 of these live in the city of Naples. Photo: Emil Arenholt Mosekjær
Campania has a population of about 6 million people. Around 975.000 of these live in the city of Naples. Photo: Emil Arenholt Mosekjær

Economic disparity leads to crime
A lot of the Mafias success can be attributed to the poor economic state that the entire southern part of Italy is in – where unemployment rates in 2015, according to EUROSTAT, were at 19,8 percent and youth unemployment at 52,7 percent.

Furthermore, in 2014 CityMetric reported that the average GDP per capita was 40 percent lower in southern Italy compared to the central and north of the country.

“Put together, these data increase the distrust of the citizens in the institutions, and reveal the social fragility of the region. The law in Campania is in deep crisis, which means that the relationship between the State and the population is exhausted. This makes life easier for the Camorra,” professor Marcello Ravveduto writes.

Campania is even worse off as it has the highest debt of all the regions in Italy. According to the financial service Bloomberg L.P., in 2014 Naples itself was on the verge of bankruptcy because of a debt of around 1 billion euros.

According to professor Ravveduto the only way to “defeat” the Camorra is through a close cooperation between politics, authorities, economic operators and civil society. And if just one of the players don’t work in harmony with others you risk losing the game.

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After the Castel Volturno massacre in 2008, where gangsters from the Casalesi clan shot and killed 7 African immigrants, the Italian government deployed 400 troops to Campania. They're still there under the name "Operation Safe Streets". Photo: Emil Arenholt Mosekjær
After the Castel Volturno massacre in 2008, where the Casalesi clan shot and killed 7 innocent African immigrants, the Italian government deployed 400 troops to Campania. They’re still there under the name “Operation Safe Streets”. Photo: Emil Arenholt Mosekjær

Fighting the enemy at his doorstep
One of these players fighting the Camorra on a day to day basis is Giovanni Allucci, who is the director of the organization Agrorinasce, whose headquarters is situated in a fenced-in house in Casal di Principe.

The town itself has a run-down appearance that is similar to that of one in the old Wild West. Small shops, bars and half-finished buildings line the streets, leading out towards the countryside covered in olive trees and grasslands – where the buffalo roam that produce the towns world famous mozzarella cheese.

Agrorinasce is a consortium of 6 different municipalities in the Caserta area northwest of Naples, who all have problems with the Camorra. They are funded both by the Italian government and by the EU. When the authorities confiscate assets and property from the Camorra, in accordance with the Mafia-law of 1996, it is Agrorinasces job to manage and develop it. Turning villas that look like something from the movie Godfather into for example youth hostels and restaurants.

“During the past 20 years over 3000 people have been arrested for Mafia-related crimes. Combined with the development we’re seeking to create by managing confiscated property – and at the same time slowly changing the mentality of people around here – there has been some real improvement,” Giovanni Allucci says.

Among Agrorinasces main issues is a lack of resources. At the moment they are managing 120 pieces of confiscated land and property. But they expect this number to increase by 200 or even 300 within the next couple of years. With the current funding, this would mean that there wouldn’t be money to hire managers and start projects.

According to Giovanni Alluci, Agrorinasce is "a public organ that fights the Camorra with economic and social means" Photo: Emil Arenholt Mosekjær
According to Giovanni Alluci, Agrorinasce is “a public organ that fights the Camorra with economic and social means” Photo: Emil Arenholt Mosekjær

Watch out for the man with the money bag
According to professor Ravveduto from the University of Salerno, organizations like Agrorinasce are working in the right direction, but he stresses that it is a long term and uphill battle. Giovanni Allucci agrees.

“We have seen good results during the past 20 years, but we need at least 20 more before real change manifests into the society,” Giovanni Allucci says.

When it comes to his own safety he isn’t worried, as he feels safe as a member of the authorities – and adds that even though the Camorra is known for violence, their usual plan of action is different from the popular conception.

“The image of the gun slinging Mafiosi are mostly a product of Hollywood. At least in this area. It isn’t the man with a gun you should be on the lookout for, but the man with a money bag,” Giovanni Allucci says, referring to the extensive corruption that plagues the region.

As late as July 14 last year this resulted in the former mayor of Caserta, Pio Del Gaudio, two members of the Campania regional council and a local real estate agent being arrested for corruption and other Mafia-related crimes, with amounts of up to 50.000 euros allegedly switching hands in exchange for public contracts and other favors.

You will seldom have to pay more than 5 euros for an entire pizza in Naples. Photo: Emil Arenholt Mosekjær
You rarely have to pay more than 1,50 euros for a slice of pizza in Naples. Photo: Emil Arenholt Mosekjær

Madness on streets of Naples
Leaving the rolling countryside of the Caserta area and moving into the dense and crowded streets of Naples itself – the peace and quiet is replaced by honking car horns and the distinct smell of trash. On every corner there seems to be someone able to sell you a slice of Neapolitan pizza, with fresh buffalo mozzarella and tomatoes grown on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius. The Camorra is present here as well.

According to professor Ravveduto, the urban Camorra is different from the rural one of Casal di Principe and Caserta. The clans are smaller and the focus is more on narcotics, prostitution and other petty crimes. They are more like their urban counterparts in American cities like New York or Chicago.

In the district of Materdai there is an old abandoned mental asylum. A few years ago it was occupied by squatters and turned into a community center called Je So’ Pazzo – meaning “I am crazy” in the local dialect.

“Among other things people can come to get help with their studies, play music or theater, receive language courses or just hang out. We provide some of the things that the authorities should be providing. Hopefully this will prevent some of young people around here getting involved with the Camorra,” Lucia Duo says – a university student who has been a part of the organization from the start.

When asked about the Camorra she is very clear that they are something they had to take into account from the very start, because the Camorra quite simply is such a big part of the society here.

“One of the reasons for everything here being free, is to avoid any money circulation. Thereby preventing the Camorra from having any reason to pressure us for protection money. We also don’t allow drugs. Not for any moral reasons, but the Camorra controls the narcotics trade – and if it started flowing here they would follow,” she says.

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The Italian tv-series “Gomorrah”, is set in the suburbs of Naples, and deals with the Camorra. Season two just started running, and has an average viewership of 1,2 million per episode. It is available on Netflix. Photo: Emil Arenholt Mosekjær