Naples, my favorite city, was briefly in the news a few days ago. As usual, it was bad news. The last time Naples got international headlines was when mountains of uncollected garbage filled the streets. This time it was more dramatic: an explosion of gangland killings. As of November 2 – The Day of the Dead — a dozen Neapolitans had been gunned down in ten days, some in the center of town.
Most of the victims were members of the camorra, the Neapolitan mafia, and they were almost certainly killed by other camorristi. According to press accounts, nine men involved on both sides of the killings had been released from prison by the new center-left government headed by Romano Prodi, who issued a limited amnesty last summer that put more than 24,000 convicts back on the streets. In the Campania region that includes Naples, nearly 3,000 were released. So while Prodi has repeatedly claimed that the amnesty had nothing to do with the violence, he hasn’t convinced many Neapolitans, or, for that matter, most of the generally left-wing Italian press.
No Neapolitan is surprised that camorristi are killing one another. That has been going on for centuries, although for the most part this “settling of accounts” has taken place in the grim industrial suburbs that border one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Nor are the locals surprised that the forces of law and order have been unable to contain the local gangs; the camorra is probably the world’s largest, richest, and most entrepreneurial criminal organization. It is three or four times the size of the Sicilian mafia, and is not organized along military lines. Instead of a vertical command structure, the camorra is a mosaic of small organizations, typically based in separate neighborhoods, and, in keeping with the laws of globalization, most of their activities are conducted outside Naples. Another big difference between camorra and mafia: The turnover at executive levels in Naples is quite rapid. A former Neapolitan prefect told me that, on average, the tenure of the head of a camorra family is only three or four years. He is then either killed or arrested.
The newspaper accounts are way behind the times in their description of the camorra, for they routinely list its primary activities as drugs, prostitution, extortion, and public works. Some of the better Italian journalists have pointed out that the mob runs at least one third of the security companies in town, including a big chunk of the armored trucks that carry money and financial documents. They don’t need to steal, they simply control the cash. And the old protection racket — forcing shop owners to pay a fixed amount each month to guarantee they won’t be robbed or mugged — is also old hat, since the camorra either directly or indirectly controls roughly half of all retail outlets in the city.
The traditional picture of organized crime also ignores some of their most lucrative criminal enterprises, as for example the billion-dollar clothing industry, described in detail in a recent Italian best-seller, Gomorra, written by a 28-year old Neapolitan journalist named Roberto Saviano. Camorra companies in and around Naples produce tens of thousands of high-end branded clothes, including labels like Armani and Versace. Just like the authentic products, these are hand-stitched by skilled tailors, and are in fact indistinguishable from those manufactured at the official factories. Same materials, same quality, same label. The knockoffs are sometimes added to legitimate shipments, sometimes simply delivered directly to buyers in and outside Italy. Customers have no way of knowing where the clothes were made, nor, in many cases, do the producers know where their products are going. Saviano tells a moving story about a camorra tailor whose talent was the equal of anyone in the great fashion houses. One night he was watching the Academy Awards on television, and saw Britney Spears dancing in a gown he had made.
The only real difference is that the illegal workers are paid a fraction of the salaries of those in the legal companies, thereby limiting costs to near-Chinese levels, and escalating profits way above those that can be made from the high-cost authentic stuff. As Saviano sadly observes, the only victims of this criminal activity are the workers, and they don’t complain because the alternative is unemployment. Everyone else is happy, including the brand-name companies, which benefit both from the lower costs and from the ability to use the camorra’s global distribution system (the same used to move drugs and contraband cigarettes).
The sort of conflict that has erupted of late generally comes from one of two sources: either a family has gotten very ambitious and is meddling on somebody else’s traditional turf, or someone has ratted out one or more leaders, in an internal power play. In all likelihood, the slaughter in recent days involves both: Informers who would have been targeted whenever they were released and losers of turf battles who tried to recover their power. Since a lot of them were released at once, the violence involved many families.
The recent killings have effectively destroyed one of the long-standing myths about organized Italian crime, namely its linkage to the traditional center-right political class. The dominant political figure in the region for the past fifteen is Antonio Bassolino, a left-winger who now heads the regional government, and the current mayor of Naples — just reelected comfortably — is Rosa Russo Iervolino, who previously served as interior minister in the first Prodi government back in the late Nineties. The camorra has flourished as never before under the auspices of the center-left, thus confirming one of Saviano’s central theses: The political class needs the camorra, not the other way around. The criminal organizations are paramount, their wealth is far greater than the government’s, and their power can determine the outcome of most any election in the area. In recent years, only 9 out of 92 communes in the area have been free of intensive criminal investigation, and seventy of them have had their governments dissolved because of camorra involvement.
Prodi has been at great pains to refuse to send in the army, preferring a modest increase in the police force. He says that the key is respect for the law, and that once it has been established, the camorra can be brought to heel. This is nonsense, as every Neapolitan is well aware. No Neapolitan government or prefect can beat organized crime, because the criminals effectively control so much of the judiciary. In the early Nineties, Naples had a brilliant prefect, Umberto Improta, who cracked down on the camorra and managed the spectacularly successful G7 Summit in Naples during the first Berlusconi government. But shortly thereafter he was targeted by the usual activist judge, humiliated and broken by accusations that he was himself in cahoots with the criminals. Five years later he was completely cleared, but he died a bitter man shortly thereafter, a lesson to anyone who wants to establish respect for the law.
Unfortunately, only the army can impose virtue on Naples. There are two occasions in recent Neapolitan history that show it can be done, albeit at a terrible cost. The most recent example is, of course, Mussolini’s fascist state, which brutally extirpated the camorra at the beginning of his dictatorship. If you read Italian memoirs of the 1930s, you will find constant reference to the elimination of organized crime in Naples. But the most melodramatic example comes from the last days of the Kingdom of Naples, in 1860. Garibaldi’s troops were preparing to enter the city, and a major battle seemed inevitable. Desperate to avoid large scale bloodshed, the police chief, Liborio Romano, turned to the head of the camorra, Salvatore De Crescenzo, who alone could maintain order. They cooperated. De Crescenzo organized citizens’ guard units to patrol the neighborhoods and prevent any uprising, and Garibaldi took the city without a battle. The camorra had saved the day. Italy was “unified.”
No sooner done, but betrayed. The new government rounded up hundreds of real and suspected camorristi, including De Crescenzo, and slammed them into prison. The new rulers of Naples knew that no deal with organized crime could serve the interests of civil society, and they brought down the full force of the state. For a generation, there was very little organized crime in Naples.
It came back later in the century, as it has always come back, as soon as the political class either loses concentration or falls into corrupt practices. Perhaps the great social reformer of the second half of the 19th century, Pasquale Villari, was right when he described the camorra as “the natural form of this society.”
But that is another story.
Michael Ledeen, an NRO contributing editor, is most recently the author of The War Against the Terror Masters. He is resident scholar in the Freedom Chair at the American Enterprise Institute. He’s written a soon-to-be-published book on Naples.