Do not envy Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. He’s got a multifront war to fight, and it is not at all clear that he’s got the troops with which to do it. His political party, the Freedom People, swept into power with what seems to be a solid majority, and even his opponents expect this government to serve the full five years. He promised Italians that he would bring order to replace the extraordinary (even by Italian standards) confusion of his center-left predecessors, reduce taxes, and impose decent security in cities increasingly characterized by petty crime, hooliganism, and violence of all sorts, ranging from the European plague of drunken soccer fans picking fights with anyone in uniform, to xenophobic eruptions against illegal immigrants, many living in shanty towns on the outside of major cities like Rome, Milan, and Naples, and finally to the scourge of organized crime, especially the Neapolitan camorra (mafia) and the ‘ndrangheta (gangsters) in nearby Calabria (the Sicilian mafia has been badly weakened in recent years and is much less of a threat to law and order). Security always trumps more abstract political issues, and if Berlusconi’s going to succeed he’s got to get a grip on these matters.
This is certainly not the longstanding stereotype of Italy, the land of the sweet life and charming people, but it’s what they’ve got nowadays, and in private conversations over the past month I learned that most Italians want Berlusconi to act quickly and forcefully, even though the chattering classes continue to preach soothing multicultural sermons. And the symbol of the security problem, from illegal immigration to organized crime, is Naples, which has dominated recent Italian news with two dreadful stories: the mountains of garbage in the streets (a problem intimately connected to the camorra), and a brief eruption of vigilante attacks against the gypsies who have set up camps around the city.
A few days ago, a gypsy girl was caught running down the stairs of a suburban apartment, carrying a newborn baby girl in her arms. The mother screamed, the neighbors appeared, the gypsy was surrounded, and the police had to save the kidnapper from a lynching. Within hours, the gypsy camp was targeted with Molotov cocktails by young men on motorcycles, and most of the gypsies — most of whom had come from Romania — were forced to flee. In succeeding days, the papers were full of stories with headlines like “So they DO steal children,” citing official sources to confirm the age-old belief that the gypsies not only traffic in little children, but also force them to beg and steal on behalf of the tribe.
The fate of the gypsies understandably provokes a lot of passion; after all, they were sent to the Nazi death camps along with Jews, people with birth defects, political foes of the Third Reich, and homosexuals. Given the simplistic, politically correct, one-page version of the history of fascism (fascism is bad, is right-wing, defends the status quo, and is racist, while antifascism is good, is left-wing, calls for revolution, and is super-tolerant) that is presented to most European students nowadays, it is easy to understand why Spanish socialist politicians would righteously denounce an Italian government that has called for tougher measures against illegal immigrants. And yet, it’s a real problem, and, with the exception of Eastern Europe, very few countries have attempted to integrate the gypsies, or even to pass laws in favor of common education for gypsy children. The European parliament recently granted all of one minute to a Hungarian liberal deputy to discuss the matter.
There are between 12-15 million gypsies in the 27 countries of the EU, and of these, a mere 200,000 are in Italy. Eighty thousand of them are legal Italian citizens, having fled from oppression, starvation, and unemployment in their “home” countries. Most Italian-based gypsies have been in the country for years, if not decades, and rarely have family or friends back in Romania, Bulgaria, or Hungary, where most of them started their wanderings. They need education, protection, and discipline, but these are in short supply in today’s Europe. The new government is unlikely to launch a major drive for assimilation, and will deal with the issue as part of the overall security problem.
Italians are relatively free of chauvinism, and the eruption of violence against the Neapolitan gypsy camp is best understood in the context of the city’s other intimately related main problems: the garbage crisis, and the power of organized crime.
The garbage crisis is an old one, and is part and parcel of the city’s history. Naples is famous for filth and disease, having endured many infamous episodes of plague and cholera, and Neapolitans have seen several failed efforts to “modernize” the many slums in and around the town. Fifteen years ago, putrid black water started flowing from faucets in two of the poor neighborhoods, producing a public outcry that led the central government to take the extraordinary step of firing the city council. A few months later, the left-wing reformist, Antonio Bassolino, was elected mayor on a platform of clean hands and urban renewal. Alas, if anything, the Left has been even more corrupt than its predecessors, and Bassolino, now the president of the region around Naples, has become the universally despised symbol of that corruption. Mounting evidence of collusion with the local mafia and his manifest inability to cope with the garbage crisis (even after being granted extraordinary authority and billions of euros by the Rome and European governments) ended the dream, and he will spend many hours facing criminal charges in the years to come. He’s even lost his political touch: At the height of the recent garbage crisis, with uncollected bags of refuse piled high all over town, local papers showed a picture of Bassolino’s street . . . clean as can be. It’s hard to find a Neapolitan who will admit to voting for Bassolino in the last election.
Meanwhile, undoubtedly stimulated by the imminent arrival of the council of ministers, emergency cleanup trucks were at work throughout the night. I saw them in several different neighborhoods, including the infamous slums known as the Spanish Quarters, and two others considered so dangerous that even the locals stay away: Forcella and the Sanità. Two nights before Berlusconi’s arrival, Forcella was pretty good, and the Sanità was sparkling clean, while better neighborhoods, including, sad to say, the comfortable middle-class one where my hotel is located, seemed worse than ever. By the time the ministers arrived, the central city was pristine, and even the traffic was orderly.
You may well wonder, how can this be? The official explanation is that the garbage has been loaded on trains headed for Germany. And it’s even true. So far as it goes. But even so, it’s pretty clear that the city could have been cleaned up well before the arrival of Berlusconi and his cabinet. It wasn’t, because the authorities either didn’t want it to, or were so incompetent they just couldn’t. But, as we all saw, they are competent; the city got cleaned up in 48 hours. So they didn’t want to. Why?
Because the whole garbage thing, as so many of Naples’s current problems, has to do with organized crime. In one of those eery coincidences that convince me that life really does imitate art, the film Gomorra debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in the midst of this catastrophe, and won second prize. The film is based on a best-selling book written by a brave and very talented young journalist named Roberto Saviani. It may yet cost him his life; the government has provided him with round-the-clock bodyguards, and his movements are kept secret until the very last minute.
Gomorra is technically a novel (and a pun) about the Neapolitan mafia, the camorra, although it’s impossible to read it without the conviction that it’s serious reportage, and in fact some of the camorra thugs named in the “novel” are awaiting sentencing at this very moment.
One of the revelations in the book the movie is based on (now a few years old) has to do with the garbage crisis. According to Saviani, the camorra got into the business of collecting toxic waste from the north, and burying it in caves and empty volcano craters around Naples, thereby polluting the soil for generations to come, and poisoning those unlucky enough to live in the area.
Everyone is affected; American sailors at the nearby NATO base are being tested to identify a medical problem thus far labelled with the technical medical term “Naples Crud,” which some doctors apparently think may be caused by the dioxin produced by bonfires of garbage. The mob doesn’t care. The criminals obviously do not want this lucrative business taken over by the forces of national law and order, and it is widely believed — although as yet without concrete proof — that many of the uprisings are organized by the camorristi. It sure makes sense. As one of the characters in the movie puts it, “morality is for losers.” For the mob, it is all about money and the power that money brings. The camorra is one of the wealthiest organizations in the world, and does not hesitate to kill anyone who gets in its way. Saviano really needs protection.
The murderous power of the camorra was demonstrated just the other day, when one Domenico Novello, a middle-aged entrepreneur who testified against them from 2001 to 2003, was assassinated in front of his favorite coffee bar in the suburb of Castelvolturno, shortly after breakfast. Five years ago, the police concluded that Novello was no longer in grave danger, and the bodyguards were withdrawn. His assassins were patient. Not for nothing do Italians say that vendetta is a plate best eaten cold. Such stories emphasize why Saviano is so closely protected. The good news is that he has some reason for optimism; the police rounded up two leading camorristi a week ago. But now you can understand why the authorities were not eager to “solve” the garbage problem.
All of which brings us to the big picture, which is the failure of the Italian state, from the national government in Rome, to the local governments in the Campania region and the city of Naples, to provide decent security to the citizenry. And without decent security, nothing else really matters. There is a new mood of desperation in the streets these days, a mixture of frustration and fatalism that a local prosecutor has termed “highly explosive.” There is no doubt that the mood is ugly, and the people are turning for help in a new direction. Neapolitans have hated “the North” ever since the 1860s, when the kingdom of Naples was conquered by Giuseppe Garibaldi and the armies of the king of Piedmont and Savoy, and annexed to the new Italy. But today they are praying for Silvio Berlusconi, a quintessential northerner from Milan, to save them. The day before Berlusconi’s arrival, some brilliantly inventive poster makers plastered the city’s walls with a proclamation that, if the prime minister solved the garbage and camorra crises, they’d call for “Immediate Sainthood” (using the phrase Santo Subito that the faithful chanted at the funeral of John Paul II). In typical Neapolitan fashion, the poster makers knew that only a miracle could save the city, and so they used religious language.
Berlusconi no doubt appreciated the nice touch (he’s sufficiently observant to have built his own chapel and his own tomb on his estate in the north), and his first steps looked good to me. He announced that his government would treat the crisis as a national-security matter, that a top security person would be appointed to manage it, and report directly to him, and that the army would be used to guarantee security at the disposal sites. Moreover, an ambitious program of building incinerators was announced, the first one — which was supposed to be completed in 2001 — to be operational by the end of the year.
First steps are important, and these were good ones, but there’s a long way to go. If Naples, and the new government, are going to succeed, they will have to enlarge the battlefield to confront the camorristi and other mafiosi. And that’s a big fight indeed.