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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: "À Naples, la Camorra prospère encore sur la pauvreté "

by Paul Falzon

In Naples, the Camorra still Prospers on Poverty

Translated Monday 15 May 2006, by Henry Crapo

Elections in Italy: Despite some courageous resistance, the shadow of the criminal organization Camorra, which recruits in impoverished neighborhoods, is still today cast over the city of Naples.

Corso Umberto, one of the busiest commercial avenues in Naples. A giant photo shows, side by side, arms crossed, with a steady gaze, a tailor, a hotel operator, the chief of a construction site, a butcher. "An end to racketeering", it reads, with reference to the "pizzo" or ’tax’ that the mafia imposes on businesses. As soon as one leaves the main city streets, to enter into any one of the innumerable passages that concentrate the charm of the city, one needs only go a few meters to see, in plain view, youths of no more than 20 years of age selling contraband cigarettes and DVD readers.

In Naples, the shadow of the Camorra, the local crime organization, is everywhere, a part of the landscape. The city has just managed to leave behind the two most bloody years of its history: 134 asssassinations in 2004, another 60 in 2005. The vendettas ended when the rival clans reached an agreement on sharing neighborhoods and markets. Unlike the situation that pertains in other mafia organizations, which are rural and organized around a sole leader, as the case with the Cosa Nostra in Sicily, the Camorra remains divided among often rival interests. This is a special characteristic due to its history and to the impoverished social situation in the city. "The Camorra is a form of urban criminality that can be clearly attributed to under-development and that elsewhere has disappeared when the State and economic forces have responded to the needs of the working classes", sums up Isaia Sales, one of the better historians of this phenomenon in Italy.

A sprawling megapolis, one of the youngest and most densely populated cities in Europe, Naples is a zone of social distress. Six out of ten youths are unemployed and, for young graduates, immigration toward the north of the country and to foreign lands has begun again. In a neighborhood like La Forcella, in the heart of the historic center, 86% of the population has not progressed beyond the stage of elementary education. This is the ministry, for the past nine years, of the 30-year-old priest Luigi Merola, who has become the symbol of the battle against the Camorra. "In this neighborhood, every youth is potentially a Camorra recruit", in his judgement. "Most youths leave school very early, to hang out in the streets, where they find no social or family structure. There is no work, but you still have to pay the rent, the bills. That’s why they are so little susceptible to the lure of easy money". As sentinel for a drug dealer, a youth can earn 200 euros a day, and the wages increase with responsibility in the clan.

"The message we need to succeed in getting through to them is that the Camorra will not bring them security, riches, prestige, or if so, only for a limited period of time. You have to admit that these youth are more likely to die before thirty years of age than to remain living." The man who speaks is Geppino Fiorenza. For twenty years he was member of the large anti-mafia association "Libera", and the initiative of the regional council, the anti-Camorra information center. In the work room, a map of Naples with, neighborhood by neighborhood, the names and sometimes the photos of the heads of clan. On the side wall, the portraits of two young men assassinated by the Camorra because they were mistaken for mafia members.

"Working on the memory of the victims is essential", explains Geppino Fiorenza. "Uniting families into associations, getting them to speak in public, permits them to progress from grief to a social and civic testimony". Children are the main target of this activity. "In a city like Naples, where poverty lives with a culture of illegality, one must create a civic conscience among the very young". Each year the information center organizes, with the schools of the region, a cinema and theater competition on the theme "democratic legality". From little sequences, often quite funny, where the children start with their daily life (the theft of a candy, or the destruction of a public playyard swing) to illustrate the need for respect for the law and of personal rights. "You have to wage the fight every day, and on all fronts", says Geppino Fiorenza, "a little tired". "These recent years there has been less attention paid by the authorities to problems of the mafia, and decreased expenditures on the part of the State for localities and social policies", he criticizes. "There is a criminal side to the politics of this government."

On this question or on so many others the program of "L’Unione" sees itself in conflict with the action of the "Maison des Libertés". The leader of the "Refondation Communiste" in Naples, Gennaro Migliore, insists upon the need "to recreate a politics of the public" in health, education, welfare. "After the de-industrialization of the ’80s, the new difficulty faced by Neapolitans is the isolation of the unemployed and poor, abandoned by the State". The desire of the ’Rifondazione’ is to extend to the entire country a "citizen’s wage", which was inaugurated by the left-wing majority in Campania: a payment of 350 euros per month, which, according to Gennaro Migliore, has already permitted thousands of persons to avoid falling into that abject poverty upon which organized crime feeds.

There have been other signs of progress in the last few years. city hall (center-left in politics) recruited Tano Grasso, former anti-racket chief on the national level, fired by Silvio Berlusconi on his accession to power. The former commissioner has multiplied the number of complaints of extortion by a factor of 20: each time a businessman says he is victim of the "pizzo" he is accompanied to the court-house by police and gendarmes, as well as by the mayor or one of his deputies, who associate themselves with the complaint.

In Forcella, Luigi Merak also observes that things have been changing bit by bit. "The Camorra has destroyed La Forcella, forced the businesses to flee, but life returns bit by bit. The first neighborhood school has just opened, and there is even a post office now". The priest has played a significant role in this renaissance, having been the first to open an animation center, then a cooperative which provides work for ten youngsters who take charge of a boarding house. For the "curé of the streets", the personal price is hard to pay: repeated targets of threats, he lives under police protection around the clock.

Published in l’Humanité 6 April, on page 11


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