Street wars in Italy's wild south

Teenage junkies can be more lethal than the Mafia, Andrew Gumbel writes from Naples
Click to follow
The Independent Online
It is not unusual for teenage gangsters in Naples to pull out their guns and shoot each other in broad daylight. This is, after all, the quintessential southern city, where criminality is part of the landscape and everything from contraband cigarettes to bootlegged video cassettes can become an excuse for a shoot-out between neighbourhood thugs.

Until recently, though, it wasn't at all usual for passers-by to get caught in the crossfire. Executions were carried out discreetly and professionally, leaving middle-class Naples to go breezily about its business. But no more. In June, a young mother called Silvia Ruotolo was walking home with her five-year-old son from a shopping trip on one of the hills above the city centre when a stray bullet cut her down and killed her.

A week later, a 13-year-old boy was hit in the shoulder in the rough suburb of Pozzuoli as two local bosses were killed in a hail of machine- gun fire. Earlier this month, a hit squad opened fire on a crowded party in Carditello attended by the gangster Tommaso Dolciame. They pumped their target full of bullets, but injured five innocent bystanders, including an eight-year-old girl, in the process.

This alarming spate of attacks, coupled with a leap in the overall crime rate (17 per cent up on last year, including a 30 per cent increase in bag-snatching), has spread panic not just among the city authorities but also the national government. In the past few days, 500 soldiers have been taking up positions outside key buildings in the city centre to respond to what the Interior Minister, Giorgio Napolitano, has called "the most critical crime situation in Italy".

The idea is that the army will take over regular patrolling duties and free up several hundred local policemen to launch a full-frontal onslaught on the Camorra, as the Neapolitan mafia is known. The soldiers play a symbolic role, too, reassuring the public and letting the clan bosses know that the state means business.

But it is not clear just how much impact they can make. Already, since their arrival, the killings have continued, some of them no more than a few hundred yards from the main city buildings around Piazza del Municipio. To the east of Naples' main street, the Via Roma, life is clean, decent and much like any other southern European city. To the west, gangland begins with the notorious Quartieri Spagnoli and the state, for all its rhetoric and crime-busting efforts, is as remote as a Caliph's court from the Arabian Nights.

"In some ways, the state cannot compete with the Camorra," said Amato Lamberti, leader of the Naples provincial council and an expert on organised crime. "We have an official unemployment rate of 25 per cent, while in the organised crime world everyone has a job. For a kid of 15 or 16 from one of the poorer neighbourhoods, crime is the only realistic option open to them and they will do anything regardless of the risk."

Perhaps it is no coincidence that the soldiers have arrived now and intend to stay no later than Christmas. The charismatic, popular mayor of Naples, Antonio Bassolino, has built his reputation by claiming to clean up this most chaotic of western European cities. In November, he is up for re- election and the last thing he needs is an upsurge in the murders, armed robberies, street corner hold-ups and car thefts that still make many Italians think twice before setting foot in the place.

The recent crime spree has all too awkwardly highlighted the limits of Mr Bassolino's power. He has cleaned old churches, imposed a minimum of order on the chaotic traffic, forced taxi drivers to install, and use, meters, encouraged tourists to visit one of Europe's best kept artistic secrets, and energetically championed the cause of the Neapolitan pizza. Thanks to the Bassolino effect, there have also been scores of high-profile arrests of crime bosses and, remarkably, a clean-out of those very Neapolitan Augean stables, the police and the city administration.

But in the dingy working-class quarters of the centre and the dismal suburbs, the result of grossly corrupt building speculation from the 1950s to the 1980s, he has been unable to break the stranglehold of the Camorra on people's mentalities and lifestyles. Teenagers hoping to break out of the spiral of misery and poverty know they can make ends meet by stealing a moped for a local boss, or taking a consignment of stolen car radios to market for resale, or agreeing to ferry heroin and cocaine to the affluent cities of the north.

In one way, Mr Bassolino has been a victim of his own success. The arrest of the Camorra bosses has created a power vacuum in almost every sector of the black economy, effectively sparking a war between no fewer than 30 families within Naples and more than 80 in the surrounding area. The discipline that once kept a lid on petty crime and maintained some kind of control over the choice and number of vendettas has simply disappeared, creating a dangerous free-for-all.

The professional hitmen of yesteryear have been replaced with angry teenagers, many of them on drugs, who decide to take out their revenge first and only ask themselves about the wisdom of their actions later. Since drugged- out teenagers can only rarely shoot straight, innocent bystanders are getting sucked into the violence as well.

It is hard to see a way out of the morass as long as the state remains so weak and major-league investors refuse to challenge the economic stranglehold of the Camorra, with all the risks that entails. Naples is also beset with a rather romantic image of its own criminality. There is something undeniably attractive about boisterous eight-year-olds selling you snacks from illegal street stalls, or shopkeepers surreptitiously showing you their collection of high-quality, very cheap recordings of first-release movies, or wide-boys patiently telling you how to make long-distance calls on specially doctored mobile phones that will then be charged to some unsuspecting businessman in Piacenza or Verona.

The latest crime headlines have caused some Neapolitans to feel strangely contrite. "I too am responsible for Silvia Ruotolo's death," said her cousin, the television journalist Sandro Ruotolo. "Naples will never change if the Neapolitans don't change first. We help the bosses every time we buy contraband cigarettes, or pay a camorrista to look after our parked cars, or play the black-market football pools, or buy a second-hand car radio. Who hasn't done at least one of these things? I know I have."

The trouble with that argument is that Mr Ruotolo is effectively asking his fellow citizens to behave with the rectitude of Swiss bus passengers. Naples may be full of surprises but turning itself into a mini-Switzerland is not on the cards. The lack of strict rules and respect for authority is Naples' greatest strength as a city and the source of all its charm and inventiveness. The fact that, paradoxically, this is also its great weakness is something Naples may simply have to learn to live with.