The Christmas spirit appears to be sleeping with the fishes in southern Italy.
Four members of Naples’ notorious Camorra crime organisation have been arrested for making city centre shopkeepers a Christmas offer they couldn’t refuse: festive poinsettia plants with prices hiked to over 100 times their usual price.
The gangsters are believed to have run the extortion scam for at least three years, forcing small businesses in and around Piazza del Mercato to part with €100 (around £85) per plant - which are known as Stella di Natale, or Christmas stars, in Italy. Shopkeepers would normally expect to pay a wholesaler just €1 (85p) per plant.
Police say the arrested men are members of the Camorra’s infamous Mazzarella clan – a powerful mafia group which has its roots in Naples’ market areas, and specialises in illegal cigarette smuggling, extortion and drug trafficking.
In a statement, a police spokesperson said: “It wasn’t someone dressed like Santa Claus tapping on the doors of shop owners and businesses… instead there were four emissaries of the Mazzarella”.
Through witness statements and wiretaps, officers were able to piece together the true nature of the scam - which saw mobsters demand shopkeepers purchase at least one overpriced plant so the group could donate the money to needy “prisoners”.
This remark is believed to be a veiled reference to the Camorra tradition of providing the family of incarcerated mafiosi with gift parcels over Christmas - boosting support among the local community, and ensuring imprisoned members remain loyal and unwilling to cooperate with authorities. There are similar collections in Naples at Easter and during the August holidays.
Police say that shopkeepers who refused to purchase the overpriced plants would soon find their premises targeted by petty vandalism and shoplifters – typical mafia extortion tactics used to annoy and frustrate small business owners into parting with relatively small sums of money to ensure they are left to operate in peace.