Naples: A city where life is cheap

In the battle for the rampant drugs trade, trigger-happy assassins of the Camorra have murdered 160 innocent bystanders. Michael Day finds out the human cost of living in a narco-city

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The Independent Online

In Via dello Stelvio, in the northern Secondigliano district of Naples, you can still see the blood stains. The victim, 26-year-old drug dealer Gennaro Spina, won't be remembered for long, though. In the area known as Italy's drug supermarket, locals are more concerned about avoiding inclusion on the growing list of those caught in the crossfire.

"Life is cheap here," said Pasquale Scherillo, the owner of a driving school in the adjacent street. "You want to know how cheap? Yesterday, when they killed the latest one, people brought their children to see.

"They were just standing there with babies, allowing them to look, with the blood covering his head," .

Perhaps "crossfire" is a misnomer, though. When, on 6 December eight years ago, Mr Scherillo's law-abiding 26-year-old brother Dario was shot dead not far from their office by two gunmen, the bullets were aimed at him. Dario Scherillo simply had the misfortune to own a motor scooter that was the same make and colour as one belonging to a local pusher whose assassination had been ordered by a Camorra boss.

On the 15th of last month the death toll among innocent bystanders reached a worrying landmark. Thirty-year-old student Pasquale Romano became the 160th person to be killed by mistake by Camorra mobsters since 1980, after gunmen shot him 14 times while he sat in his Renault Clio in nearby Marianella.

"One hundred and sixty cases of mistaken identity suggests that the people behind the killings aren't too fussed if they get the wrong person," said Mr Scherillo. The death of Pasquale Romano, in circumstances so similar to those of his brother, prompted Mr Scherillo to write an open letter to La Repubblica newspaper, calling on the public to fight back against the clans.

Just weeks after Dario's killing in 2004, another innocent, Antonio Landieri, was killed. Then came the shocking case of Gelsomina Verde, the young woman kidnapped, tortured and killed because she was mistakenly thought to be the ex-girlfriend of a marked Camorrista. In June this year another innocent member of the public, Andrea Nollino, was murdered while opening his bar. "When collateral damage means there are hundreds dead, you're talking about a war. That's what we have," said Mr Scherillo.

A battle for the drug market in the Secondigliano and neighbouring Scampia and Miano districts lies behind the violence. The combatants are members of the Camorra group known as the Scissionisti – the secessionists – who broke away from the Northern Naples' Di Lauro ruling clan in 2004. That conflict, between the Di Lauro loyalists and the Scissionisti, saw 60 slayings in just 18 months. Now younger Scissionisti are fighting among themselves as well as continuing hostilities with the Di Lauro faction. And the body count is rising.

The drug market is one of Europe's biggest, thought to be worth more than €100m a year.

Amalia De Simone is a journalist who has doggedly reported for Corriere della Sera on organised crime in Northern Naples for years, despite death threats.

"What's hard to appreciate is the level of organisation," she said. "The drug dealing is run like a big company. Like a factory. People are even paid to do the catering. I heard recently that one of the bigger and busier squares was making €20m a month."

In the Secondigliano and the adjacent Scampia quarter, with its infamous Le Vele housing estates, there's a quantity and variety of drugs on sale that you would be hard-pressed to find anywhere else in Italy or Western Europe. And there are motorways nearby for quick getaways.

Such a large-scale operation needs correspondingly large-scale staffing. In poor neighbourhoods with perilously high unemployment, it's not difficult for the Camorra to recruit 12-year-olds as look-outs, especially when it's prepared to pay them €150 a day – more than most professionals earn in Italy.

Amalia De Simone describes it as "an alternative welfare system – a corrupt, violent and utterly reprehensible one, but one that functions where the state doesn't".

Indicative of the moral degradation is the ease with which 12-year-old look-outs and 14-year-old drug runners are becoming 16-year-old killers.Michele Spina, the head of the national police force's Scampia division, admits to being shocked at how such young recruits are turning so easily into cold-blooded killers. A few snorts of the local concoction called shabu, a mix of cocaine and crystal meth, helps them shake off pre-hit nerves.

"It is a shock seeing kids so young becoming killers. But it's also very worrying, because the younger they are, the more impulsive and unreasoning they are," Mr Spina said. "The situation has become more chaotic."

Driving into the Secondigliano on a bright Indian-summer afternoon, it looks down-at-heel but not particularly threatening. In Via Filimarino people mill around market stalls selling detergent bottles, cheap underwear, and even fresh octopus, glistening brown and grey in the sunshine.

In his office further down the street, Mr Scherillo says daytime is one thing, but there would not be anyone around after dark.

"By 8pm it's completely empty. I don't like to be out on the street. There's an unofficial curfew. My other brother, Alessandro, came home from holiday years ago and they stuck a gun in his mouth, then walked off with his suitcases. He moved to England and never came back."

There are lots of brave and dedicated people making a difference in northern Naples. Ennio Petricciuolo is one of the teachers at a nearby school, the Instituto Professionale di Miano, who runs extra-curricular activities to keep local youngsters on the straight and narrow. His Bellezza e Dignita project encourages young people to make anti-mob videos.

"We work with difficult kids. But some of them can be saved – and we have kept many away from a life of crime," he said. These are the ones who realise that while drugs will make them lots of money very quickly, the chances are they'll be dead, or behind bars, by the time they're 30.

Following the murder of Paquale Romano on the 15 October, 2,000 local people came to the funeral to show their solidarity. But even this event wasn't without controversy; Mr Romano's parents complained that the priest had conspicuously failed to mention the word "Camorra" once in his speech.

But as you visit the social wreckage of the Secondigliano and speak to the people who mourn loved ones and flit nervously around according to unspoken curfews, it's not the C-word that increasingly comes to mind, but the D-word. Decriminalisation instead of prohibition has been touted by Italy's Radical Party since the 1970s. But its members, like libertarian politicians in most other countries, have been waging a lonely battle.

Instead, hope lies with people like Pasquale Scherillo, Ennio Petricciulo and the police chief, Michele Spina. Their efforts seem all the more admirable given the economic odds stacked against them. From his concrete bunker in Scampia, Mr Spina says that since taking the job five years ago he's managed to close down many of the drug-dealing squares and premises.

"Having them exist is an affront and is not acceptable," he says. But he admits that when a drug market is closed, business probably moves somewhere else instead.

Gennaro Spina (no relation) was killed at 3.30pm in a busy street in broad daylight. Within minutes, a crowd had gathered around his corpse. But, apparently, no one saw a thing. Even as his invisible killer drove off, a security summit of judges and police chiefs, led by the city's new chief prosecutor, Giovanni Colangelo, was meeting to discuss the crisis. Afterwards Mr Colangelo said: "We need the participation of everyone in the community to construct a culture of legality in daily life."

Last week police in the northern districts were distributing posters of the five most-wanted mobsters involved in the feud. The oldest of the five, Marco di Lauro, is 32. The youngest, Mariano Abete, is just 21. The authorities have yet to receive any leads.