Poker-game execution as Italy declares war on Mafia

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Italy's Interior Minister, Roberto Maroni, has described it as a civil war – and 18 bullets pumped into an innocent man playing cards on a Sunday morning proved him right.

Stanislao Cantelli was the uncle of two supergrasses and distantly related to another local mafia boss but he had led a blameless life. Having recently retired from his job as a technician in a mozzarella cheese factory, he was often seen pottering around the town of Casal di Principe in his battered Fiat Punto. For relaxation, he repaired to the Circolo Sociale Ricreativo, a shop converted into a social club on Via Umberto I, to play poker.

But two of Cantelli's nephews have turned state's counsel, and the evidence of one of them, Luigi Diana, was crucial in leading to the issuing of arrest warrants for 107 gangsters and the confiscation of more than €100m (£78m) worth of gang-owned property. So on Sunday, Cantelli's card game was interrupted by two men on a motorbike, one armed with an automatic pistol, who burst into the club and repeatedly fired on him. All the witnesses to the killing fled.

What has shocked Italy is not so much the murder – a so-called "transversal vendetta" common in the region – but the fact that it happened just 24 hours after the state staged a show of force, sending 500 soldiers from the Folgore ("Thunderbolt") parachute regiment to set up road blocks and patrol the town. The troops' role was to free up another army of police and carabinieri from guard duties so they could pursue investigations against the gangs.

It was also a piece of state theatre, a vivid way of demonstrating serious intent to stamp out the wave of lawlessness in the Caserta province north of Naples But now the Camorra have enacted a bloody piece of Neapolitan theatre of their own, a few dozen metres from where the troops stood guard.

Investigators believe the man behind the murder was a 38-year-old gang leader called Giuseppe Setola, who was released from prison in the spring on the grounds that a severe eye illness had left him practically blind. That decision is now under attack as Setola quickly skipped out of the clinic in the northern city of Pavia to which he was transferred. If he was indeed one of Cantelli's killers, "now it seems his eyesight is excellent", as Corriere della Sera commented yesterday, "at least when he shoots".

Setola, violent, unbalanced and a heavy user of cocaine according to supergrasses, is believed to the man behind most recent massacres in the area, including the murder of seven people, six of them African immigrants, nearly three weeks ago, the crime which galvanised the state into action.

But what worries investigators is that, despite his youth and apparently wild and reckless character – much like the baby gangsters depicted in the new film Gomorrah – it is unthinkable that he would have been able to strike in the centre of Casal di Principe without the go-ahead of Francesco Schiavone, the senior Camorra boss in the region who controls the town from the jail where he is serving a life sentence. In other words, the state is up against the sort of well-structured crime organisation it has previously confronted in Sicily and Calabria.

Mr Maroni has put his job on the line with his decision to send the army in, and these are difficult days. "I never thought a few hours would be sufficient to win a war," he told La Stampa, "and this victim is the confirmation of that."

Franco Roberti, an anti-Camorra prosecutor, said: "It was illusory to think that, with the arrival of the army, things would change as if by magic," told La Repubblica. "But the formula is right, with the military presiding over the territory and the police investigating. Citizens need to know there exists a common will to escape from this situation."