The Big Question: How strong is the Mafia, and can anything be done to combat it?

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The Independent Online

Why are we asking the question now?

Naples, Italy's third-biggest city, has been racked by a spasm of gang violence, with seven people killed in the space of a week. The attention of the Italian public was galvanised by the spectacle of one of Italy's most splendid cities, in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, apparently sliding out of the state's control. Frequent and violent muggings, piles of rotting rubbish on the streets, the result of a dispute about rubbish disposal that has been going on for years, and an epidemic of Rolex-ripping have fed into the image of Naples as a city that is mad, bad and dangerous to visit.

Is the Mafia on the rise elsewhere?

They are certainly not going away. In Sicily, the original Mafia, also known as Casa Nostra, has yet to go back to the murderous ways it renounced in the early 1990s, after the arrest of the super-violent capo di capi Toto Riina. His successor, Bernardo Provenzano, is credited with persuading his underlings to give up the gun and use the charisma of the Mafia to obtain their desired results peaceably. The result: plummeting mob violence, but no indication that the Mafia has gone away. The occasional suspicious fire in a shop or office, an injection of super-glue into the lock of a shop's security shutters - that's all it takes to get the businesspeople of Palermo to bow to the Mafia's will.

A recent study revealed the majority of of businesses in Palermo, for example, pay pizzo, or protection money, to the Mafia. Experts say the absence of killing does not mean they are in decline - it indicates the Mafia is not fighting a civil war and can concentrate on its core business. It was predicted on the arrest of Provenzano in April (after 40 years on the run) the Sicilian Mafia would go back to their gun-happy ways. That has yet to happen.

What gives the Mafia their power?

The quantum leap for the Mafia was the arrival of the trade in hard drugs, which multiplied their earnings potential. That remains of huge importance. But they flourish because of the complicity with the gangsters of legitimate power elites, particularly politicians, and the resignation and weakness of civil society all over the south. The killing of a top politician in Calabria one year ago was seen as a flexing of muscles by the 'Ndrangheta, another of the most important southern Italian crime gangs. And though rooted in the south, the Mafias are not confined to it. In the rich northern city of Brescia, a family were tied up and killed one by one in the summer in a punishment killing that is believed to have been the work of one of the southern gangs.

Are the Mafias linked?  

They do business together at the borders of their territory and across it, but control of territory is the essence of gang power. The Sicilian Mafia does not muscle in on the territory of the 'Ndrangheta or Camorra, and vice versa.

How do they make their money today?

The "protection" of Palermo's citrus groves was how the Mafia grew rich and powerful in Sicily in the 19th century, and protection money remains a core activity of all the gangs. Likewise, important for all the gangs are hard and soft drug dealing, prostitution, illegal gambling, control of illegal immigration, illegal disposal of rubbish. In Sicily, where the Mafia have worked for decades to infiltrate the structures of the state, they are believed to have a lock on public works bids, with Mafia front companies assured of winning contracts through intimidation or a disguised presence on the relevant town councils and committees. They are also very big in the public health service: a number of legitimate doctors are also mafiosi, and the mob is said to have cornered the huge market in hospital provision in Sicily. In Naples, a recent study claims that the Camorra have got into bed with Chinese immigrants to mass manufacture fake fashion-brand clothing.

What is distinctive about the Camorra?

Unlike the Sicilian Mafia, which has had a unified structure since the emergence of the Corleonesi clan as victors in the Mafia wars of the 1970s and 1980s, the Camorra, whose roots go back to the Middle Ages, is fragmented into many small, warring gangs.

In this sense, the lawlessness of the streets of Naples is claimed by some to be an unintended result of the success of the police and carabinieri in smashing the most powerful gang structures - allowing small time hoodlums, often very young, to dream of ruling the city. Many of those killing and dying in recent months have been in their early twenties.

What is the Italian government's involvement?

This delicate question is only ever answered in retrospect. The emergence of supergrasses from the 1980s onwards in the "Nazi trials" of Sicilian mafiosi, prompted by the determined prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, brought the first convincing testimony of involvement by top politicians. Giulio Andreotti, seven times Prime Minister, was tried for "Mafia association" and finally absolved on appeal - only because his proven involvement was too far in the past. Silvio Berlusconi has been dogged by allegations of connections with the Mafia and his closest associate Marcello Dell'Utri, co-founder of Berlusconi's party Forza Italia, is fighting a seven-year sentence for Mafia association.

What is the Italian government doing about the problem in Naples?

Prime minister Romano Prodi and Giuliano Amato, interior minister, visited after the recent spate of killings and Mr Amato announced a plan to crack down on the city's gangs and regain control of the streets involving the deployment of 1,000 extra officers, 235 new vehicles, a 50 per cent increase in patrols in the city, and the creation of a special squad with charge of protecting tourists.

Is it going to work?  

It is not hard to find Neapolitans who are extremely pessimistic about the likelihood of it working. And some of them are policemen. The local head of one police organisation, Paolo Iodice, for example, told La Stampa newspaper the plan was "pure demagoguery, and manna from heaven for the criminals."

Amato's plan foresees the abolition of four police commissariats with responsibility for some of the most violent parts of the city and its suburbs, and their replacement by "super commissariats" with wider scope, with the idea of allowing hundreds of officers to get back on the beat. But Iodice is sceptical. "They tried it 15 years ago under a different name and then they dismantled it because it failed," he said. Investigations were duplicated and experts removed from the patches where they had local knowledge. Iodice and his men are threatening a sit-in if the reform goes ahead.

Can the Mafia be defeated?

Yes

* When civil society demonstrates its anger en masse;

* When Parliament passes tough laws, and judges enforce them;

* When Mafia-politician links are fearlessly exposed in the media.

No...

* When unemployment climbs to 50 per cent, as in parts of Naples;

* When the involvement of central government is limited to quick fixes and photo-ops;

* When the idea of a brave new solution is sending in the army.

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