Your money or your life: £28m lottery winners targeted by the Mafia

Mobsters from the feared Camorra crime syndicate tracked down 30 Italian villagers who shared a €33m (£28m) lottery jackpot win and threatened to kill them unless they handed over their winnings.

Although the lottery winners' names and details were never made public, the Naples-based syndicate was determined to claim its "share" of the huge, 2008 prize after learning that the winners came from the surrounding southern Campania region, investigators revealed after arresting the five ringleaders this week.

Camorra expert Roberto Saviano, who has a 24-hour armed escort following his exposé of the crime syndicate in his best-selling book Gomorrah, said the lotto extortion scam marked a rite of passage for 19-year-old Marco Antonio Genovese.

He is thought to have taken over as head of the Camorra's Cava-Genovese clan following the jailing of his father, local kingpin Modestino Genovese.

The clan got wind that the lotto millions were on its turf within weeks of the announcement, and identified the winners, a group of factory workers and craftsmen in Ospedaletto d'Alpinolo near Avellino.

Gang members visited each of the 30 lotto winners and made menacing threats. One winner was told that his family would be bombed if he failed to hand over the protection money that was demanded, according to La Repubblica newspaper.

In April, within three months of the lotto win, the first extortion payment of €40,000 was made to the criminals. Italian police have revealed details of the scam this week, following an 18-month operation. They said yesterday that it was still unclear how much money other victims of the racket had handed over.

Police discovered the scam during an investigation into Mafia links with local businessmen, Avellino prosecutor Rosario Cantelmo said. But when they were contacted by police, the fearful victims showed little willingness to co-operate. Mr Cantelmo said the case clearly showed "how deep-rooted the Camorra is in local society and how it knows everything that goes on".

The crime syndicate is virtually a law unto itself in many of the more deprived parts of Naples and the surrounding region.

Mr Saviano said gambling and gaming was a major source of income for the crime group. He said many Camorra bosses were now running bingo halls to cream off the earnings of winners.

Mobsters from the 'Ndrangheta crime syndicate in the neighbouring region of Calabria, attempted a similar lotto scam on the winner of €8m in 2003.

Given the danger of suddenly coming into a large amount of money, most winners of big Italian lotteries choose to keep a low profile – sometimes they even pay off the ticket-sellers in order to remain anonymous and out of the clutches of mobsters and blackmailers.

Mr Cantelmo said the latest lotto extortion case would not have come to light without the wiretaps the police were running on the clan and local businesses – the sort of surveillance that could be outlawed under a controversial new bill that is due to go to the senate next week.

Camorra killings

September 2008 A Camorra gang shot dead six Africans at a tailor's shop in what was initially assumed to be a turf war over drugs, sparking race riots in Naples. The rioters, from the immigrant community, claimed that it was a racially motivated attack and had nothing to do with drugs.

June 2009 Young Camorra thugs on motorscooters shot dead a Romany busker for fun in order to "celebrate" the release of a local boss from prison. The victim staggered into an underground station where he bled to death.

October 2009 Prosecutors released a video of a Camorra hitman calmly shooting a 53-year-old victim with Mob links outside a bar in Naples in daylight with people around. Nobody came forward to say they were witnesses.

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