Peter Popham: Out of Italy

In a small village in the badlands of southern Italy, the Mafia feud that led to the murders of six Calabrians in Germany last week is far from over

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They flooded the village with police, set up roadblocks everywhere, ransacked the houses of known and suspected gang members and made pious announcements to the press: after the acute national embarrassment of the Assumption Day Massacre, six Calabrians cut down by other Calabrians in the heart of Germany, they could do no less. No one imagined it would do any good, but the motions had to be gone through, the charades of law and order and the functioning state enacted.

It will do no good because the protagonists of the feud of the village of San Luca are not in a hurry. They know how to wait, and they are willing to wait for ages. The feud began in 1991; until Duisburg it had taken nine lives in 16 years, barely one killing every two years.

The police and the machinery of justice are even more ponderous and irrelevant in San Luca than in the rest of Italy. The man the killers of Duisburg were after was a 25-year-old gang member called Marco Marmo. They wanted to get him because they believed he had killed the last victim of the feud, Maria Strangio, 33, shot on her doorstep last Christmas.

The police also suspected him, but in eight months of sleuthing they had only got as far as putting him on the list of those to be investigated. No arrest, no charges, just the advice that at some point they might have to ask him some questions. Oh yes, and a couple of days before he and his five friends were shot dead, the police in San Luca took him to one side and warned him that they had reason to believe another 'Ndrangheta clan was aiming to get him.

In the badlands of southern Italy, the police are bystanders to the mafia wars, at best. They count the bodies, make chalk-marks at the crime scene, write their reports. And the gangs, in their blessed impunity, bide their time. Maria Strangio was murdered on Christmas Eve. There was a sort of brutally childish, sadistic calculation in the choice of date: that way it will always be remembered as La Strage di Natale, the Christmas Massacre, and the family's holiday will be ruined into the bargain. Their enemies paid them back in kind on Assumption Day, Ferr'agosto, the biggest holiday of the Italian summer: another holiday sluiced in blood, another feast-day six families will never again be able to mark without bitter memories.

That's how you eke out a vendetta over the years: few deaths, but well-chosen and nicely timed, pulled off with aplomb, even with a gruesome sort of imagination. Maria Strangio's gangster husband had just got out of jail when she was killed. Murdering her like that, on her doorstep, Christmas round the corner, her husband fresh out of jail – that was really twisting the knife. No wonder her people got their own back, in spades, using Uzi automatic pistols, making a thorough job of it.

The Mafia are tremendously good at waiting: no politician or magistrate or policeman can outlast them. That is what explains the uncanny sullen mood in the gangster-haunted villages and towns of southern Italy: a population, "the living dead" as someone in San Luca said last week, waiting and waiting in the grim knowledge that in the fullness of time the evil will arrive. "The Casalesi come late, but they never forget," the only turncoat ever to grass on the Camorra, the Mafia of Naples, told his questioners. He was explaining why 11 years had elapsed between his boss passing sentence of death on one particular enemy, and the sentence being carried out. Eleven years in which to lull suspicions, grind the law into the ground with boredom and frustration, wait with the patience of a cat for the moment when all the planets will be correctly aligned, the alarms deactivated.

The waiting, the capacity to wait, is in itself a way of twisting the knife. Italy's best-selling writer on the Camorra, Roberto Saviano, is going through that hell now. The author of Gomorrah, the first book to tell the story of the Naples gangs from the inside, has been sentenced to death by them for spilling their secrets.

The state has given him bodyguards and has banned him from returning to Naples, because it's too dangerous. But Saviano knows that a sudden blitz on a busy Naples street with his bodyguards all around him is the least likely thing to happen. Like the boss of the Casalesi, his enemies will bide their time until the state informs him that funds for this level of protection are no longer available, or that they believe the threat has gone away. Saviano, unable to return home, forced to move house all the time, is in limbo, which is where the Mafia sends you before they kill you, sometimes for many years.

There is a mood of bitter chagrin in Italy in the wake of the Duisburg killings. It makes it very much worse that it happened abroad. In San Luca, it would have been a run-of-the-mill southern bloodbath, forgotten in days. Perpetrated in the heart of Germany, it became that most unwelcome thing, a brutta figura, a bad show for the whole country.

Yet I think the change of mood is salutary. Governments of both left and right in Italy have got away with doing little concrete about the Mafia for half a century or more. The spectacular murders of the magistrates Falcone and Borsellino in 1992 prompted the first serious attempt by the Italian state to break the Sicilian Mafia permanently and bring its leaders to justice. It nearly succeeded; it certainly choked off the violence and sent the brutal chiefs to jail. The state proved to itself and the population that when the chips were down, it was capable of firm action.

But in 15 years of complicity and complacency, all that good has been undone. Silvio Berlusconi's links to the Mafia have never been proved in court, but many of his policies in government, from decriminalising false accounting to the amnesty on illegal building, could have been drafted by Cosa Nostra. His centre-left successor, Romano Prodi, appointed a Minister of Justice, Clemente Mastella, who was best man at the wedding of a man linked to the Mafia; despite the murder of the vice-president of Calabria outside a polling booth in 2005, his weak administration has shown no sign of being willing to come down hard on the gangs. And a nod is as good as a wink in the heart of Calabria.

Billboards across Italy were recently plastered with an advertising campaign shot by Oliviero Toscani, the photographer of Benetton's famous campaigns of the 1990s: a group of wholesome, healthy-looking young people beaming out, declaring ironically: "Uncivilised? Yes, we are Calabrians. Peasants? Yes, we are Calabrians. Lowlifes? Yes, we are Calabrians."

The regional government sought to transform Calabria's image with the campaign. But the Assumption Day Massacre is a reminder to Italy that some things are beyond the reach of image management.

And that "the problem of the south", that hardy perennial of Italian politics, may have emigrated, but it has not disappeared.

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