The deputy mayor of Venice, Gianfranco Bettin, hopped across the lagoon one evening last month to have dinner with his parents in the industrial suburb of Marghera. The meal finished early, and shortly after 8.30pm he got in his car to drive home. Suddenly, a young thug jumped up from the back seat, grabbed him by the neck and put a pistol to his temple. "Drive," he ordered in a thick southern Italian accent.
Mr Bettin drove to a remote wasteland, where he was ordered to stop and throw the car keys out of the window. A large black car pulled up behind. "Mr Mayor," said the young thug, tightening his grip around Mr Bettin's neck and cocking his pistol, "you should mind your own business."
With that, he pulled the trigger. For a second Mr Bettin thought he was dead, but in fact all he heard was a light click. He was terrified, but still alive. The thug snarled: "Next time the gun will be loaded." Then he got out of the car.
It could have been a scene from an American gangster movie. In Venice, it seemed utterly out of place. This is the miraculous lagoon city, the ultimate symbol of civilisation, a tourist mecca and capital of one of Italy's most prosperous regions; in Venice people aren't supposed to do things like that. And yet, as much of Italy has been shocked to learn, they do.
La Serenissima may be a jewel of western civilisation, but in the past few years it has also become an outpost of frenetic, and lucrative, Mafia activity. Money-laundering, drugs trafficking and illegal arms dealing are booming in the Venice region, and with them extortion, armed robbery, kidnapping and murder. Many rackets are in the hands of local gangs, but as prosecutors and politicians such as Deputy Mayor Bettin have discovered, the traditional Mafias of Sicily, Calabria and Naples are muscling in, too.
In the weeks leading up to his mock execution, Mr Bettin had been hot on the heels of a Neapolitan Mafia convict called Crescenzo Napolitano, who had taken full advantage of being assigned to live in Marghera - a sort of internal exile ordered by the courts - by plugging into the Venetian organised crime circuit and terrorising the community. The Sicilians are active in laundering money via casinos both in the Venice area and across the border in Slovenia. The Calabrians have established a network of hotels, restaurants and other tourist money-spinners - again, in the interests of recycling the illegal gains of drugs, arms and other major international rackets.
Take a gondola ride in Venice and you may be contributing directly to a Mafia money-laundering operation. Take up the gondolier's recommendation of a cosy restaurant and you may be helping the criminals further. Go to the municipal casino on the Grand Canal, and the chances are that your cashier will be a placeman for the Mob. It's not that the authorities are refusing to do anything about this; they are unable to keep up with it. No sooner is one batch of crooked casino cashiers arrested than another takes its place. Hotels and pizzerias, according to a report by the anti- Mafia investigator Giovanni Verdicchio, change owners "at an alarmingly high rate".
There are two reasons why the Venice region has become so attractive to organised crime. The first is the economic boom which began in the 1960s and has turned the area into one of the richest in Europe. Not only can the Mob count on a cut of the construction industry, muscle in on tourism, establish a lucrative prostitution racket and sell drugs to the children of the affluent middle classes, but it can also use the region's businesses and financial institutions to launder its gains from international narcotics and arms trade. According to General Verdicchio, the Mafia runs some 8,500 finance companies in the region, 500 in Venice.
The second reason is the lifting of the Iron Curtain and the opening of vast new criminal markets in eastern Europe. Yugoslavia is a stone's throw away. In a recent trial, it emerged Italian arms traders were phoning up the Slovenian police and arranging deliveries of arms by boat across the Adriatic with the same ease as ordering take-out pizza.
For years, the leader of the region's gangland activities was a charismatic rogue called Felice Maniero who was considered a folk hero for his audacious and unorthodox armed robberies. Nicknamed Angel Face for his boyish features, he once walked out of customs at Venice airport with 170 kg of gold. On another occasion, he persuaded the manager of the Hotel des Bains on the Lido to hand over pounds 2m worth of jewellery and cash belonging to the hotel guests.
His magic touch extended to jailbreaks - including one from a high security prison in Padua where he bribed the guards into looking the other way as a group of friends dressed up as carabinieri drove through the main gates to pick him up. And yet Maniero was a nasty piece of work, a self-confessed multiple murderer responsible for setting up the network of organised crime in the north-east and forging links with the southern Mafia bosses.
In 1992, the authorities set up a regional branch of their special anti- Mafia investigative force and two years later, Maniero and 101 others were sentenced to long jail terms. The collapse of Maniero's empire has left a vacuum at the top of the Venetian Mafia, but has not brought the criminal activity to an end. "The boss, his generals and colonels may have been neutralised but the rest are still hard at work," Gianfranco Bettin warned in the wake of his brush with death.
The mock execution shows that a power struggle for the Venetian rackets is in full swing, the results of which are likely to be dangerous and unpredictable. The attack on Mr Bettin could be just the beginning.
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