With the G-7 spotlight about to click on, Naples hastens to shed its murky past

A new, reformist city administration is striving to root out corruption, break the age-old grip of organized crime, and make the city more livable

WHEN United States President Clinton arrives here July 7 for the Group of Seven economic summit, he will discover that Naples is trying hard to revive after decades of mismanagement and neglect.

And yet, even under a new city government, Naples remains Naples - chaotic, noisy, sprawling, overcrowded, suspicious of non-Neapolitans, burdened with high unemployment, tight in the grip of organized crime.

``Naples is an anarchic city,'' admits Cesare Amodio, a lawyer, as he stands in front of City Hall, where workers are laying new asphalt in advance of the G-7 summit.

Mayor Antonio Bassolino, who will welcome the leaders of the world's seven most industrialized nations to Naples for the July 8-10 meeting, has worked hard to end the city government's corruption and to make Naples more livable, by closing parts of the city to traffic, for instance.

The mayor, who took office late last year, has a thankless job. He inherits a 2 trillion lira ($1.3 billion) debt and a financially strapped city bureaucracy.

When Mr. Bassolino and his left-wing government came to power, he found neither a computer nor a typewriter in his office.

Recently Ada Becchi Collidia, the deputy mayor, sent a message to Bassolino, concluding, ``I'll stop here and tell you the rest personally, because we've run out of paper.''

Up to now, the mayor and his eight city assessors have worked without pay, though he says he hopes this situation will not continue indefinitely.

``The new administration enjoys a public recognition of moral correctness. That is, the people know it works for the citizens and not for its own economic interests,'' says Mirella Barracco, a leading cultural figure here.

It was not this way before, says Paolo Macry, a professor of contemporary history at the University of Naples.

Until about two years ago, he explains, the city was controlled by three ``viceroys,'' as they were dubbed: Paolo Cirino Pomicino, Giulio Di Donato, and Francesco De Lorenzo.

These superpowerful politicians decided the city's fate for many years, making critical economic decisions and, through their influence in Rome, funneling billions of dollars of state funds to Naples for public works projects.

The kickback and corruption scandal that began in 1992, known as Tangetopoli, ended their reign. Italy's investigating magistrates allege that:

* Mr. Pomicino, the former Italian budget minister, helped award public works contracts to companies connected with the Camorra, the local organized crime group. He has not been arrested and owns a 14-room Neapolitan penthouse.

* Mr. Di Donato received kickbacks for construction projects in the Italia 90 World Cup soccer championship. He is in jail.

* Mr. De Lorenzo, the former Italian health minister, took hundreds of millions of dollars in kickbacks and other gifts from pharmaceutical companies. He is in jail.

The authorities also allege that all three exchanged jobs for votes.

``The records of the Gulf [of Naples] Tangentopoli bring to light the mechanism of bad politics: jobs for votes, spoils-system hiring, a frenzy of kickbacks. The public administration reduced to the mere acquisition of money and power. Nothing else,'' writes journalist Giovanni Marino in his book ``Bella e Mala Napoli.''

``In Milan and elsewhere in central and northern Italy, the efficiency of public services is much higher than in Naples, precisely because throughout central and northern Italy the political parties didn't have to win consensus in this way, because they had a much more solid history behind them,'' says Professor Macry.

Macry's hilltop apartment offers a splendid view of Vesuvius, the Bay of Naples, and the hodgepodge of densely packed buildings in the city below. He gestures sadly at this panorama.

``There were no controls of any kind. There wasn't a regulatory plan. There were no building regulations and those that existed were violated,'' he says.

``Probably Naples must in some way be radically rethought as a city. I'm aware that today it's difficult to think of demolishing buildings, but in Naples there's a population density that's absolutely irreconcilable with a civil standard of living. That's how it is. Someone says to me, `What do you want to do?' I don't know, but we've got to do something, because the problem exists,'' he says.

Another serious problem is unemployment.

Perhaps 1 in 4 Neapolitans is jobless, though such official figures can be misleading, Macry says. They don't take into account the city's immense black-market labor force or the thousands who work for the Camorra.

Crime is so pervasive here that Judge Agostino Cordova, the city's leading magistrate, recently called Naples the Italian capital of crime and warned there were not enough judges to keep up with the cases now before the courts.

The first thing that city assessor Amato Lamberti did on taking office in the Bassolino administration was to create an anti-Camorra council to study how far organized crime had penetrated the city's economy and to increase businesses' awareness of the problem.

Even after successful law-enforcement operations against organized crime, there are still 30 to 35 clans in Naples, which each have their own annual budgets of hundreds of millions of dollars a year, Mr. Lamberti says.

The gang members start with drug trafficking, contraband cigarettes, and illegal gambling, then launder their dirty money by investing in slaughterhouses, supermarkets, bars, restaurants, discotheques, and real estate. Finally they move into city cleaning, cement manufacture, and building companies.

Because criminal activity was so widespread, Neapolitans generally lost their appreciation for the state, which itself had become corrupt under the rule of political hacks.

Dealing with the Camorra is therefore not a question of more police and more arrests, says Mr. Lamberti, but of a city government involved in society and offering hope for honest work.

His aspirations are summed up in his job title, ``assessor for normality.'' He deals with industry, commerce, small businesses, environment, hygiene, health, parks, and gardens.

``They're all sectors strongly polluted by the Camorra presence, and so we came up with this name,'' he says with a smile.

Naples has begun to change, as church workers and volunteers in a variety of private associations have pressed people to think more deeply about the devastating effects of tolerating organized crime. And City Hall has had some success, too, says Lamberti.

``Today, the people who find themselves in serious trouble turn to the government, when before they turned to the Camorra. They're not happy with the partial responses that the Camorra was able to offer them.... For example, it didn't give them security, civil rights, dignity,'' he says.

``People are changing their behavior toward the institutions,'' agrees Police Chief Ciro Lomastro, who has also worked in Messina and Bologna. ``People are discovering there are those who want to do something positive for this city.''

Mr. Lomastro is busy. On June 23, 160 Naples street cleaners were arrested on charges of taking their salaries without going to work. But even handbag snatchers have his attention.

``If we stop these people in their first acts, certainly we will reduce the number that join up with organized crime,'' he says.

``But it's necessary to occupy the space vacated by illegality with the same amount of legality. It's necessary to do it forcefully, with great vigor. The Neapolitans are a people that need to believe in something.''

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