In Naples, citizens and merchants fight organized crime by first conquering the fear of speaking out

Citizens of Naples are hitting back at Italy's organized crime. Almost spontaneously, they are protesting the crime rings that once harmlessly smuggled cigarettes into the gracious old port city but have spread their tentacles into almost every facet of Neapolitan life with a violence reminiscent of Chicago in the 1930s.

The result is a wave of popular resistance never before seen in a Mafia stronghold.

''We can't go on like this anymore, being a cemetery for this industry of death,'' said Roman Catholic Bishop Antonio Riboldi of Scerra, a suburb of Naples. ''By accepting this violence, we all become victims.''

The sheer numbers and the spontaneity of the resistance have surprised Bishop Riboldi, who in 25 years in Sicily and Naples has not seen such outspoken anti-Mafia sentiment. ''It is a very important and historic phenomenon that people are daring to speak out. Conquering fear is the first step toward fighting the Camorra,'' he said.

The unprecedented movement began three months ago, when 5,000 high school students courageously chanting ''liberta'' marched to the home of Don Raffaele Cutolo, the most feared leader of the Camorra, as Naples's Mafia is called. Since then Neapolitans have held hundreds of public meetings and demonstrations against the Camorra.

Recently, merchants and artisans closed the city down for two days to protest the extortion racket run by the Camorra. And last week, an estimated 100,000 students, workers, shopkeepers, and churchmen from all over Italy marched in Naples to demand a government crackdown on organized crime.

In characteristic fashion, the Camorra is fighting back - with more intimidation. One school principal was told by a custodian that if a meeting scheduled last month about the Camorra and drugs were held, the principal's ''head would be busted in'' and children would be hurt. The meeting was moved to a nearby school. A fabric store owner who was ordered to make a $300,000 protection payment was shot and his wife wounded last month after reporting the extortion attempt to police.

The statistics are alarming: Of 265 violent deaths recorded in Naples last year, police say 183 of them were directly related to the Camorra. Three beheadings and a number of other ritual executions indicated a number of vendettas between rival clans and death sentences meted out by the Camorra's court of justice.

Extortion is the crime that affects most Neapolitans, however. Owners of construction businesses are coerced into putting on the payroll the names of people whose faces they see only on payday. Unemployed workers pay off the mobsters to get jobs, and tenants pay ''commissions'' for the privilege of renting an apartment.

Shopkeepers are threatened that they or their families will be harmed unless protection money is paid. They are normally too frightened to go to the police. Electrical appliance salesman Cosimo Esposito was approached three months ago by two young men. They asked for $250,000 in 10 installments to be paid every 40 days. A picture of his wife was sent in the mail to further convince Esposito to cooperate. ''I would rather pay than be a widower,'' he said. ''The police can't protect me enough from that.''

A recent survey by the shopkeepers association of its 54,000 members revealed 90 percent of the shopwners in downtown Naples pay extortionists. In addition to the Camorra, autonomous local bands have also discovered extortion pays. '

''We're fed up,'' said a weary merchant. ''It's like taxes. You pay one and then another comes along.'' A burned-down cinema house, destroyed ice cream parlor, and smashed storefront are poignant reminders for those who are tempted not to pay.

Police superintendent Riccardo Boccia says little can be done unless the merchants inform the authorities. Last year, only 347 complaints were registered with police.

In order to encourage complaints, Boccia has asked the interior ministry for at least a thousand more reinforcements to beef up police presence. But the number of police in Italy is fixed by law and it will take an act of Parliament to add extra men.

Boccia is heartened, however, by the protests. ''It's the first time that Naples has witnessed such solidarity,'' he says. Merchant association leaders says that since the two-day shutdown, police have received two to three reports of extortion a day.

Many Neapolitans doubt, however, the popular protests will change anything. ''The Camorra is too big, and too deeply entrenched, and there is a lot at stake ,'' said a taxi driver. By some unofficial police estimates, the Camorra's annual revenue is as much as $10 billion, derived from both illegal activities such as drug trafficking, stolen car rings, and extortion, and legitimate investments such as construction and trucking companies, canning factories, and sports teams.

Police claim to have so far arrested 2,000 of the 5,000 full-fledged gangsters they believe comprise the Camorra. But another 100,000 men at arms are also linked to the Camorra bosses.

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