Neapolitans take stand against Mafia turf war

Thirty people have been killed in Naples, Italy, in the past two months, including two on Monday.

Christmas might be just a few days away, but here in Forcella, a neighborhood in the heart of old Naples, you'd hardly know. There are no decorations festooned across these dark, decaying alleyways - just the usual strings of drying jeans and underwear.

That's not because the locals have lost their faith. Far from it. They are among Italy's humblest and most devout Catholics. But nobody here is celebrating; the entire street is still in mourning.

Nine months ago, on a balmy spring evening, 14 year-old Annalisa Durante was chatting with friends outside her front door, ignoring her mother's calls that dinner was ready.

A minute later, she was grabbed and used as a human shield by a local drug pusher being pursued and shot at by a rival on a moped. A bullet killed her instantly; the gangsters disappeared.

Caught in the crossfire

Annalisa is just one of many innocent Neapolitans caught in the line of fire between members of the local version of the Mafia, the Camorra. In the past two months, more than 30 people have been killed in the bloodiest criminal turf war to rock this city in years.

Authorities are taking aggressive action - more than 1,000 paramilitary police have been brought in and dozens of suspected clan members have been arrested - but the killings have not stopped. Two locals were shot Monday.

The splurge in violence has led some to refer to Naples as the Wild West of Italy.

And yet, as if reviving the citizens' justice of countless Westerns, a small group of Neapolitans are beginning to stand up to the lawlessness.

In Forcella, where the bullet marks that killed Annalisa still scar the shutters of a closed shop, the Durante family is not prepared to let their Camorra neighbors win control of the streets.

"They have destroyed us. But we will not leave," says Carmela Durante, An- nalisa's mother, dressed in black after her daily visit to her daughter's grave. "We were born here. If we leave we will be letting the criminals win."

Mrs. Durante does not want revenge. "I just want justice so that these people learn that they cannot get away with this any more," she says.

Her husband, Giovanni, is hoping that Annalisa's alleged killer, from a family who live a few streets away, will stay in jail for life. But Mr. Durante is aware that he could be free again in just a few years.

"As long as the criminals know they won't be locked up for long, there's nothing to stop them," he says, gazing at the boarded-up cinema further along the street. "They ought to build a big prison and throw all the lowlife inside. Everyone knows who they are."

Taking a stand

At San Giorgio ai Mannesi, the young local priest, Don Luigi Merola, is determined to change Forcella.

He supervises an after-school club to help students keep up with their homework. He has won government support to revamp the neighborhood school, now named after Annalisa.

Above all, Father Luigi is pushing his flock to break the "omertà," or code of silence, and report the criminals in their midst to the police. He set an example earlier this year by giving the names of 25 local Camorristi to the police.

The men are now all in jail. But as a consequence, the priest has to say mass, run after-school clubs, and make hospital visits with a 24-hour armed police escort.

"Priests aren't supposed to do that sort of thing," he says between cellphone calls from his church office. "Priests are supposed to know about everyone's sins and be trusted to keep them secret. But I have no patience for these criminals."

Until the 19th century, Naples was one of Europe's largest and richest cities, filled with lavish palaces for the royalty of the Kingdom of Naples, which stretched across the whole of southern Italy.

But Italian unification and industrialization ended the city's glory years, and in recent decades the Camorra has tightened its grip on the city, strangling every possible sector from waste collection to construction to breadmaking and stereo equipment.

Today, Naples and the Campania region have the highest unemployment and birth rates in Italy.

In the most rundown housing estates on the outskirts of the city, such as Scampia and Secondigliano, more than half the population is out of work. Drug trafficking is the only thriving job market.

Successful Camorra bosses can pocket up to 8,000 euros ($10,697 dollars) a month and their paid killers make more than a factory worker who struggles to feed his family on his 750-euro paycheck.

Eurispes, a think tank based in Rome, reports that Italy's organized-crime groups will take in as much as $160 billion this year, about 10 percent of the country's GDP.

"I remember how this place was buzzing when I was a little boy," says Giovanni. "Now it shuts down at night as if there were a curfew. The children are afraid as well as sad. But we have to turn that round."

Father Luigi is trying. He is working to provide jobs for the parents, selling "made in Forcella" products as symbols of resistance in these violent streets.

"We can keep arresting these people. But others will always take their place. As long as we don''t create jobs in this area, the Camorra will thrive," says Naples police chief Antonio de Jesu.

Several neighbors of the Durante family cooperated with the police in outrage at the death of Annalisa. The area is now heavily patrolled by police, some in plain clothes, and the criminals are lying low.

"It's time to break the climate of fear," says the priest. "And I think, people here are finally waking up to that. They are realizing things won't change unless they take a stand."

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.