Poinsettia shakedown: Italian mafia makes shop owners offer they can't refuse

Four alleged mobsters in Naples were arrested Monday for forcing shop owners to buy Christmas poinsettias at 100 times the wholesale price. The funds were allegedly for jailed Camorra mafia

Would you pay $140 for this? In Naples, that's the price allegedly demanded by the Italian mafia.

Italian finance police on Monday arrested four alleged mobsters for forcing shop owners in Naples to buy Christmas poinsettia plants at more than 100 times their wholesale price to raise money for jailed clan members.

For the past three Christmas seasons, the four mobsters forced business owners to buy the primarily bright-red leaved plant for as much as 100 euros ($140) each to raise funds for the families and legal fees of jailed clan members, the police said.

"It wasn't someone dressed like Santa Claus tapping on the doors of shop owners and businesses (in central Naples)... Instead there were four emissaries of the Mazzarella clan," police said.

The business owners were intimidated and their businesses were vandalized if they refused to buy the Christmassy offerings. The Naples-based Camorra mafia members are accused of extortion, burglary and being members of an organized crime group.

The battle between business owners and the Camorra mafia has been going on for decades. In 1983, The Christian Science Monitor reported that citizens had taken to the streets in protest.

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.

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.

In 1985, Italy held a mass trial was held for some 640 alleged members of the Neapolitan branch of the Mafia.

In 2004, after the fatal shooting of a teenage girl, a similar rebellion against the Camorra mafia occurred, including a local priest. 

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."

( Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)

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