Italy's war with mob escalates after murder spree near Naples
Military sent to help battle crime syndicates
CASAL DI PRINCIPE, Italy - The paratroopers' armored vehicles had barely taken up position in this fiefdom of the Casalesi crime clan when the mobsters decided to show who was boss.
On a sleepy Sunday, a few hundred yards from where the crack Thunderbolt brigade was deployed with automatic rifles, two gunmen drove down the town's main street and pumped bullets into a 60-year-old man at a table just inside the entrance of a card parlor.
The murder of an uncle of a crime syndicate turncoat left blood oozing across the stone sidewalk and a collective silence by potential witnesses among fellow card players, prompting a wry comment that the victim must have been playing solitaire.
After dealing blows that left Sicily's Cosa Nostra reeling and making inroads against Calabria's potent 'ndrangheta syndicate, Italy's new war against organized crime is challenging the Camorra, after the mob carried out a brutal, monthslong murder spree that included gunning down six Ghanaian immigrants in one swoop. Camorra is the Naples regional mafia depicted in "Gomorra," a film just released in the United States.
In recent months, the government has sent 3,000 soldiers into other cities across Italy to help battle crime syndicates. Now it has poured 500 soldiers and 400 police investigators into the region northwest of Naples, with most patrolling the flat, bleak, provincial countryside that is under the sway of the Casalesi, so named for its stronghold here in the town of Casal di Principe.
The deployment is set to last until December and could be extended if violence persists.
Using the military against criminals is not new - it has been done in Naples and Sicily - but the theory still stands that sending in troops can free up local police who know the territory to intensify the search for clues and suspects.
However, as shown by the brazen murder of the card player on Oct. 5, the Camorra is proving a fiercely tenacious enemy.
"They are not in decline. They are very strong economically," said magistrate Franco Roberti, who heads a team of antimob prosecutors in Naples.
The Camorra runs lucrative rackets ranging from numbers games to horse race betting, drugs, and smuggling immigrants. The Casalesi are also involved in illegal transport and disposal of tons of toxic waste from the industrial north to the underdeveloped south, according to a report by a parliamentary anti-Mafia commission.
But the Camorra, and in particular the Casalesi, thrive mainly on extorting "protection" money from a terrorized citizenry.
"You kill one to teach a lesson to 100," is how Rodolfo Ruperti, a police official in the provincial capital of Caserta, describes the thinking behind a murder spree blamed on the Casalesi, which has claimed at least 18 lives since spring.
Victims have included relatives of turncoats, a few rare businessmen who dared refuse extortion demands, and, last month, six immigrants in the nearby town of Castel Volturno.
Investigators described the massacre of the Africans as an intimidating show of firepower, possibly meant to signal Nigerian drug traffickers to stop operating in Casalesi territory. The attackers sprayed a hail of bullets at the immigrants chatting outside a social club.
Ruperti said in an interview that investigators believe the driving force behind the orgy of bloodshed is Giuseppe Setola, a sharp-shooting fugitive mobster who was sentenced to life imprisonment for murder in the past.
A manhunt is on for Setola, who escaped in spring from house arrest, granted so he could recover from an eye problem. Setola is believed to have carried out some of the recent killings himself.
Paramilitary police last month unearthed a cache of weapons, including a Kalashnikov, buried in a basement in Castel Volturno. The arms are believed to be part of the arsenal used by Setola and his men.
The arrests of Camorra suspects have dealt a severe blow to the syndicate, but it keeps finding ways to renew itself. Potential mobsters are tempted by the mob's quick money in bleak towns like Casal di Principe.
One job is shaking down businessmen like Pietro Russo, who squinted in the sunlight as he walked among charred ruins of his mattress factory in the town of Santa Maria Capua Vetere.
Russo rebelled in 2004 against the Casalesi extortion gangs, wearing a police wire to negotiations with his extortionists. This year, the mob got its revenge, burning down his business.
His cooperation with the police led to the arrests of Casalesi clan members. But he has yet to rebuild his business, and he and his family live under the strain of a constant police escort.
Russo, 42, heads a fledgling association of about a dozen businessmen daring to defy the Camorra. But so far, the Casalesi haven't suffered the far wider rebellion like the one that has hurt Cosa Nostra in recent years.