Naples in Panic Over Mob Violence

Security forces toting submachine guns storm a crumbling housing project, running past shattered windows and graffiti-smeared walls. When they reach a suspected mobsters' barricade, a firefighter revs up a chain saw, sending up a cloud of orange sparks as he slices through the metal bars.

It's just another raid in Naples (search), Italy's most rough-and-tumble city. A mob turf war that has claimed more than 20 lives in the last month in the Naples area has terrified the city, prompting police to launch an emergency security clampdown.

Even in a city with a long history of organized crime, police say they have been shocked to see killings so brazen and so gruesome. The killers have left behind charred or bullet-ridden bodies. Uncharacteristically, they have opened fire in public places, including a pizzeria.

After six murders in 48 hours over a late November weekend, Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu dispatched 325 extra police to Naples, pledging to respond to violence "blow for blow."

During the Nov. 17 raid in the violence-scarred Scampia neighborhood, residents looked on, almost blase, as police rummaged through a patio and a car, and even dug up flower pots. Many just seemed resigned to the latest disruption in their lives.

"This is life in Naples," said Anna Capuano, a mother of two who wore a tight-fitting orange T-shirt studded with rhinestones that spelled out "Beautiful Life."

Mobsters killing mobsters is nothing new in Naples. The city's fractious organized crime gangs — collectively known as the Camorra (search) — can be traced back centuries and they periodically collide with savage ferocity. In the 1980s, a Camorra turf war claimed 700 lives before calm returned.

So far, 87 people have been killed in Camorra-related violence this year in the Naples area, compared to 68 last year. But officials say it isn't just the number of deaths that has stoked fears. Gangs generally prefer to carry out score-settling in secluded areas, but some of the recent killings have been in plain view.

On Nov. 12, a man was gunned down in a popular pizzeria filled with diners. A crime-scene photo showed his head slumped into his pizza, a pool of blood under his chair and a Virgin Mary icon on the wall.

In another case, gunmen fired at a group of teens and young men who had been playing table football, killing a 25-year-old and injuring five others. Other shootings took place at a tobacconist's and an auto repair shop.

"There's a much greater impact on people's feeling of danger than if these were executions in a deserted area," Maria Fortuna Incostante, the top security official in the region that includes Naples, said in an interview.

The memory of 14-year-old Annalisa Durante is still painful here: She was caught in the crossfire outside her apartment and killed in March. At her funeral, a crowd followed her hearse through the city, carrying her photo and white flowers.

The killings have been concentrated in troubled neighborhoods like Scampia, with its weed-infested streets and high-rise blocks of cracked concrete. It's a place where drug dealers await clients in vacant lots, and young boys stroll the streets brandishing air guns that can be modified to shoot real bullets.

The recent operation in Scampia yielded no arrests. But in another raid in the neighborhood about a week later, police stormed into a meeting of gangsters, finding a cache of weapons and taking seven people into custody.

Most of the people killed in the recent wave of killings were likely involved with the mob, police say.

Investigators believe the newest wave of violence stems from a power struggle within the Di Lauro clan — one subgroup of the many-tentacled Camorra, which is involved in everything from weapons trafficking to extortion rackets to construction.

Because Camorra clans are less family-based than the Sicilian Mafia, they are more volatile and harder to trace. New groups regularly pop up, gain strength, then quickly fade out.

With fewer family ties, gangs need more young recruits to perpetuate themselves. Often people get wrapped up in crime when they are still teenagers, frustrated by the lack of other prospects.

Unemployment in Naples is 25 percent, and much higher among the young and in neighborhoods like Scampia, where it hovers around 50 percent.

Then there's the centuries-old problem of "omerta," or secrecy. Many people are simply scared into silence.

That's why one woman from the Naples area was hailed as a hero recently for simply going to court to denounce the people she claims burned down her shop when she refused to cave in to extortion.

To the outside world, Silvana Fucito's court case may seem banal. In Naples, it was a breakthrough. Supporters went to court in a bus to cheer her on.

Fucito insists her gesture wasn't heroic: "My children and the children of all Neapolitans should be able to live in a normal city, and shouldn't be forced to leave."