By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus
Over the past decades the camorra has grown from a local phenomenon to spreading its tentacles beyond its Neapolitan origins. This progression was due in large part by one central figure, Raffaele Cutolo, through his charisma in recruiting affiliates to his side and in his role as capocamorra of La nuova camorra organizzata. This new organized camorra has extended its influence throughout Italy and abroad.
By the 1970s the "old camorra" was becoming outdated. It was a product of the so-called "rural camorra," which dealt in contraband cigarettes and extortion schemes in the Neapolitan fruit market.
The man behind the development of the La nuova camorra organizzata (NCO), the New Organized Camorra, was Raffaele Cutolo (Don Raffaele), also known as Il Professore, because of his intellectual air, his spectacles, conservative dress and outwardly mild manner. But his appearance belied his true nature. Don Raffaele was brilliant at organizing a criminal combine and ruthless in his ambition to get to the top and criminally exploit the many opportunities of the emerging global economy.
The Professor represented both the face of the new camorra and the linkage between the nineteenth century leaders of the Bella Società Riformata, who were the first to take Neapolitan criminality from merely opportunistic endeavors to a more systematic and orderly approach to the amassing of illicit gains.
Raffaele Cutolo was a native of Ottaviano, a town of 20,000 inhabitants nestled in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, east of Naples. His career, so to speak, began early. At 22 he killed a man who was so bold as to show interest in his sister. Sentenced to life imprisonment, which was later reduced to 24 years, Cutolo served eight years, from 1963 to 1970.
As a boy, Don Raffaele was significantly influenced by the local fruit growing industry, which had been penetrated by local camorristi. He was witness to the violence, the daily threats, the inflated prices, and the sad reality of the long-term exploitation and poverty of the small growers, who were under the thumbs of the wealthy and influential large landowners. That experience forged Cutolo’s character and his outlook on life. To the Don, the world was a cruel and unforgiving place where force could only be met by force and where the weak had to give way to the strong.
Cutolo learned quickly the importance of the prison experience in the formation of the criminal mentality. Prison did not reform; rather, it took the common delinquent and turned him into a bitter and revengeful person. Don Raffaele helped the process of criminalization of the young inmates. They could confide in him. He generously loaned out money, got them legal assistance, wrote letters home to loved ones for the illiterates. To gain even more respect and loyalty from the detainees, he challenged the infamous camorrista Antonio Spavone to a duel in the prison courtyard. Spavone declined and Cutolo’s standing among the inmates rose to where men sought his camaraderie and were willing to follow his commands.
The recruitment of new camorristi took place behind the walls of the Poggioreale prison in Naples. The informer Gaetano Orlando described the process to the authorities: "The recent arrivals in the prison were approached by the older camorristi. They would take the young men in hand and describe to them their criminal life. They sought to instruct them on the art of theft and how to became duri [tough guys]. They would be asked if they had a lawyer. If not, they would be given one. If the potential recruits were considered intelligent, not dolts, and had the mettle, maintenance money would be sent to their families at home. The attempt was to draw them into their inner circle, to make life in prison more bearable and to demonstrate through charity and advice that camorristi were true friends with a heart. Once the recruits were released to the streets, they were ready to affiliate and to give their all to honor the camorra cause."
Il Professore advanced in his project by becoming a student of the history of the Neapolitan camorra. He studied how the camorra of the 1800s was organized and centralized. He understood well the psychology and the emotional needs of the numerous desperate boys, without futures, from the poor neighborhoods of Naples and the rural provinces, who were looking to improve their chances. Cutolo himself had been a witness of the culture of poverty as the son of a struggling farmer. Those early years had been difficult and the resulting bitterness dug deep into his soul.
The NCO has its conception inside the prisons. Between 1978 and 1979 were the crucial years when Cutolo was free from confinement. It was then that he put his imprint on the centralized regional camorra. The Don wanted to be recognized as the capo of the camorra. His ambition included being the point of reference of the Sicilian and Calabrian gangs as well as the American La Cosa Nostra. Cutolo sought to extend his affairs beyond the small operations that yielded modest sums to the much more lucrative extortions of businesses and the penetration of construction companies. Under his inspirational leadership, the camorra was to develop into a sophisticated and respected criminal enterprise.
Hundreds of young men were employed as enforcers. No pity was given. He who was not a friend was eliminated. Homicide became the principle instrument of the affirmation of the new camorrista power. The remnants of the "old camorra" were destroyed. The NCO reached beyond Naples by forming alliances with other criminal associations, and becoming more than fair competition for the once highly vaunted Sicilian mafia. The NCO raised its aim even higher by arrogantly shooting agents, journalists, lawyers, as the camorristi sought to out mafia the mafiosi in Sicily, who were showing the same brashness and contempt for law and order. As noted by investigators of the new generation of camorristi, "It has become evident that the NCO has taken on obvious mafioso characteristics, showing a capacity to insert itself into the social fabric of the society. The expansion of the NCO finds fertile soil especially where State power is the weakest."
The NCO sought alliances in the regions of Lombardia and Puglia, as it had with the mafia and the ‘ndrangheta. Cutolo enjoyed good relationships with the American capos. He had contacts with Francis Turatello, the leader of the Milan underworld, who was famous for brushing his teeth every morning with champagne. The Professor traveled to the United States, under the false name of Prisco Califano, where he conferred with Boss Carlo Gambino. The Americans, it was said, saw Cutolo as the right man for the task of coordinating the international traffic of narcotics. The Sicilian mafia was an embattled entity, under severe scrutiny of the authorities; the Americans did not consider the Milan gangsters trustworthy. Cutolo became the capocamorra, recognized as such by Don Gambino, in New York, as they broke bread over plates of steaming vermicelli.
The rapid growth of a centralized and internationalized camorra enterprise took the authorities by surprise. They were looking the other way. For them, the moral threat was and had been since the 1860s the Sicilian mafia. In 1962, the First Antimafia Commission ignored the camorra as if it did not exist, or was at best a mildly irritating collection of small, local clans that controlled their own designated territories. By 1982, the Antimafia Commission, for the first time, announced that the camorra was also a major criminal threat. This lack of attention by the State explains why the Americans chose Naples as the major transit point for their drug business in hopes of remaining undetected.
Once detected, the Antimafia Commission had this to say: "Naples has become one of the most important points f or the marketing of drugs that are then shipped to the United States and Canada. Naples serves also as the point of arrival of cocaine from Peru, which is then directed to North Italy and Central Europe."
Don Cutolo spent more years locked up than on the outside. After some twenty-three years of confinement, the press interviewed him. To get a measure of the man, here are a few of his responses to questions posed.
"I don’t regret anything about my life. Crime is always a wrong move. It’s true. However, we live in a society that is worse than criminality. …Better to be crazy than to be a dreamer. A crazy man can be returned to reason. For a dreamer, he can only lose his head. …A camorrista must be humble, wise and always ready to bring joy where there is pain. Only thus will he become a good camorrista before God. …I am far from being a saint. I’ve made people cry, and I’ve done harm to those who wanted to harm me, making me cry. …A camorrista is one who declares himself by his life style. …He who errors dies."
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