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March 2008
‘O Sistema:
In The Land Of The Camorra

By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus


Mike La Sorte is a professor emeritus (SUNY) and writes extensively on a variety of subjects.

* * *

"They elaborated their own code of justice—a code that, needless to say, made no reference to statute law or legal procedures." (James Fentress, Rebels & Mafiosi, 2000)

"Life or death, it’s all the same to me." (Camorrista saying)

     The region of Campania has 5.9 million inhabitants, with Naples as its largest city. The region has some 100 to 120 camorra clans, a total of 10,000 affiliates and 50,000 that are called by the Neapolitans cointeressenza—complicit persons. The illegal economy commits over 120,000 crimes annually. Estimates of ill-gotten profits exceed 28.45 million euros, the bulk coming from narcotraffic followed by ecomafia (waste disposal), construction contracts and prostitution. The Italian state has confiscated from criminals 2.5 billions euros worth of goods and property. Convictions of ‘O sistema clan members are commonplace. Presently many are serving prison terms and 4000 are under house arrest. Campania has had 2700 homicides the past two decades, the highest murder rate in Europe, the majority camorra-related.

     The Italian mafias are not of a piece, they differ in significant ways. The Sicilian Cosa Nostra is a complex of small clandestine associations (cosche) that impose control over certain economic spheres and exploit the weaknesses of the regional government. Unlike Cosa Nostra, each camorra clan, or ‘O sistema, acts on its own. Interclan alliances are rare and collaborations are more tactical then strategic. While the camorra engages in extended wars and Cosa Nostra is undergoing reorganization after a period of disarray and penetration, the ‘ndrangheta is growing in power and influence. The camorra has a horizontal structure. Much more flexible than its Sicilian cousin and much more permeable to new alliances than the Calabrian mafia, the Neapolitans create newly-formed clans and adopt new ventures.

     Long considered a minor mafia, camorra today controls entire sectors of the economy. It manipulates elections, has ruthlessly assassinated priests and union leaders, and intrudes into legitimate markets, such as the mozzarella di bufala cheeses and milk businesses as well as toxic material and refuse services, adding substantially to profits accumulated through the more traditional schemes. In Campania the line between legitimate and illegal enterprises is more often blurred; in some cases there is none.

     Many valiant persons at risk of life and limb have fought the lowlifes in the Neapolitan neighborhoods and the mob towns throughout Campania. One community hero was Don Peppino Diana, a priest in the clan stronghold of Casal di Principe, who was gunned down in his church in retaliation for his passionate anti-crime posture. He made public this statement, which in one form or another is typical of anti-camorra proponents. "The camorra is a form of terrorism that arouses fear and imposes its own laws in an attempt to become an endemic element of Campania society. Weapons in hand, the camorristi violently impose unacceptable rules: extortions that have turned the region into subsidized areas with no potential on their own for development; bribes of 20 percent or more on construction projects, which would discourage the most reckless businessman; illicit traffic in narcotics, who use creates gangs of marginalized youngsters and unskilled workers at the beck and call of criminal organizations; clashes among families that descent like a ruinous plague on the families of the region; negative examples for the entire teenage population, veritable laboratories of violence and organized crime." (Source: Roberto Saviano, Gomorrah, 2006)

     Clan members smile when they hear "camorra" as a reference to their thing. For them, the term is nonexistent, one of contempt, used by the likes of judges, journalists and script writers, a false generalization with no grounding in reality, a scholarly shortcut, one simply of convenience, best relegated to the past.

     ‘O sistema, "The system," (the current term for clan, an independent unit operating within a designated territory) is a true fraternity with a division of labor, each to his own task and level of responsibility. There is a military wing and those who do not engage in direct criminality. Those in positions of authority give orders, pay their "workers," take the bulk of the profits and operate businesses, directly or indirectly. (As one example, the Secondigliano system, powerful and much in the news, controls the entire clothing manufacturing chain.) There are others who engage at the margins of ‘O sistema. They recognize and obey the criminal code, earn material and economic benefits and direct camorristi to new business opportunities.

     Town governments are susceptible to clan infiltration to the extent that local political systems have become thoroughly comprised. In some instances corruption has been so rife that responsible and honest governing has been impossible. According to a recent finding, at least 83 town councils have sitting camorristi. The report states that the "situation is unsustainable." The "public order seems to have shattered." One highlight noted the ongoing collusion and contiguity between the political system and local clans. "The odor of camorra in Naples offends the nostrils."

     A case in point is Mondragone, a coastal town north of Naples, where caposistema Augusto La Torre ruled with an iron fist. Mondragone was the first Italian town whose government was dissolved, in the 1990s, because of clan domination. La Torre had the local politicians in his pocket and was a swift and terrible enforcer. All who opposed him were slaughtered as examples to others. One technique was to brutally beat the transgressor, then dropping him into a vacant farmyard well, tossing in hand grenades to shred the corpse, and shoveling in soil to conceal the remains.     

     Recruitment of future ‘O sistema members begins with boys between the ages of twelve and seventeen. Roberto Saviano, who observed the process at street level, explains that clans enlist many who are sons or brothers of affiliates. Others from poor families see membership as an opportunity to escape their plight of lack of legitimate opportunity (or their desire to gain a modicum of respect). The clan becomes their home, their complete identity, and the clan boss comes to represent their padre-padrone, combination father and boss. Membership provides an identity and fosters self-pride and confidence. "The advantages for the clan are many," Saviano notes. "A boy earns half the salary of a low-ranking adult, rarely has to support his parents, doesn’t have the burdens of a family, or fixed hours, doesn’t need to be paid punctually, and above all, is willing to be on the streets at all times. After the first couple of months, the boy affiliates go about armed. The weapons are both a promotion and a promise of possibility, of rising to the top of the clan." Some of the youth are "laborers." They become drug dealers on fixed pay, working for clans without ever achieving the status of camorrista. These street boys, a subunit within the clan, are equivalent to what sociologists would call a teenage delinquent gang with the characteristic fierce loyalty to the gang and each other and a penchant for deviance.

     The few big earners are higher on the ‘O sistema pyramid. A member of the military arm can supplement his income by receiving 2500 euros for each killing. The picchiatori (sloggers), who collect the monthly extortion payments earn on a piece work, incentive basis. And there is a troop of boys who function as neighborhood lookouts, patrolling the streets on clan purchased cycles. Others do small jobs such as securing a cache of arms or delivering payments to families of those incarcerated. All can boast that they are under the protection of the clan, privileged persons who feel free to bully and extract favors from townsfolk without fear of retaliation for at their backs is the overwhelming force of the clan.

     The camorra has organized every type of illegal business and penetrates deeply in the legal economy. The Guliano family has engaged in crime and corruption for decades, developing the illegal lottery and launching into ventures such as the music industry, featuring Neapolitan songs. The Forcella community was transformed into a font of crime. The bosses brought under their domain a host of rackets to the extent that the material life of the populace became tainted by a camorrista culture, such a situation inspiring the journalistic term Mafiaopolis.

     Many small rackets have kept the clans in folding money. A more recent scam involves the water buffalo, a traditional work animal and source of famous traditional cheeses. The animals are purchased in Romania and Bulgaria at bargain prices of 50 to 200 euros per head. They are then transported by truck to Campania where they are injected with brucellosis-infected blood. A government program compensates owners 2000 euros for each buffalo stricken with the disease thereby earning the profiteers a tidy net sum.

     A clan’s armory always includes AK-47s, the Kalashnikov…today’s automatic weapon of choice. They are used to murder, to frighten, to show invincibility through its fire power, and to profit. As Robert Saviano relates, "A shop window shooting is not always an intimidation, a message written in bullets, so much as necessity. When a new shipment of AK-47s arrives they must be tested to make sure they don’t jam." Rather then test them in the countryside, storefronts become the targets, "a remainder that there is nothing that does not potentially belong to them." What the camorra breaks the camorra replaces. "The local glass companies with the best prices on replacement windows are all related to the clan; the more broken glass, the more money they make."

     Incidents of interclan struggles for territory and supremacy have been endemic. A typical ambush to rid somebody of a nuisance was the killing of Giuseppe Moliterno, 23, in November of 2007. He received a head shot at close range while astride his motorcycle and parked on Via Cupa Cardone, in Miano, a suburb north of Naples. Moliterno had a criminal record and his fingerprints were used to identify the corpse. Because of the frequency of street gunplay, residents (and police) tend to shrug off the victims of clan shootouts and lament the luckless civilians caught in the crossfire.

     In the land of the camorra the historic mainstay has been extortion. "This is what the cabbie said to me," an Italian journalistic relates, "as we were leaving Naples’ Capodichino airport: ‘It happened two weeks ago. I was in a coffee bar in Portici [seacoast town outside Naples near Mount Vesuvius] with some friends, when two characters entered bearing pistols. They looked first to the right and then to the left, their weapons raised and moving above our heads, slowly. They were looking for someone. We threw ourselves against the wall, instinctively, then, casually, a bomb was pulled from a bag and placed on the bar. You could see the wires, the timer, the charge…an explosive device that could go off at any second. I swear. Lucky for us, the two gunmen allowed us to exit. The men remained inside talking to the bar owner. It appears he didn’t want to pay the extortion tax.’"

     The protection ‘O sistema offers with its "tax" is largely protection against itself. That might seem hardly more than a polite term for extortion. It is more complicated than that. In order to defend one’s person and property it is sometimes prudent to seek out the patronage of the toughest guys on the block and to develop a discreet association with them. Not simply a question of paying insurance to be left in peace, but more a matter of going along, doing things their way, in effect championing the clan in exchange for them looking after your interests, especially where legitimate authority, the state, cannot or wont. In the process, as the relationship evolves, the victim can pass from a passive role to what Angelo Pugliese calls a fiancheggiatore or, in police parlance, a manutengolo (maintainer, accomplice). The state is the mechanism that claims the monopoly on power within a given territory. In camorra land, the state competes with clan bosses.

     A successful extortion plot can lead to camorra takeover of the business. According to a 2004 investigation, fifty percent of shops in Naples are camorra-owned. Clan clashes over boundary disputes and potential extortion victims are fairly commonplace. A boss’s ambitions can be boundless. An example follows: Caposistema Maurizio Brandi, 41, entered a clothing store in Vomero, a large Naples’ quarter. The establishment had been open for twenty years and doing a thriving business, a fact that did not go unnoticed. Brandi presented himself to the proprietor and said, "Do you know me? Here in Vomero everyone knows me. You have to give me 50,000 euros." A few days later Paolo Miccio, one of Brandi’s associates and noted shakedown artist, entered the shop and advised the merchant, "In regard to Brandi’s request to you, that’s 50,000 euros each and every year." The owner sought out the carabinieri and made a statement that he was being held to ransom. Both camorristi were well known to the police, having been arrested many times for theft and aggravated extortion. Brandi was an ex-affiliate of the Alfano clan until he broke away to form his own. The two bosses came to loggerheads and a war broke out in the Medaglie d’Oro piazza. A civilian caught a bullet and died and Brandi escaped with a flesh wound. Both Brandi and Muccio were later convicted of racketeering and imprisoned along with their clan members.

     Camorra clans hold the monopoly on the trash business. The south of Italy is the end of the line for the dregs of production, useless leftovers and toxic waste. For more than a decade the ecomafia or illegal waste traffickers have been able to establish control over illegal dumping and selling of refuse, penetrating deeply into the system and frustrating every attempt by the state to resolve the situation. Refuse is shipped abroad, including to China, for disposal. Not only is organized crime involved; legitimate businessmen are profiting by colluding with the garbage disposal bands.

     Illegal trash disposal is low risk and high profit. The ecomafia has no need to bribe officials and others to operate. The business is conducted quietly. The so-called stakeholder is the key person. Stakeholders are entrepreneurs who seek business opportunities and are skilled at working out deals. They oversee (toxic) waste management. The stakeholder approaches a business owner who wants his refuse removed cheaply and without fuss. Once a deal is struck, the stockholder coordinates pickup and disposal (often at an illegal dumping site in the dark of night) by an ecomafia clan. At every step in the process there is profit.

     As one ecomafia boss was heard to remark in a telephonic interception, "Let’s throw ourselves into garbage because gold is to be found there." ("Buttiamo sui rifiuti: trasi munnizza e n’iesi oro.")

     Up to recently, 2001, convicted trash traffickers faced only slight punishment. The present legislation makes an illicit refuse removal operation a felony punishable by up to six years confinement. Not an effective deterrent, some argue. Now Naples has initiated proceedings to toughen the prevailing mafia association laws.

     The camorra must be understand on its own terms, and that is only possible through the confessions of reliable pentiti—state’s witnesses who know the truth of the facts, details and mechanisms, the vital organs and connective tissues of organized crime. An example of such insight came from clan chief Carmine Schiavone, who outlined the contrast between the Neapolitans and the Sicilians: "We lived with the state. For us, the state had to exist and it had to be that state, except that our philosophy differs from the Sicilians. If a state employee stonewalled us, we would find someone else who was willing to cooperate. If it was a politico, we wouldn’t support him, and if it was an entrepreneur, we would seek to swindle him."

     Roberto Saviano reveals another characteristic of camorristi. "It might seem that the clans, once they’ve accumulated substantial capital, would stop their criminal activities, unravel their genetic code somehow, and convert to legality. But the strength of Italian criminal business lies precisely in maintaining a double track [that is, straddling the legitimate and illegitimate spheres], in never renouncing its criminal origins."


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