Feature Articles

April 2005
The Business 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.

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     "Cosa Nostra and the Camorra have always been around and will continue to be around; unfortunately they do exist. We will have to live with this reality." (Pietro Lunardi, 2001)

     "It is the history of Naples itself which explains why such an organization arose here and not elsewhere, and why organized crime has remained such a dominant feature of the city during the last two hundred years." (Tom Behan, See Naples & Die, 2002)

     The business of the Camorra is manifold. It ranges from money lending to cigarette and drug trafficking, from extortion to corruption to theft, from importation of clandestine food products to arms trafficking, from illegal betting to industry monopolies. The Camorra has gone international with bases in northern Europe and establishing links with other criminal associations.

     The dynamics of the camorristic phenomenon, the multiplicity of its clans, the inter-clan strife, the open, non-family makeup of the neighborhood and town based organizations, explain the difficulty analysts have in the identification of the origins and descriptive characteristics of the Camorra.


     The Camorra has had many ups and downs during its history. More than once it was declared dead. The post-war period has seen a spurt of growth and strength that persists today. The Alfieri gang of the 1980s and 1990s exhibited a hubris and a penchant for wanton violence that compared favorably with Cosa Nostra�s spectacular assassinations. Alfieri�s killers alone counted as many as 500 murders during the decade 1983-93. The Camorra has become an efficient killing machine.

     Naples is a singular city, some say unique. The city has the same reputation in Italy that New York has in the United States: a symbol in Italy of governmental mismanagement and corruption, the locus of organized crime, intractable social problems, great wealth unevenly distributed, a large and restless poverty-stricken underclass alienated from the main stream. Naples is 101st out of 103 Italian provinces as regards the general quality of life, 98th for unemployment, and last for city services and environmental quality. It has the highest rate of auto thefts, robberies and births.

     Critics have called Naples a Third World with Third World politics, the wealth based largely on lavish state aid�money that is procured by politicians and distributed at their discretion and pleasure. Most people owe their jobs to the Byzantine political systems of favors and patronage or to the Camorra. Criminal groups have infiltrated the public sector, resulting in numbers of senators and magistrates being investigated and indicted for mafia association, a crime in Italy. There are links between the Camorra and district administrations. "The real camorristi are the politicians," people say. The police are not to be trusted. Citizens take their problems to the local mob boss to get satisfaction.

     The Italian newspaper L�Unità, in 1994, said in reference to the modern Camorra and the conditions that sustain it: "In Naples citizens have lost faith in their rights and in the justice handed down by the council and the state. This is not due to ancient traditions, which should have disappeared by now, but to new forms of private despotism, clientalism and Camorra, which are different forms of private organizations that tend to administer justice in their own fashion, outside the law and the state, and where necessary, against the law and the state. Citizens only have faith in favors."

     No one knows the exact origins of the criminal Camorra. The first official use of the term occurred in 1735, when a Royal circular authorized the establishment of eight gaming houses in Naples, including the Camorra avanti palazzo (Camorra in front of the palace), where a gaming house had existed for centuries. In this case the word is probably an amalgamation of capo (boss) and morra, a Neapolitan street game. Two players open their fists, varying the numbers of fingers displayed. The player who guesses the right number, which he must shout out as the fists are opened, is the winner. Neapolitan immigrants carried the game with them to America.

     [Certain terms of interest. Guappo is a Neapolitan word generally used to denote a senior member of a criminal gang. The word wop, widely used in America as an ethnic slur, is a derivation of guappo. Guapparia refers to the typical personality characteristics of the camorrista (member of the Camorra)�namely, egocentricity, arrogance, and vanity�a particular mode of dress, movement and appearance. Guapparia is equivalent to the original meaning of the Sicilian word mafioso. Pentito is the Italian word used to refer to a criminal turned government informant. The English term is supergrass.]

     Men and boys were recruited in the 1970s in response to the new opportunities in cigarette trafficking. In1976 alone, over 500,000 kilograms of foreign cigarettes were seized in the Naples area. Up to 50,000 persons were employed in smuggling operations. Guappo and pentito Mad Mike Zaza was one of the first camorristi who made his fortune in that business, of which he was quite proud. He boasted to an investigating magistrate, "First I�d sell five cases of Philip Morris, then ten, then a thousand, then three thousand, then I bought myself six or seven ships that you took away from me. I used to load 50,000 cases $10 million on trust. All I had to do was make a phone call. I�d buy $24 million worth of Philip Morris in 3 months. My lawyer will show you the receipts. I�m proud of that--$24 million! It could be stopped, but then those people would become thieves, robbers or muggers. Naples would become the worst city in the world. Instead, this city should thank the 20,30 men who arrange for ships laden with cigarettes to be unloaded and thus stop crime."

     "The Camorra and the school system of Naples have always contested who will determine the future of the youth." (Nando Dalla Chiesa)

     The Camorra rose from the dispossessed and has had an excellent rapport with the Neapolitan lower classes that, in turn, joined its ranks or otherwise gave aid and comfort. That public did not view the Camorra as a liability or a dire threat to the social fabric. One key to understanding the Camorra�s popularity was that it could keep the peace when the police could not and provide employment when the city officials would turn away from the plight of the downtrodden. The Camorra could give satisfaction and justice to the populace. In that fashion, the Camorra has been described as a parallel state to an ineffective legitimate state that in effect surrendered management of a neighborhood or town to Camorra jurisdiction.

     "If you have a job and I haven�t, if you�ve got a house and I haven�t, it�s obvious I�m going to come and steal from you." (Ex-camorrista)

     The drug market flourishes in Naples. It employs a small army and grosses huge profits. There are an estimated 30,000 regular users in the metro area. Each habit costs daily at least $80, producing an annual turnover of $860 million. Camorra clans operate the distribution network with children acting as street workers. Local businessmen and politicians have been charged with drug smuggling, in one instance importing tons of cocaine from Venezuela. They develop working relations with clans for distribution and open various businesses for money laundering of the illicit cash. The money generated has enabled camorristi to become legitimate businessmen. As Camorra expert Tom Behan has observed, "The financial and social stability brought about by such rapid enrichment has led many major gangs to move away from the high-risk area of hard drugs."

     [The wages of sin. Drugs pay well even to the lower ranks. Street lookouts earn $600 weekly, street dealers $800, and street capos $1500. Professional assassins, who are mostly Slavs and Albanians, pocket $13,000 for a hit. Drug couriers get $10,000 per trip. The narco bosses net monthly $600,000.]

     Italian news reports that in January 2005 "a brutal civil war" broke out in Naples, with one clan fighting another for control of the drug-infested Scampia neighborhood, where 44 victims were slain in 2004. The war widened in January when shooters murdered clan boss Edoardo Bove. It was the fifth gangland killing in a violent five-day period. When the police arrived on the scene to investigate, a crowd of Camorra women gathered to scream abuse at the officers to prevent arrests in the neighborhood that has been a no-go area to police for decades. At stake is the control of the Naples drug trade. Scampia is a slum of tower apartments, where controlled substances are sold openly and attract addicts from outside. Street dealers were permitted to operate freely, buying their inventory while paying the Di Lauro clan a protection fee. Now, some in the clan want to create a supply monopoly.

     An interesting connection was uncovered in early 2004. Apparently, Italian mobsters and Islamic terrorist groups have found common ground in arms and drug trafficking. Italy�s Anti-Mafia Commission has reported that linkage is with the Camorra. "There are ties without doubt," said a spokesman. "We have evidence that Camorra groups are implicated in exchange of arms for drugs with terrorist groups." The collaboration might have begun when a camorrista convert to Islam met fellow Muslims in an Italian prison.

     As Camorra institutional infiltration progresses the illegal profits have been invested in legitimate enterprises. According to a Neapolitan union leader, Camorra businesses act legally. "We often find that they pay all their taxes and social security contributions. And salaries can even be generous. They recognize trade unions; we�re allowed to hold meetings; we�ve never been threatened. The earnings of the Camorra, especially when it comes to businesses, come from money laundering and through false accounting."

     Public sector contracts are of major interest. The more the state invests in southern industry, the more the Camorra will increase its business ventures. One is exploiting opportunities in resorts. A current instance is at the Pompeii archaeological site that is a magnet for hordes of tourists with cash to spend. The site, buried by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in A.D. 79, rakes in more than $12 million annually in ticket sales, not to mention other revenues. The Camorra wants a piece of the action. Notorious for its extortion schemes, the Camorra often forces local merchants to pay protection money. When threats don�t work, their businesses are torched. The mob also wants camorristi hired as guards and are looking to cash in on lucrative conservation and restoration contracts.

     The Camorra families in the region of Campania, of which there are by official estimate well over one-hundred, have positioned themselves as a powerful influence on the social fabric, generating huge profits, recycling those profits into the legitimate economy and providing sources of income for many who otherwise would be chronically underemployed or without jobs. Analysts have described the Camorra presence as firmly entrenched in the Neapolitan cultural soil. Eradication would be extremely difficult because the Camorra is not a monolithic structure. Rather, the clans enjoy substantial autonomy�certainly the periodic conflict among them has been evident. "You decapitate one, and the others remain as they are." In addition, the Camorra exists with the "support and connivance of local politicians, the very people entrusted with any solution to the problem of organized crime." Opportunities for illicit gain are much too tempting. One can say that too many public officials have never drawn an honest breath.

     From a town in Campania by an unemployed man: "The old mayor was a thief�but he helped everyone. He stole but he gave us welfare checks�cheese as well. He never made us pay for water or electricity. Now there is a new mayor and he has reported us to the police because we don�t pay our bills."

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