Gang’s Deadly Feud Plagues Naples

Times Staff Writer

The neighborhood is called the Flowers, and its streets have poetic names such as Magic Prague and Cherry Orchard. But it’s universally known as the Third World.

It’s where Carmela Attrice, 47, was shot to death in mid-January after a young thug lured her from her apartment, still in her pajamas. It’s where crime boss Cosimo “Fat Boy” Di Lauro, who allegedly ordered the killings of dozens of rivals, was arrested as hundreds of his supporters spat at police. It’s near where a purported mobster was decapitated, his body tossed in a wrecked car, his head left between his legs.

In the tough, northern suburbs of Naples, a vicious gang war is raging as factions of the Camorra, this region’s version of the Mafia, battle for control of a multibillion-dollar illicit drug trade.


An estimated 140 people were killed in gangland fighting last year in Naples, and the toll has accelerated in recent months.

“The Camorra is an enormous monster whose tentacles reach into every stone in the neighborhood,” said Paolo Prisco, a 30-year-old social worker who lives on the northern edge of the city.

The feud is centered in the suburbs of Scampia and Secondigliano, tense enclaves of high-rise housing projects that have come to symbolize the worst of urban alienation. But Camorra killings take place elsewhere.

One man was shot to death in a restaurant near downtown Naples, slumping face-first into his pizza. A 14-year-old girl, grabbed by a gangster as a human shield, was killed in the nearby Forcella neighborhood a few months before that.

For this once glorious but now troubled city, the violence could not be occurring at a less opportune time. The capital of a kingdom during medieval times and later, Naples fell into decline after World War II. In recent years, the city has invested millions of dollars to launch a much-trumpeted renaissance and shed its image as a crime-ridden place to avoid.

City fathers have brought public art to subway stations, renovated medieval churches and Bourbon palaces and cleaned the dirtiest sections of Naples’ dramatic seafront, from which a snow-covered Mt. Vesuvius can be seen. Officials said that tourism, on the decline elsewhere in Italy, rose in Naples last year.

The gang war threatens all that. Moreover, it raises serious questions about the central government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and its ability to impose law and order. Many Neapolitans blame successive governments for neglecting the port city’s woes.

“There is definitely damage,” said Lt. Col. Claudio Dimizi, who oversees the Naples region for the Carabinieri national police. “Friends of mine wouldn’t come for Christmas.”

Paramilitary Carabinieri have fanned out through north Naples in an attempt to clamp down on the warfare. Much of the killing lately has targeted not the Mafiosi themselves but their parents (including Carmela Attrice) or girlfriends, to exact what prosecutors call indirect revenge, and because many of the bad guys are in prison. Hundreds of people have been arrested since November.

But police suppression alone is not likely to set back a 200-year-old organization that feeds on the poverty, despair and fear rampant in the area.

“The Camorra cannot be defeated,” said the Rev. Fabrizio Valletti, a Jesuit priest who presides over the Santa Maria Della Speranza church in Scampia. “It is the only economic organization here. It is important to build strong alternatives, but now there are none.”

Sitting amid bleak apartment blocks where dealers peddle drugs openly and users discard their syringes on the cracked sidewalks, the church is fully encased in metal bars. Entering requires unlocking multiple locks on multiple heavy, metal doors. Valletti laughingly calls the church a bunker; police refer to it as the “armored church.”

Valletti, 66, said the Camorra represented something akin to a welfare agency for many of his parishioners. If a man is sent to jail, the Camorra will support his family. In a region without work, the Camorra pays for killing, surveillance and other illicit tasks.

For disaffected, hopeless youth, the image of the gang boss -- hard, arrogant, in charge -- is tantalizing. After Di Lauro was picked up, his photograph began showing up as decoration on the camera cellphones of young people in Naples.

The city represents and amplifies the problems of Italy’s less-developed south. Unemployment in Naples is three times the national average. In the northern slums, half of the young adults may be jobless. The birthrate here is also higher than the rest of the country, as are the adult-illiteracy and high-school dropout rates.

Strangers are largely unwelcome in Scampia and Secondigliano. When two visitors, accompanied by police, arrived at the church, young men who serve as Camorra lookouts appeared instantaneously. “You see that woman up there in her window?” one of the police escorts asked, pointing to the fourth floor of a nearby apartment building. “Pretending to check her laundry and talking on her cellphone?” She too was informing, he said.

Giovanni Corona, the state prosecutor in Naples who handles Camorra cases, said the Neapolitan Mafia had evolved from a criminal syndicate not unlike the better-known Sicilian Mafia, in which families ran the businesses and competed for preeminence, to something more similar to street gangs. The disintegration led to the current war.

For the last 20 years or so, Paolo Di Lauro, head of the Camorra clan that runs the northern suburbs, presided over a tightly managed drug empire that imported cocaine and heroin and distributed it through an army of dealers, Corona said. In exchange for the monopoly and steady cuts of the proceeds, Di Lauro granted neighborhood ringleaders a certain amount of autonomy.

Two years ago, Di Lauro went into hiding as authorities closed in. He left the business to his sons, and Cosimo “Fat Boy” took charge. But he had ideas about changing the distribution system. He deposed older gangsters and replaced them with young toughs new to the business. In revolt, a faction now known as the Secessionists declared war on the Di Lauros in October. Day in, day out, the two bands fight with a brutality that stuns even hardened Carabinieri.

The new generation of gangsters, most in their late teens, “are armed, ferocious and fearless,” Corona said. “They follow orders. They kill without thinking twice.”

In neighborhoods such as the Third World, the gangsters live without showing off their wealth. They stay in rundown areas to better enforce their control, investigators say. From the outside, the apartment blocks are scarred with graffiti and appear poor and nondescript. Inside, however, the top Camorristas live in the style of the nouveau riche, with heavy chandeliers, gallon bottles of perfume and tacky artwork, say police who have raided them.

Magistrates, police and anti-Mafia activists in Naples all agree that, war or no, the Camorra will continue to flourish unless the national government pays more attention to the city’s plight with investment, work programs and infrastructure. Alarmed that their credibility as rulers was being undermined, several senior government officials paid visits to Naples and its northern suburbs.

“It is in everyone’s interest to root out and eliminate this cancer that eats away at our lives,” President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi said.