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Italy sends troops to tackle mafia violence

Times Staff Writers

The Italian government Tuesday ordered the deployment of a military task force to fight a wave of violence by the Neapolitan mafia, which culminated last week in the slayings of six African immigrants in a suspected feud over drug turf.

The decision to send the military to the province of Caserta, north of Naples, shows that the ruthless clans of the Camorra, as the mafia in Naples is known, pose a formidable challenge to the government. The last time soldiers were used to combat organized crime was in 1992 in southern Italy after Sicilian gangsters assassinated two top anti-Mafia judges.

The Cabinet on Tuesday approved the proposal by Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa, who said the soldiers were needed to cope with a “criminal emergency.” Most of the 500 troops will be deployed to Caserta for three months and perform duties such as manning checkpoints and reinforcing 400 police officers who were sent Monday, La Russa said.

“We fear there could be other episodes of violence -- this is why we increased the pressure in that area in order to neutralize the firepower of the groups,” Interior Minister Roberto Maroni said on the RAI television network. “In the area of Caserta there is a real Camorra civil war, and therefore we want the state to regain the upper hand in that area.”

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The rise of Neapolitan gangsters has led to brazen killings of rivals, witnesses and others as clans impose control over activities such as drug dealing and illegal dumping of toxic waste. Italian leaders considered sending troops to Naples two years ago but rejected the idea.

This time authorities are responding to months of deadly violence attributed to the Casalesi, a Camorra clan whose wild, swaggering exploits contrast with the brutal but more disciplined and discreet style of the Sicilian Mafia. Recent killings in Castelvolturno, a hub of the drug trade in Caserta province, also reflects the new ethnic structure of a criminal underworld that is being reshaped by immigration.

On Thursday, four men killed the owner of an amusement arcade in Castelvolturno. The assailants then drove to a clothing store operated by West African immigrants and fired hundreds of rounds into the store, killing three Ghanians, two Liberians and a man from Togo. On Monday, police arrested a suspect linked to the Casalesi clan.

The slayings set off riots by African immigrants, tens of thousands of whom have settled in the region.

Prosecutors suspect that the shootings stemmed from a clash over drug turf. As cocaine smuggled into Europe increasingly arrives via West Africa, criminals from that region have carved out a role in the underworld in places such as Caserta. The Neapolitan mafia collects “taxes” from Africans, Albanians and other immigrant gangs engaged in drug dealing, prostitution and other crimes in its territory.

The shootings seem to have been intended as a grim message to African drug dealers, not as a surgical strike against rivals, Corrado Lembo, chief prosecutor in the Caserta area, said in an interview Tuesday.

Some politicians praised the government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi for enlisting the military’s help.

“As expressed by the community, I positively welcome also the deployment of troops, because we find ourselves in an emergency situation,” said Francesco Nuzzo, mayor of Castelvolturno.

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But critics called the move cosmetic, saying it doesn’t attack the structural power of the Camorra organization, especially its political alliances.

“What is needed is to reinforce the investigative apparatus,” said Franco Barbato of the Italy of Values party, part of the center-left opposition. “Above all, there is a need to combat and remove all ties between politics and the clans.”

The effect of the military deployment will be mainly symbolic, said Lembo, the chief prosecutor. And he expressed concern that soldiers experienced primarily in guarding embassies and other static targets might not be prepared to deal with the Camorra.

“Surely the troops can at minimum help patrol a territory that is as vast as the province of Caserta,” Lembo said. "[But] in this particularly dangerous area, where armed groups roam, sometimes acting also under the influence of drugs, they could find themselves confronting an emergency situation with a preparation that is perhaps not absolutely appropriate to the phenomenon that could arise.”

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In the 1990s, the presence of thousands of troops in Sicily helped turn the tide against the Mafia there. About 500 troops were also sent to Naples at the time.

More recently, the role of the military in law enforcement has become a touchy political subject in Italy. In August, the government dispatched about 3,000 troops around the country to work with police against street crime.

The opposition accused Berlusconi of misusing the military for publicity purposes. The government said it was responding to a public demand for a crackdown on criminals, especially illegal immigrants involved in violent offenses.

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rotella@latimes.com


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