The Camorra seems intent on giving a new meaning to the saying see Naples and die. A savage turf war between conflicting Neapolitan mafia clans claimed 124 victims in 2004 many of whom were innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire. Despite a police clampdown, the killing has shown no sign of letting up at the start of this year. Indeed, there are concerns that, if anything, the conflict may escalate.

Why the bloodshed?

The war is being waged for control of the lucrative drugs trade in the Scampia district of the city a poverty-stricken area of urban decay with 50 per cent unemployment. Scampia is also the centre of Naples narcotics business.

Since the 1980s this had been in the hands of Camorra mobster Paolo Di Lauro. The troubles started when Di Lauro went missing two years ago and his sons took control of the gang. Investigators believe the new leadership tried to change the way the drugs money was distributed between gang members. One of the clans senior mobsters, Raffaele Amato, apparently refused to accept the new system and fled to Spain, from where he is thought to be coordinating a rival group called the Secessionists or the Spaniards. So the deaths are the result of a civil war between the Di Lauro loyalists, who are trying to reassert their authority and their grip on the local drugs business, and the familys former associates.

Murder most foul

Some of the deaths have been particularly grisly. In November, the police found the charred remains of a 22-year-old woman, Gelsomina Verde, whod been shot in the throat and dumped in a car which was then set alight. Investigators believe she was killed by Di Lauro loyalists for refusing to reveal the whereabouts of her Spanish boyfriend. A suspect has been charged with the murder. In another recent case although one not directly related to the war a Camorra boss ordered a 17-year-old boy to be killed for stealing his 15-year-old daughters scooter.

Apart from the human misery the deaths are causing, the bloodshed has rocked Naples self-confidence too. The war is threatening the citys bid to clean itself up and stage a renaissance as a cultural and tourist centre after decades of industrial decline.

The state hits back

Some locals argue that the authorities are at fault for having abandoned Scampia and other parts of Naples to the mobsters for too long. There were even suggestions that the police were not doing all they could to stop the fighting, because one dead Camorrista is one fewer for them to hunt down.

Sensing its credibility is at stake, the state has drafted some 300 extra police officers into the city in a bid to halt the carnage. A dragnet operation led to over 52 arrests in December and some 700 suspects including many alleged senior bosses were nabbed in the last two months of 2004.

But at the time of writing the clampdown had failed to bring the situation to heel. Worse still, several of the victims in 2005 were linked to clans not previously involved in the Di Lauro/Secessionists war. This has prompted fears that other gangs may be getting embroiled. A similar Camorra war in the early 1980s claimed some 700 lives.

Solutions?

Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. Interior minister Giuseppe Pisanu has reiterated that militarising Naples, as was done in some Sicilian towns a few years ago, would not help solve the problem and would dent the citys image.

During a New Years holiday to the area, Italys president Carlo Azeglio Ciampi called on Neapolitans to stand up to the Camorra and help the state regain control by cooperating with police. Its in everyones interests to root out and eliminate this cancer that eats away at our lives, Ciampi said. For too long now we have heard of murders in Scampia and read that its a war between gangs. Thats true, but you cant shrug your shoulders and just stand and watch. Human life is at stake, and that is sacred. Efforts are required by everyone, a surge of civic pride, and an injection of confidence and courage, because Naples is the most beautiful city in the world.

He is, of course, absolutely right. In fact, in television interviews Neapolitans frankly admit that the onus lies with them to take action to put the city back on the rails.

However, fear of Camorra brutality and a dire economic climate make it very difficult for individual locals to put those words into practice. Members of the law-abiding majority need heroic bravery to inform on a local Camorrista, who they know could easily have a family member killed in revenge.

There was a telling news story before Christmas about a group of Neapolitan mothers who announced they were holding an anti-mafia protest. When the television crews turned up to film the demonstration, however, no one could be found. The local bosses had heard and let the women know that such a public protest could severely damage their health.

For youngsters in areas like Scampia, the mobsters and their drugs money offer virtually the only source of gainful employment around. In turn, young recruits help strengthen the clans hold. So legal job opportunities must be created to give young people an honest alternative. The catch-22 is that this is a very tall order while these areas remain so clearly under the Camorras control.