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Italy mafia war in naples

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The trouble with Naples

See it and die

Jan 20th 2005 | NAPLES
From The Economist print edition

It is past time for the real Naples to stand up


IT IS a bewildering place at the best of times, but rarely has Naples presented such a confusing face. Recent headlines have depicted the city as Chicago in the “roaring twenties”. A war within the Camorra, the regional mafia, over the drugs trade in the suburban district of Scampia seems to be spreading, as rival factions in the divided De Lauro gang seek allies. Camorra assassinations have claimed 35 people in the past four months. The most recent victim was shot in the back and head as he sat at a table in a restaurant in Cardito, just north of Naples.

The violence has cast a pall over the city. “We are at war,” says Don Luigi Merola, a priest in the Forcella parish until he resigned this month, “embittered and disenchanted”. The killings show that the Camorra remains an awesome presence. But they have also provoked an unexpected backlash. Informers this week led police to the alleged murderers of a Camorra member's middle-aged mother. In parts of the city shopkeepers have banded together to defy mounting extortion.

Optimists believe that demands for ever more protection money point to a crisis in the Camorra's other business activities, such as the skimming of commissions off public contracts, a practice the centre-left city government claims to have all but stamped out. That would not be the only good news. Seen from a different standpoint, Naples is another Barcelona or Bilbao: a southern European rustbelt city striving to relaunch itself through art, tourism and big infrastructure projects.

A keystone is an underground railway system, due to be finished in 2011. By then, Naples, with just over a million inhabitants, should have three new lines, integrated with suburban railways and the city's funiculars to create a network of some 100 stations. Many newer ones are being used to display art works; one is being designed by a British-based sculptor, Anish Kapoor.

The imaginative use of these new stations is one reason why, in a ballot conducted by the monthly Giornale dell'Arte, critics voted Naples the city that contributed most to the arts in Italy in 2004. They also said that the best exhibitions of the year were in Naples: a Caravaggio show at the Museo di Capodimonte and Damien Hirst's first retrospective at the National Archaeological Museum.

These and other top-flight cultural events help to explain why the city has become such a popular tourist destination. One impulse came in 1994, when Silvio Berlusconi, in his first stint as prime minister, hosted a G7 summit meeting in Naples. The city was spruced up, the usual rubbish heaps were cleared away—and television cameras beamed to the world the attractions of what was once both the capital of an independent kingdom and the third-biggest metropolis in Europe. “Since then, there has been a constant increase in tourist flows,” says Nicola Odatti, the mayor's adviser on tourism and economic development. In the first eight months of 2004, when visitor numbers were falling in most of the rest of the country, Naples saw a modest rise.

But that was before the Camorra's killing spree, which some fear heralds a local economic crisis. The dismantling of heavy industry has left a gap that has been partly filled by a vast black economy: thousands of tiny, often unregistered, firms producing cheap, often counterfeit, clothing and footwear. Officials reckon that about a third of the city's unemployed have jobs in this black economy. Professor Adriano Giannola, chairman of the Banco di Napoli foundation, calls it “a China hidden in the belly of Naples”.

Unfortunately, the real China can manufacture products at prices not even the sweatshops in the plain round Vesuvius (overdue for another eruption) can match. This may explain an upsurge in migration from Naples to other parts of Italy despite falling unemployment (from 28% when the centre-left arrived in power in 1993 to 20% now). The city's problems are deep-seated; it is asking a lot of art alone to put them right.

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