The Camorra Never Sleeps (2012)

The thing about being murdered, it usually comes as a surprise. Even in Naples, where the criminal clans known collectively as the Camorra are again struggling violently for control of the streets, no victim wakes up expecting on that given day to die. He shaves carefully, dresses in his beloved clothes, slips on an expensive watch, and maybe squeezes his wife before heading out to meet with his friends. If he suspected his fate, he might at least kiss his wife good-bye. But the neighborhood has been home for generations to everyone he knows who counts. He deals there in extortion, protection, narcotics, and counterfeit goods. He abides by alternative rules. For this he is respected. He rarely carries a gun. His experience until now has been that murder happens only to others. Then someone comes along and kills him.

It is a strangely final event. There may be a moment of recognition at the end, but by then the man can no longer stay alive. Recently, in a northern district called Secondigliano, it was obvious that the victim knew his fate for about seven seconds before he died. Secondigliano is an old farming town that has been swallowed by the city. It has evolved into one of Europe’s largest open-air drug markets and a working-class stronghold for the Camorra. The victim was a mid-ranking member of one of its clans involved in a typically convoluted struggle, and not known to the police before. He was in his mid-30s and beginning to bald. He was immaculately dressed and groomed. As was his habit, he had come to a small street-front gambling shop to play a bit of one-armed bandit. Surveillance cameras there captured his demise. It was broad daylight. As a cautionary measure he had placed three guards outside, one of whom was burly, but none of whom was armed. The gambling shop was narrow and had space for only six machines against one wall. In the back was a closed door. The victim was alone in the room. He sat on a stool to gamble.

A street camera caught the killers’ arrival. There were two of them. They pulled up fast on a motor scooter, both in full-face helmets with the visors down. From the certainty of their movements, they seemed sure that the victim was inside. It is not known who had informed them. The clerk who normally tended to the shop was nowhere in sight. As soon as the scooter came to a stop, the man on the back hopped off and, with a 9-mm. pistol in hand, strode purposefully toward the front door. The guards fled before him. Two of them, including the burly one, tumbled into the room to raise the alarm. The camera inside showed them bursting in, followed closely by the gunman—a slender figure looking bug-like in his full-face armor. The victim reacted immediately. He leapt from his stool, dashed to the back door, and tugged on it, only to find that it was locked. His heart must have been racing. He turned and tried to escape through the front. This took him to within point-blank range of the gunman, who had stopped about halfway into the room. With two pistol kicks, the gunman shot him in the back as he passed. The victim fell facedown. The gunman took two steps forward, leaned over, and finished him with a single shot to the head.

But the gunman was not cool about the killing. In his rush to get away, he tripped over a stool and crashed to the floor, catching himself with his forearms and rolling as he rose. The gyration left him facing back toward the room just as the burly guard, in his own hurry to escape, made the mistake of barging in his direction. The gunman fired twice into the guard’s chest. The guard fell backward and lay stretched for a while, repetitively moving his hands to his chest until he lowered his hands and died. By then the gunman had already climbed onto the motor scooter behind his accomplice outside, and the two had raced away. The scooter did not have legible license plates. Shortly afterward a detective told me that the police had not been able to identify the assailants, but he assured me that the Camorra already had. So take the long view, he said: one way or another, justice will probably be done. Furthermore, even the state will eventually figure things out if only because in Naples, he said, murder is a language that the police can understand. The dead may talk, he implied, more fully than the living can.

An Understanding

Silence is a Neapolitan birthright. The city has such a culture of it that some years ago, when an innocent girl was killed in a Camorra crossfire, many of the witnesses who had initially identified the shooters to the police recanted their statements during the trial that ensued. In frustration, the investigating judge lost his calm and began berating the witnesses, as if here in the courtroom he had come face-to-face with the Camorra itself. He had not. He had come face-to-face with ordinary Neapolitans. You cannot really berate the Camorra. If you try, you will find yourself meeting blank stares.

The Camorra is not an organization like the Mafia that can be separated from society, disciplined in court, or even quite defined. It is an amorphous grouping in Naples and its hinterlands of more than 100 autonomous clans and perhaps 10,000 immediate associates, along with a much larger population of dependents, clients, and friends. It is an understanding, a way of justice, a means of creating wealth and spreading it around. It has been a part of life in Naples for centuries—far longer than the fragile construct called Italy has even existed. At its strongest it has grown in recent years into a complete parallel world and, in many people’s minds, an alternative to the Italian government, whatever that term may mean. Neapolitans call it “the system” with resignation and pride. The Camorra offers them work, lends them money, protects them from the government, and even suppresses street crime. The problem is that periodically the Camorra also tries to tear itself apart, and when that happens, ordinary Neapolitans need to duck.

Secondigliano is well practiced at this. It currently has one of the highest murder rates in Western Europe. Probably one of the highest shooting rates, too. I have a friend from there who is an architect. Her father is a retired municipal-bus driver. He owns a station wagon that he uses to transport another daughter, who requires a wheelchair. One day not long ago two men stole the station wagon, then called the family’s apartment and demanded 2,000 euros in cash for the return of the car. The thieves were cheap Camorra punks, the lowest sort of clan associates. My friend was outraged, but her father paid what he could of the ransom. He did this on a street, with the cash in an envelope, while his daughter circled around trying to take pictures with her cell phone. None of the pictures worked out. My friend accused her father of complicity with the system. He answered that he simply could not afford to buy another car. Yes, there was a time when no punk from Secondigliano would have dared to steal the car of a local man with a crippled child—because the Camorra itself would have intervened. But he did not feel sorry for himself. He is a realist. Fighting broke out in the district in 2004, and it has continued sporadically ever since, weakening the clans to the point where they can no longer control their own. The lowest of them are idiots who know only how to shoot. And so what? You learn to duck. In his entire life only once has he had to buy back his car. Certainly the government of Italy has cost him more in taxes.

He was raised in Secondigliano. He knows Naples well. For 30 years he shuttled its residents around. To drive a bus was to work the streets. All sorts of people climbed on and off. He watched over them when they were in his charge. He did not isolate himself from Naples as a northerner might have. He opened his heart to get the job done. Naples is filthy. Naples is wild. Naples is the greatest city of all. To hell with Rome and Milan, and their soccer teams too. When Napoli plays, the whole world stops. When it plays at home, the supporters of the opposing teams hardly dare to show up. Forza Napoli! Its opponents are bastards born to whores. At the stadium they huddle behind protective caging against the debris and the fireworks thrown at them. This is beautiful to behold. Naples is busy. Naples is poor. Naples has a bus route called R5, which my friend’s father sometimes drove. It carries addicts and pickpockets in a standing-room crush of ordinary citizens, and runs from the train station deep into the parallel world of the Camorra—skirting the narrow streets of the old city center, where the police don’t go, grinding uphill past the airport, with all of its associated rackets, stopping by a popular drug market in an alley of Secondigliano, and ending in a slum called Scampia, a district of dispersed apartment blocks where the Camorra holds sway and someone has spray-painted a declaration in giant graffiti on a building’s side. mala via masta ne, it reads, or, roughly, Crime Rules the Way.

The Piazzas

Scampia is what poverty looks like when Corbusierian city planners try to impose their utopias on people’s lives. The sidewalks are broad but empty. The parks are fenced off for safety. There are almost no stores or cafés. Many of the residences are falling prematurely into ruin, and some, still inhabited, have been gutted by fire. A Catholic billboard reads, if you believe in scampia, you will find a sea of love. In the common space of one iconic building, a broken pipe has been gushing municipal water into the gutters for five years straight. Nearby there are several gloomy apartment blocks that enclose defensible courtyards and have fortified stairwells that can be controlled from within. These are the drug bazaars—known as piazzas—over which Neapolitans have spilled so much blood. They are among the more lucrative retail operations in the world—outlets for low-grade heroin and cocaine that function openly but remain largely beyond the reach of the state. The logistical details vary, depending on location and customer base, but the largest operations run day and night, and deploy dozens of lookouts to cover the approaches—some sitting astride motor scooters on the streets, some watching the driveways and parking areas from upper-floor windows, others standing in groups at the allowed entry points to the courtyards and buildings. Again, there are variations, but the ideal is to seal off the outer perimeter of the complex by augmenting the existing window bars and steel doors with concertina wire and heavy bolts, and then to cut a small portal in the ground-floor wall of a stairwell—whether to the courtyard or to the back of the complex—through which cash and narcotics can be safely exchanged.

These arrangements cannot stop the police from entering, but they practically guarantee that no sellers will be found in possession of weapons or drugs—and this in turn makes raids seem pointless. As for the residents of the complexes, they are captives to the extent that they have to avoid the active stairwells and must leave and return through Camorra checkpoints that may occasionally be closed. In any case, they themselves are often involved, whether as lookouts, needle vendors, or the recipients of the Camorra’s aid. More fundamentally, the Camorra is simply a part of life. One afternoon I walked with a police detective—armed, gritty, unshaven, and in sweatshirt and jeans—past a group of Camorra soldiers, across a courtyard, and through an open steel door into a stairwell. A couple of chairs stood by a portal cut into a wall. The door was equipped with a massive locking bolt which the detective demonstrated by sliding it into place. Soon afterward a woman appeared from upstairs, accompanied by a young girl. Without a word they walked past us to the door, which the mother unbolted to go outside. The girl said, “But, Mama, don’t we have to wait for the men to give us permission?” The woman answered, “No, these are the police.” Her tone was patient, as if she were conveying the most basic facts to her child. “This is what cops look like,” she seemed to mean. And also, “In our world, angel, they don’t count for much.”

On the backside of the building a line of customers snaked up an outside flight of stairs and along a second-floor passageway to a hole in a door where heroin was being sold. They were Italians, all of them, some furtive, most not. If only because the prisons would be overwhelmed, the personal possession of narcotics in Italy is not significantly criminalized. The heroin was going for eight euros a dose—hardly more than a pack of cigarettes, and one-fourth the price in Milan. A few customers had come all the way from Florence for the bargain. Men, women, young, old. Some had arrived on the R5 bus. Some could not wait to get high before heading home. Dozens of addicts milled around in a rubbish-strewn field that was littered with needles, near a patch of pavement stained with what appeared to be dried blood. They sat on concrete walls or in the dirt, exposing their arms or feet and preparing their veins with loving care, before injecting themselves with their chemical bliss. Afterward they sat nodding, or stood against the cold by a bonfire, or wandered aimlessly through the smoke and refuse. We walked among them. They were largely indifferent to our presence, but one man approached. The detective asked him, “Why do you live this way?”

The man said, “Drugs like everyone, and everyone likes drugs.”

The detective said, “Me, I do not like drugs. I like women.”

The man said, “Yes, but the difference is that drugs won’t betray you.”

Yes, but the drugs were hollowing him out inside. And all around him the Camorra kept falling out and fighting. And love cannot be as dangerous as that.

Life Lessons

Betrayal? The Camorra murders especially when it is weak. The killing in Scampia and Secondigliano has been going on for so long that some prosecutors almost regret their previous triumphs. In memory there is a golden era when the Camorra was strong. The boss then was a recluse named Paolo Di Lauro, a presence rarely seen, who is now in prison effectively for life and stands as one of the greatest Camorristi of all time. Little is known of his early years except that he was born in Secondigliano in 1953, was orphaned young, and was adopted by a family of modest means that had a house near the center of the district. The mother was a housewife, the father a simple laborer. They were deep Neapolitans who spoke a dialect nearly unintelligible elsewhere in Italy. Di Lauro attended a few years of primary school before dropping out and getting to work, first as an assistant for a local shopkeeper. By his late teens he had moved to the industrial zones of far-off Northern Italy, where he worked door-to-door selling underwear and bedsheets to migrant factory workers from the South. In local parlance such merchants are known as magliari, a word that can also mean cheaters. There is no evidence that Di Lauro cheated anyone at the time, but his subsequent history indicates that he might not have hesitated if given the chance. He was quiet and unusually ambitious. In the North he made a bit of money and developed a taste for card games and gambling. It turned out that he was mathematically inclined. Back in Secondigliano he married a local girl who in 1973 bore him the first of 11 children—all of them sons. His wife was very Catholic, as was he. They loved each other very much.

He was not a fighter. It was his coolness when gambling that brought him to the attention of the clan that controlled Secondigliano at the time. The head of the clan was a flamboyant Camorrista named Aniello La Monica, who had a clothing store named Python, after his preferred weapon, a heavy .357 Magnum revolver. La Monica was an aggressive killer—responsible for the deaths of many men, including, it is said, one by hands-on decapitation—but he was strangely shy about the drug trade, preferring to stick to the traditional pursuits of dealing in black-market cigarettes, meddling in public construction, and protecting the neighborhood shopkeepers from crime. Around 1975 he engaged Di Lauro to do the clan’s books. The position gave Di Lauro a privileged view of the business and convinced him after several years—despite the continuing reluctance of La Monica—that far greater profits could be made in the as yet unexploited local trade in heroin and cocaine. This became all the more evident after the great Neapolitan earthquake of 1980, which drove thousands of people from their ruined center-city slums and swelled the Scampia public-housing projects with the poor and dispossessed.

In the years that followed, billions of dollars of reconstruction funds infused cash into every level of Neapolitan society. Di Lauro stuck to the shadows. He spoke little. He listened and observed. He believed that rational people can resolve their professional disputes through compromise and negotiation, and that they should kill only as a last resort. He was more self-disciplined, however, than he was gentle. La Monica, who is said to have been a good judge of men, came to fear that Di Lauro was the most ruthless man of all. For his part, Di Lauro concluded that La Monica had become an impediment to business, and in 1982 he tried to remove him from power by informing key clan members, as the bookkeeper, that La Monica had been taking more than his fair share of the proceeds. When La Monica learned of Di Lauro’s treachery, he hired two killers from a nearby town to hunt Di Lauro down. They arrived by motor scooter, found Di Lauro at a street market, shot at him, missed, and chased him around until he escaped.

Afterward there was no room left for compromise, and people within the clan faced the prospect of having to choose between the two men. Any uncertainty they felt did not last for long. Di Lauro paid an associate to lure La Monica out of his house by offering to show him stolen diamonds, and La Monica, much as he recognized the risk, walked into the trap so he would not seem to be cowering at home. Once on the street he found that the associate had disappeared. Before he could retreat into his house, Di Lauro and three others came speeding around a corner in a Fiat and smashed into him. The impact did not knock him down. The damage to the Fiat is unknown. Di Lauro and his accomplices got out of the car and killed La Monica with pistol shots. La Monica was barely 40 years old. Di Lauro was not yet 30. It is rumored that he was a poor marksman. On the advice of his friends, he swore never again to handle a gun. It seems that he never did, directly, from then on.

On the day of La Monica’s funeral, all of Secondigliano mourned, and many shopkeepers closed their doors in respect. Di Lauro solemnly attended the burial, then faded again into the shadows. He was so averse to standing out that the police knew nothing about him for years. They had no idea who had murdered La Monica, because no one talked. Soon after the killing, the leaders of an important clan in the center of the city asked for a meeting, because they too could not decipher the event. Di Lauro attended the meeting with several of his men and explained that they wanted to do business in friendship and peace. This was true, at least for Di Lauro himself. As luck would have it, the police picked that meeting to raid. They detained Di Lauro but then released him without questioning, assuming he was a minor thug of no consequence. Di Lauro swore that he would never again attend such a meeting. He was a great one for drawing lessons from life. He liked to teach lessons, too. For instance: It is better to share profits than to fight over them. And: You have to be willing to go to war, but if violence is your only skill, you will lose in the end and die. And: Murder is bad because it attracts attention. And: If the police search your place, stay calm; do not act cocky; do not say more than necessary. Live modestly, dress modestly, drive modestly, do not carry a gun. Do not use drugs. If you want to gamble and whore around, that’s fine, but do it somewhere far away, like Monaco or Marbella. Go with French women or Spanish. Here in Secondigliano, don’t fuck casually with other men’s wives and daughters. Here in Secondigliano, the only sound we should hear is the patter of cash.

Di Lauro amassed his power incrementally as people turned to him for decisions and help. He was careful to maintain respectful relations with other clans throughout the region, and yet to avoid the potentially dangerous entanglement of formal alliances. Particularly delicate were his dealings with a local family named Licciardi—a powerful clan well established in areas of Secondigliano and Scampia, with whom he managed repeatedly to avoid going to war even as his business expanded. That business was now based primarily on narcotics, with its five-fold profit margins, but not to the exclusion of other opportunities in the traditional realms of untaxed cigarettes, local gambling shops, and small-time extortion, as well as in the blossoming new market in counterfeit brands.


By 1992, a decade after killing La Monica, Di Lauro was on his way to becoming one of the wealthiest men in Italy, with an uncountable fortune in the hundreds of millions of dollars. I recently spoke to Vittorio Giaquinto, his former lawyer—a large, immaculately dressed man sitting in the splendor of a baroque office—who is one of the few people who knew Di Lauro well. He said that Di Lauro was motivated less by greed than by operational logic, and by an unwavering determination, as an orphan himself, to provide for the long-term security of his family. As a gambler, Di Lauro knew that he was playing a loser’s game and would have to diversify into legitimate businesses if he was to achieve that aim. He founded a holding company through which ultimately he went into textiles, home furnishings, meat and dairy products, bottled water, cash-and-carry wholesale markets, prepared-food distribution, shopping-mall development, residential real estate, hotels, restaurants, shops of all sorts in Secondigliano, and a clothing store in Paris in the 12th Arrondissement. People say that he accumulated a fortune in precious stones sufficient to pave the autostrada all the way to Rome. And yet, despite his understanding of the special risks, he was unwilling to quit dealing in drugs. He kept going, though knowing it could ruin him and, worse, destroy the lives of his wife and sons. In this endeavor he was a gambler unable to stop.

For Secondigliano, those were the golden years anyway. Di Lauro tried to guard himself against betrayal. His greatest defense was the business structure he built, arranged as a pyramid of independent entrepreneurs, acting as franchisees under his guidance, and respected by him as largely autonomous associates. There were about 20 at that level, each with the exclusive rights to a major drug piazza. They bought a minimum of narcotics from Di Lauro each week, and paid a significant rent, but beyond that they were free to earn as much from their piazzas as they could. This included going to outside vendors for additional supplies if they could find them at a better price than Di Lauro offered. He would even finance them, and at low interest rates, if they required it. In return, Di Lauro expected a certain code of behavior: within the clan, people would be treated fairly, down to the lowest level of associates; they would not quarrel stupidly with one another; they would recognize Di Lauro as an arbiter in cases where the quarrel was real; in other ways, also, they would recognize Di Lauro’s authority at all times; they would not take independent action against any other group in the city; and, finally, they would never—never!—speak Di Lauro’s name.

He was sensitive to the smallest signs of trouble. Simone Di Meo, a reporter who has written the best accounts of those times, told me that one day, in the center of Secondigliano, Di Lauro happened to notice a large group of motor scooters parked outside a bar. He sent a man inside to investigate. It turned out that a beautiful girl was being held until she chose one of her captors as a lover. Di Lauro sent word for the party to break up, saying he didn’t want this sort of foolishness in his district. He was not much for flirtation or fun. It is said that he enjoyed practical jokes, but the only hint is contained in a story which may not be true: that he once dressed as a butcher in a butcher shop he owned and gave the shoppers 50 euros in change for every 5 euros they spent. The customers were embarrassed, one version goes, because they saw right through him, as if he were a king playing foolishly at pretend. The customers were so impressed to see him in the flesh, another version goes, that they lined up to kiss his hand.

But it is doubtful that Di Lauro ever put on such a show, or that his customers would have recognized him if he had. Within the community he was known mythically as “The Man.” Within his own organization he was known as “Pasquale.” He was the phantom, the unseen power who had transformed the northern districts of Naples into Europe’s greatest drug emporium, but also employed many thousands of people and had effectively banished street crime from Secondigliano and Scampia. By the mid-1990s, rape, robbery, assault, and theft had all but disappeared. You could walk anywhere you wanted at any hour. If you had a car or motor scooter, you could park it anywhere without worry, except perhaps for the radio (because, after all, this was Italy). When the important newspaper Il Mattino published an article about illicit gambling in the districts, Di Lauro ordered that the gambling stop—and it did, permanently, within 48 hours. When he decided that the traditional business of extorting protection money from local shopkeepers was causing more trouble than it was worth, he ordered not only that it be halted but that his men start paying full prices, and even thank the shopkeepers for their services. It was strange, but they did. For this and all the favors he gave, he was widely loved—and still is. People say that the difference between Di Lauro and a saint was that Di Lauro delivered the miracles faster.

At his peak he was importing heavy loads of cocaine from Colombia (through Spain), heroin from Afghanistan (through Turkey, Eastern Europe, and the Balkans), and hashish from Morocco (again through Spain). These substances were not smuggled in through the port (where customs officials were too greedy) but were delivered overland by truck or car to Naples. Once in Secondigliano, the drugs were diluted and fed into the booming piazzas, as well as to an extensive wholesale network elsewhere in Italy, and in Germany and France. Meanwhile, Di Lauro was manufacturing counterfeit brand-name goods, which he wholesaled in Western Europe, Brazil, and the United States. Louis Vuitton, Dolce & Gabbana, Versace, Gucci, Prada—that sort of stuff. Some of the counterfeits were made by the same Italian factories that produced the originals, and were identical down to the stitching; others were crude knockoffs. It was a profitable business, and not the sort that would normally get you killed. An even better business turned out to be the trade in counterfeit cameras and power tools—shoddy Chinese imitations smuggled into Italy by Di Lauro and sold to the credulous far and wide.

So, great—or good enough. Di Lauro did not kidnap or rob. He sold to people what they came to him to find. But he himself seems to have been unsatisfied. He became increasingly reclusive and by the mid-1990s had withdrawn almost entirely into his house, where he lived behind closed steel shutters and bolted gates, refusing contact with all but his family and a few trusted lieutenants. He became pale from the lack of sun. His wife stayed inside with him, producing another baby every few years. The children eventually grew up and went to school. The family had a huge Neapolitan mastiff named Primo Carnera, after the Italian heavyweight boxer. The dog slept in his own room. The house was the same simple one Di Lauro had lived in as a child, though expanded, fortified, and guarded. It had a basement bar well stocked with French wines and liqueurs, a bunkroom for the boys, and a large, sparsely furnished living room where Di Lauro made decisions. The living room had religious icons on the walls. Di Lauro hardly dared to go to church. He hardly dared to use the phone. He had a back passage for escape. He eyed people closely when he spoke to them, and expressed himself in language so spare that it would have been difficult for outsiders to comprehend. The fact is that no outsiders were listening. But Di Lauro clearly feared that talk could bring him down. He was no longer just naturally taciturn. He was muted by his caution.

And if talk could bring him down, what about a language that the state could really understand—what about murder? The police had missed the meaning of La Monica’s death, but afterward the question must often have been on Di Lauro’s mind. He remained safely out of sight partly by suppressing the Camorra’s tendency toward anarchic violence. He did condone some killings, but these were quiet actions within the clan, not public vendettas. For the safety of the group, regrettably, a few men had to be made to disappear. The kills were so clean that after 10 years, in 1992, the police still did not know that Di Lauro and his clan existed.

“The Rabbit Man”

But then, in that same year, Di Lauro briefly lost control. A former associate named Antonio Ruocco—the leader of a small clan in a nearby town—returned from prison and found that his piazza had been awarded to another man. Ruocco went to war and, after a couple of back-and-forth killings, gathered several gunmen, pulled up at a bar in Scampia, and opened fire with assault rifles, killing five of Di Lauro’s closest associates and wounding nine others. If that was bad, the response was disastrous: certain members of Di Lauro’s clan went rogue, and on their own authority set out not just to hunt down Ruocco but to exterminate his entire family. Ruocco survived by fleeing to Milan, but Di Lauro’s men killed his aging mother, killed his uncle, shot his brother (he survived), shot his brother’s wife (she died), and tried to kill a sister by locking her in a bathroom and setting it on fire (she escaped through a window and left town). Di Lauro was angry about these actions. The targeting of innocent family members—and particularly an old woman—constituted a serious violation of Camorra norms. Worse, the drama had called attention to the northern districts. Di Lauro regained control by having the woman’s killers killed in turn, and by ordering a cease-fire, but dangerous questions had been raised that would not go away.

Three months later, in August 1992, the police found Ruocco in Milan, where he had been cowering in fear of Di Lauro’s wrath. He jumped from a third-floor window when the police arrived, landed badly, and ended up in prison, where after a period of silence he began spilling the Camorra’s secrets, including the story of La Monica’s murder. It was the state’s first break, but a lousy one. After much confusion and fuss, all that came of Ruocco’s cooperation was his own conviction for conspiracy. By 1994 the ruckus had died down. According to Simone Di Meo, this was the moment when the Italian press first identified Di Lauro and his clan. If so, the police weren’t reading the papers, because the detectives who later ran the seven-year investigation that ultimately brought Di Lauro down told me that at the start, in 1995, they had never heard of the man by name.

Unbeknownst to the police, Di Lauro had trouble again, in 1997, when some of his men killed a Licciardi nephew in what began as a quarrel over a woman in a bar, and the Licciardis responded by nailing a death list of 17 Di Lauro associates to a church door. It is said that Di Lauro himself ordered some of those on the list to be killed to show his good faith, but it seems more likely that he simply acquiesced in their fates. The list stayed on the door until a priest took it down. Most of the named 17 survived. For whatever reason, the two groups veered away from war and continued their wary coexistence as before. There was a lot of money being made. By now the police knew of a man named Di Lauro who was a local Camorrista, but they had no photographs of him and did not understand his role. They thought he was at most a mere captain, and in the Licciardi clan. A few detectives worked the case full-time. They kept tapping phones and trying to piece together the puzzle. Rarely could they understand what was being said: the communications were not merely guarded but illiterate and insular, like an entire micro-language that had to be learned. By plotting the connections, they eventually realized they were dealing with a pyramidal structure. They heard frequent references to someone named Pasquale. Sometimes he was called “the Rabbit Man.” This may have meant that he had a large family or that he was fast. It seemed that he was the boss.

Civil War

The break in the case was an accident. In 1998 at an elementary school in the center of Secondigliano, a teacher shouted at a young Di Lauro cousin for misbehaving in class, and one of Di Lauro’s sons—a 10-year-old named Antonio—took his cousin’s defense by standing up and shouting back. The teacher reacted by giving Antonio a slap. Word of the incident traveled fast. It is said that when the boy got home Di Lauro scolded him for misbehaving. Others in the clan, however, felt that the family had been insulted. Three of them went to the school, sought out the teacher, and slapped him as he had slapped Di Lauro’s son—or perhaps a little more. It is obvious that Di Lauro would never have sent them, but when the teacher filed an official complaint, the police took the occasion to summon Di Lauro to the district station for a conversation. He entered the station peacefully, leaving some associates outside, and was whisked to police headquarters in central Naples, where he denied any knowledge of the assault and claimed to be a shopkeeper. The police had to release him, but not before they took some mug shots—face forward and in profile—which now count among the few Di Lauro pictures that exist. Here he is in an open-necked blue shirt at age 45, emerging unwillingly from the shadows—balding, a bit fat, clean-shaven, impressively self-contained. He is a stoic at the height of his power. There is something in his composure—with the hint of a smile that is not a smile, and eyes subtly diverted from the camera—that conveys an unwavering autonomy. He sometimes insisted that he did not oppose the government, but it is clear in these pictures why the government should have feared him.

Pasquale? When the phone taps picked up the clan’s excited chatter about Di Lauro’s station visit, it suddenly became clear that Pasquale and Di Lauro were the same man, and therefore that Di Lauro, who was formerly seen as a minor character, was in fact a king. Di Lauro had long expected this disaster to strike. As a student of life he could not have been surprised that it was over an incident as minor as a spat with a teacher at school. Now that he could no longer hide in plain view, he withdrew even more deeply into his private world and began a peripatetic existence, moving between barren apartments in the district and only occasionally sleeping at home. Sometimes he traveled abroad to make deals and to gamble. When he returned he never mentioned where he had been or what he had done. No one cared so long as he remained in charge. He was sharing his wealth throughout Secondigliano and beyond. Many people believed that the state was too weak to touch him. Di Lauro certainly knew better, and he must have wondered why, subsequently, the state took so long to act.

The problem for the police was that no witnesses came forward to speak against the clan. This left the investigators to proceed in the most tedious manner—by continuing to tap the clan’s phone calls (finally 7,990 conversations in all) and entering the evidence piecemeal into thick files for later review by a prosecuting judge. They had to meet the standards of Italian anti-Mafia laws similar to the American RICO statutes, which target direct association with criminal syndicates and allow for murder prosecutions based on command responsibility. Building the case took a full four years after the teacher-slapping incident, but in October 2002 orders were finally issued for the arrest of Paolo Di Lauro and 61 members of the clan. Within months, many of these people were picked up and jailed. Some of them were very close to Di Lauro, including Di Lauro’s second-oldest son. As for Di Lauro himself, he was nowhere to be found. For several years he was on the run. People claimed to have spotted him in Marseilles, Athens, London, and Milan. Some newspapers reported that he had died. But his lawyer told me that not only was he alive but he had remained in Secondigliano the entire time. When I asked his lawyer why, he spread his hands as if to say, It’s obvious. He said, “He loved his family.” In fact, it was during his years as a fugitive that he and his wife conceived their 11th and final child. The lawyer told me he had wondered aloud if the child would perhaps at last be a girl, and Di Lauro answered that he could not even mention this to his wife because she might take the question as a criticism for not yet having provided him with a daughter. He was that in love with her, still. He cared for nothing if he did not care for his family.

In May 2004 one of his sons was killed in a motor-scooter accident. He was a passenger on the back, riding without a helmet. Di Lauro was devastated and became ineffectual for a while. This may help to explain why at around this time he made the greatest error of his life, when he decided to hand over power to a child he loved beyond reason, Cosimo, his firstborn son. Cosimo, aged 30, was a full-blown psychopath known for brutality. He wore long, stringy hair and black clothes in imitation of a gothic fantasy character from the movie The Crow. He kept a Lamborghini in Paris. He was a heartthrob for lower-class girls, who were thrilled by his aggression and his style. For much the same reason he was surrounded by a crew of young gunmen full of swagger. Cosimo had been involved in Camorra business since his teenage years and had recently concluded that the clan’s principal associates, the long-honored franchisees, had grown too independent and greedy, and that his father—a mere accountant, after all—had lacked the courage to take them on. All that was going to change, now that he was in charge. Henceforward all drug supplies would be purchased exclusively from the Di Lauro family, and associates would essentially become its employees, to be paid as Cosimo saw fit, and under his control. Any who objected would be replaced—one way or another. It was obvious that the old-timers were not going to accept these terms, nor, for that matter, could they accept the authority of such an immature leader. Through an intermediary, Di Lauro ordered his son to desist. The intermediary said, “I bring a message from your father. Do not do this war.” It was too late. Cosimo answered, “Papa doesn’t count anymore.”

The war that followed was one of the most intense in the Camorra’s history, pitting a faction of former Di Lauro associates, now known as the Secessionists, against the new, younger gunmen, who stuck with Cosimo and retained the Di Lauro name. The fighting broke out in late 2004. In Secondigliano and Scampia that fall and winter at least 54 people were killed, sometimes several in a day. Paolo Di Lauro must have looked on in disgust and dismay. On one occasion, the former girlfriend of a Secessionist was captured by Cosimo’s men, who tortured her (in vain) to get her to divulge her boyfriend’s location, then murdered her and burned her body in a car. People were outraged even within the clan and they talked: this was Cosimo’s doing. The police issued orders for Cosimo’s arrest. He went into hiding in Secondigliano but sent so many text messages to various girlfriends that he was tracked down within a few weeks. When the police broke in, he was not armed. He went to a mirror to comb his hair back, and he put on a black leather coat to complement his black sweater and jeans. It was a January afternoon in 2005. By the time the police got him downstairs, several hundred neighborhood women had converged on the site and begun to riot. They dropped a toilet on the police from an upper-floor window, threw all manner of objects at them, and burned two police cars. Cosimo emerged into this scene, flanked by policemen, and stared directly into the cameras of the press. He was like a rock star playing to the paparazzi. The pictures that resulted became all the rage on schoolgirls’ cell phones throughout Naples.

Was he proud of what he had done? Wars are so easy to start and hard to stop. Cosimo’s lasted another month or two, and ended with the destruction of everything his father had built. For the Di Lauro clan, this was essentially a military defeat. The Secessionists were more numerous, more experienced, and better armed; the Di Lauros consisted now mostly of the pretenders who had accepted Cosimo’s leadership. In the end it was Paolo Di Lauro, still in hiding, who sued for peace. Meetings between envoys were set up under the security guarantees of other clans. For additional safety, family members were swapped as hostages for the duration of the talks. In the end the two sides agreed on three crucial conditions. One: the Secessionists would now become a clan of their own, with no obligations to any Di Lauro. Two: the Secessionists who had fled their apartments could return at no risk to live in Secondigliano again. Three: Paolo Di Lauro would admit that his family had lost the war, and with it the rights to all of his piazzas except for an alley in the center of Secondigliano, and an apartment complex nearby, in a loyalist stronghold called Rioni dei Fiori, where the women had rioted for his beloved psychopathic son.

In the summer of 2005 there was such quiet on the northern front that Neapolitans assumed Di Lauro was back in charge. This was good news rather than bad. People did not know about his loss of power, and they could not have imagined that such a man would ever have surrendered. A few months later, on September 16, 2005, he was found by the police in the simple apartment of a humble old woman who had been sheltering and feeding him for a fee. He did not resist the police or make any comment when they walked in. He seemed to have been expecting the event. When he was taken outside, he kept his head down to foil the photographers. He did not strut. He did not cower. At the station, when asked, he said no more than he had said before. “I am Paolo Di Lauro, and I am a shopkeeper.” He then fell silent, as he has been ever since.


So love is dangerous after all. Paolo Di Lauro stood trial in the spring of 2006. He observed the first phase quietly, without obvious emotion. He was dressed modestly. About halfway through the trial, as more charges were leveled, he stopped attending the proceedings, gave up on his defense, and dismissed his longtime lawyer and friend. To the lawyer he said, “You should not be offended. There is no lack of respect implied.” But there was also no point in carrying on. The court assigned him a public defender, as required by law, and in May 2006 Di Lauro was sentenced to the first of what have since turned into three consecutive 30-year prison terms for Mafia association, trafficking, and murder. His son Cosimo, in separate trials, was also sent away for life. The court seized any Di Lauro properties that could be found.

It was a victory for the state, but an empty one. War broke out again in 2006 between the Secessionists and the Di Lauro clan—now headed by another son—and seven people were murdered. The dynamics of the violence were extremely complex. It is believed that some of the dead may have been killed by the Licciardi to incite fighting by the two other sides. In the summer of 2007 it happened again, and 11 high-ranking Di Lauro associates were killed. That same year a group of loyalists who had stuck with the clan through the worst of the troubles finally broke off in disgust and assumed independent control of the central alley in Secondigliano, leaving the Di Lauros pathetically enfeebled and with only the single piazza in Rioni dei Fiori to use for selling drugs. Nearby, in Scampia, the Secessionists had control over multiple piazzas but were unable to usher in a new era of peace, as they must have wanted to. Rather, the opposite occurred, as fighting continued for reasons that seemed increasingly petty and confused. Soon enough, in 2010, the Secessionists themselves split into two groups—veterans of the war with Di Lauro, known as the Old Colonels, and upstarts led by a notoriously violent kid in his early 20s, known as Mariano, who rides around not on a motor scooter but on a powerful dual-purpose Transalp motorcycle, wearing a full-face helmet in the fashion of killers. The police know he is there but can never find him. He is coked up and certain to die young, and clearly he does not care.

This is the situation on the ground today, a chaos of constant splintering and murderous rivalries that shows no sign of sorting itself out. It is the pattern of the Camorra in Naples, as it has always been. There are periods of chaos, followed by peaceful times when men like Di Lauro rise, followed by chaos again when men like Di Lauro fall. The remnants of his clan are headed now by a son named Marco, a fugitive from the law, who is widely disrespected for being foolish and weak. Somewhere in Naples, in some other family, the next great leader in all likelihood has already been born, but until he emerges onto the scene demonstrating particular strength and wisdom he cannot be identified. Meanwhile, for those in the game in Secondigliano and Scampia, there are so many different ways to die, and every one of them is a surprise.

The government wanders this terrain on its own uncertain missions. You have to wonder what it is trying to achieve when, for instance, it stops some people for questioning on the streets, or throws others in prison forever. In a place like Italy—where the recent prime minister condones tax evasion as a natural right and publicly impugns the courts—it becomes hard to believe that police actions are sincerely about law and order, or that officials still believe that law and order matter. As warfare raged within the Camorra, Italy itself was teetering on the edge of economic collapse and threatening to drag the rest of Europe with it—and largely because of mismanagement by a succession of corrupt and cynical governments. One day in Naples I was told of a police raid under way against what was left of the Di Lauro clan in Secondigliano. I rushed to Rioni dei Fiori and came upon an opera, with a helicopter thumping overhead and the streets guarded by uniformed officers for blocks around. At the center of the operation stood the piazza itself, a typically filthy apartment complex built around a central square littered with trash and stained with at least one large smear of human excrement. The clan had obviously heard about the raid in advance and had quietly shut its operations for the day. As a result, there were no drugs to be found, no arrests to be made. Firemen broke down a steel door and removed some fortifications that the clan had installed at the two access gates to the courtyard. Then the raid was over. The man in charge was a detective. I asked him what purpose the raid had served. “It was a show of state power,” he said. “Of making the dealers flee like rats. It was a public humiliation. That was the purpose. But we are not stupid. We know they will come back to take over the piazza and control the gates again. Probably by tomorrow. Look, we can squeeze the Camorra, but we know we can’t stop it.”

And maybe that doesn’t matter. People may wring their hands about the horror of it all, but this is Naples, one of the great alternatives to modern life. It is possible that the world should no more root out the Camorra than make Neapolitans operate on time. And then there is the practical side. An anti-Mafia judge told me that some of the police—even those who have not been corrupted—would rather not see the government prevail, because they fear the even greater disorder that would result. Another judge pointed out to me that the government needs the Camorra for social control. He said, “For a political leader, it’s easier to speak to a Camorra boss than to 100,000 people to get a message across.” More than that, he said: the Camorra sets standards, enforces laws, keeps police power itself in check, fends off aggressive tax collectors, employs a huge percentage of the population, creates and distributes wealth more efficiently than any other sector of society, and stands in to keep things going, especially in times like these, when the national economy has failed and the currency itself is at risk.

It’s hardly the system you would dream up in a civics class. Nonetheless the Camorra serves society best when it is strong. The judges I spoke to all recognized this truth, and yet these were the same people who had taken Di Lauro down. I asked them if they believed in the superiority of the Italian state, and all but one replied no. That one said, to paraphrase, “We have no choice. The Camorra has created an anti-state whose very existence threatens the legitimacy of the Italian state. If the courts did not act, they would not be real. If the courts are not real, Italy will not endure. Our role is not to prevail over the Camorra but to go through the motions of trying.” I mentioned this to a Camorra defense lawyer. She knew the judge in question. She said, “The anti-state is the state itself. It is the state, not the Camorra, that is strangling Italy.” She seemed to prefer the criminals to the officials. Most Neapolitans would agree. They demonstrate daily the extent to which they can live without Italy. And if Di Lauro ever came back, their celebrations would shut down the city.

That will probably never happen. Di Lauro will turn 59 this year in a maximum-security prison 40 miles northwest of Rome in the town of Viterbo. He is being held there under a prison regime called 41-bis—a program of severe and indefinite isolation by which Mafia leaders can be kept under 24-hour surveillance, cut off from contact even with guards, denied access to national or regional news, and allowed visits only from their lawyers and, for one hour a month—behind plate glass, by monitored phone—a designated member of their immediate family accompanied only by those children who are minors. The primary intent is to separate Mafia leaders from their organizations, and to prevent them from directing operations from within the prisons. The resulting conditions, however, are so extreme that in 2007 the European Court of Human Rights held that certain aspects are in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights, and that same year a U.S. judge refused to extradite a heroin trafficker to Italy because of concerns that 41-bis would be applied to him and might constitute torture. Indeed, the regime, which is easily lifted when the government chooses, has repeatedly served a coercive purpose, ultimately persuading a line of hardened men to give evidence to the courts in return for relief from the promise of eternal solitude.

But Di Lauro is not one of them. It is not clear whether he has anything to read. I have been told that he spends his time in contemplation, chain-smoking cigarettes. It is an extraordinarily disciplined response. He knows that he can end the suffering if he begins to talk, but this he refuses to do. Instead, he has chosen the opposite course, an even greater extreme than 41-bis imposes, and has begun refusing not only any further contact with lawyers, but also the monthly conversation he is allowed with his wife. He must still love her, but he is the master of silence. Trapped by the state, he remains the master of himself.

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William Langewiesche Massimo Vitali