Nigerian gangsters get a foothold in a violent Italian landscape

  • Thursday, January 08, 2009 - By Sebastian Rotella
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At a ceremony last month at the Castel Volturno, Italy, site of an attempted Camorra hit in September that killed six Ghanaians, a poster honors one of the victims, Karim Yakubu.
 At a ceremony last month at the Castel Volturno, Italy, site of an attempted Camorra hit in September that killed six Ghanaians, a poster honors one of the victims, Karim Yakubu.
 

As the African gangs gain clout, conflict with the Neapolitan mafia known as the Camorra intensifies, made brutally clear by an attempted hit that left six Ghanaians dead.

Reporting from Castel Volturno, Italy — Soaring on cocaine, guns smoking, the Camorra hit squad sped down the Via Domitiana, the road built along the Bay of Naples during the Roman Empire.

The gangsters had just killed an arcade owner. Now they were hunting an African drug dealer.

Bulky in bulletproof vests, they scanned the dim main drag of this no man's land by the sea, a 16-mile strip of a town where Naples blends with Nigeria. They saw African prostitutes wearing miniskirts and multicolored braids, a wild night parade of silhouettes posing, strutting, staggering in search of a few euros. The sedan passed storefront churches, neon motel signs and garbage-strewn lots. It stopped at a low white structure housing Ob-Ob Exotic Fashions.

The drug dealer wasn't there. But the gunmen opened up anyway, strafing a group of Ghanaians at the store with an AK-47 assault rifle and semiautomatic pistols. Then they fled to a squalid hide-out and celebrated with lobster and champagne, leaving behind six people dead, one wounded and an uproar that spread across Italy.

The killings in September, recounted in interviews by senior antimafia officials, were gory evidence of conflict between the Neapolitan mafia, known as the Camorra, and Nigerian gangsters who play a growing role in Italy's drug and prostitution rackets.

This landscape of change and fear has been shaped by a singular juxtaposition: One of Europe's biggest concentrations of African immigrants has risen in the heart of Camorra turf.

"After the shooting, my wife said: 'Let's pack and leave this place,' " said Nsangu "Sammi" Kagutta, a Tanzanian father of three who owns a nearby Internet center. "They were just poor people trying to get their daily bread. If it was about drugs, they shot the wrong people."

Most of the victims were illegal immigrant laborers, though one or two may have been low-level drug pushers, investigators say. The fusillade of 130 bullets was apparently an indiscriminate message from a Camorra clan aimed at terrifying its junior partners into obedience.

"It was not about racism at all," said Jean-Rene Bilongo, a community mediator from Cameroon who speaks French, English and Italian with the broad Neapolitan accent. "It was about business."

Nigerian gangsters have made Castel Volturno a European headquarters. In the 1990s, demand boomed here for African prostitutes -- prosecutors call it "the Naomi Campbell phenomenon." Camorra clans "rented" turf to Nigerian pimps, a line of work that Neapolitan gangsters disdain.

And as cocaine flows increasingly to Europe through West Africa, Nigerians have graduated from their previous role as smuggling "mules" and pay the Camorra for a cut of street trafficking action.

"The Camorra worked well with the Nigerians at first," said Antonio Laudati, a top Justice Ministry official who led a major prosecution of the Nigerian mafia last year. "They were low-cost labor. They were well-received because they were cheap and very loyal. But then the Nigerians started to rise to a new level."

That coincided with the disarray of the region's dominant clan from the nearby town of Casal di Principe. As older Casalesi bosses went to prison, a new generation of swaggering, hard-partying gunslingers stepped up. During the last year, they embarked on a punitive campaign against Italian turncoats and foreign rivals, killing nine people.

Those deaths were in addition to the violence on Sept. 18, which came about because the Casalesi gunmen were looking for an African drug dealer who had crossed them, said a senior antimafia official who requested anonymity for security reasons. They gunned down a mob-connected Italian they suspected of protecting the African, then attacked the clothing shop in a drug-fueled frenzy, officials say.

"Behind the massacre is a question of territory," Laudati said. "They were killed in a symbolic manner. It was an ethnic warning to rebellious Africans. This is a new reality, a work in progress, and we are trying to figure it out."

Since the killings, the government in Rome has cracked down, arresting suspects and deploying 500 soldiers in the region. Local leaders want Italians and immigrants to work together against an entrenched outlaw culture.

In Castel Volturno and elsewhere in southern Europe where crime, immigration and economic crisis converge, an uncertain future is under construction.

"We need to deal with the social problems, and not just using the police," said Mayor Francesco Nuzzo, who estimates there are 15,000 undocumented immigrants here. "This is a world. There are 50 different ethnicities in Castel Volturno."

The faded stucco motels on the Via Domitiana are relics from 30 years ago, when the town aspired to become a tourism capital. Instead, the pollution and helter-skelter architecture attest to neglect and rapacity. Camorra clans got rich off the unlicensed construction of vacation complexes, concrete monstrosities that served as refuge for victims of the Naples earthquake in 1980, then an influx of immigrants.

Africans first came to work in tomato fields made bountiful by the climate of the Caserta region and subsidies from the European Union. In recent years, many arrived on a new flow of ragged smuggling flotillas from Libya to Sicily.

Like the fugitive local gangsters who dodge police for years in the mob-dominated towns north of Naples, newcomers find this a good place to lie low.

"It attracts illegal immigrants because there is a generalized culture of lawlessness," the senior antimafia official said. "People don't pay taxes, they build illegally, they dump garbage illegally, they buy contraband, they work off the books. People in this part of Italy have a problem with rules."

But jobs are scarce. Employers prefer Eastern Europeans to work in hotels and South Asians to clean up after the herds of buffalo whose milk is used to produce the region's acclaimed mozzarella.

Hard times may have aggravated the extraordinary reaction the day after the killings. A march by Africans erupted into a riot on the Via Domitiana. They vandalized cars and shops and scuffled with police. In response, there was an anti-immigrant demonstration that Mayor Nuzzo blames partly on manipulation by the Camorra.

More trauma came in early November. Local governments invited Miriam Makeba, a beloved South African singer, to a benefit concert here. The idea was to defy the Camorra and promote tolerance. The 76-year-old performed, but suffered a heart attack and died backstage.

"It was very sad," said Kagutta, the Tanzanian businessman, who met Makeba before the concert. "She seemed a little frail, not healthy. But she talked and sang normally. She was dancing on stage. What a very bad day."

In an immigrant community bereft of leaders, the quiet Kagutta, 42, has made a mark. Dressed casually but carefully, he talks over an espresso in a glass-walled office at the back of his Internet shop. The place seems an oasis: well-kept, rows of modern computers, signs announcing DHL delivery service and computer repairs.

On the night of the killings, Kagutta rushed to the area with other Africans. He saw the dead, some of them men he knew, sprawled in the store and a bullet-shredded Alfa Romeo.

Fear spread. Several African businesses shut their doors. Nonetheless, Kagutta said, the quick response of Italian law enforcement reassured him. He said he also had good experiences since he arrived here in his late 20s, a laborer with dreams of opening a business.

"There are people who give you a hand," he said. "I have an Italian friend who is my brother. He says that and he means it, with no self-interest."

The nationwide attention to Castel Volturno could have a positive result, he said.

"I think right now there is more understanding," he said. "The door of integration will be more open."

The door closed forever, though, for six Ghanaians on Sept. 18. It took more than two months for authorities to identify them and complete the procedures to send the bodies, traveling this time with papers, back to their homeland.

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