Society

Italy: The town that stood up to the mafia

29 December 2011
El Mundo Madrid

Ercolano, December 2010. A demonstration against the Camorra organized by Radio Siani.

Ercolano, December 2010. A demonstration against the Camorra organized by Radio Siani.

Ercolano, in southern Italy, has become the first town to stop paying extortion money to the Camorra. A new freedom fiercely defended by the town's mayor and shopkeepers.

The baker, the mechanic, the gas station owner, the fisherman, the owner of the clothing store, the hairdresser, the barber, the jeweller, the optician, the bar owner...  Not even the pastor of the Church of the Santísimo Rosario (Holy Rosary) escaped.

For many years, three generations of residents of Ercolano, a town of 55,000 located 14 kilometre from Naples, have done only one thing: grit their teeth and, without a murmur, stump up extortion money of between 150 and 1,500 euros every month that the members of the local Camorra demanded from the traders, businessmen and even priests, in exchange for not making their lives impossible.

But that is history now. Ercolano, half way between the sea and Vesuvius and famous for its Roman ruins, has said "Enough!" and so has become the first town in southern Italy that has dared to give the finger to the mob and refuse to yield to their extortion rackets.

"Ercolano, territory freed of extortion," will defiantly proclaim a sign soon to be put up prominently at the entrance to the town. "We no longer put up with abuses," proudly declare the banners hanging from many shop windows. Quite a provocation, given that, according to the SOS Confesercenti association, extorting “pizzo” – the term for the ‘tax’ the Mafia impose on shopkeepers, backed up by threats and intimidation – brings some 10 billion euros each year into the coffers of organised crime in Italy and affects about 160,000 companies.

Turning point came in 2005

"We’re free of it now in Ercolano,” says Giuseppe Scognamiglio, Coordinator of Radio Siani, a station that speaks out against the Mafia and for the law. The station began broadcasting in 2009 from offices in what had been the headquarters of a local Camorra boss.

"Just a few years ago, though, life here was very different. Everyone was paying off the Mafia, murders were the order of the day, mobsters were walking down the street armed and driving about in armoured cars mounted with machine guns, and people were literally scared to death."

Ercolano's rebellion against the criminals began in 2004 when, for the first time in the history of the town, an entrepreneur dared to go to the security forces and report that a mobster had come into her shop and demanded money in exchange for not making life difficult for her. That bold shopkeeper is a flirtatious blonde lady, Raffaella Ottaviano. "I don’t know why, but up until that time they had never tried to extort from me.  When that guy came to my shop and told me in a threatening tone that I had to pay up I was afraid, really afraid,” she admits to El Mundo.

"But I thought it was better to close the shop than to live the rest of my life with that fear. So I told the mobster that no, I wouldn’t pay him, and I went straight to the police station to report what happened”, she says. “It’s better to die once than to die every day.”

The heroic act of Raffaella Ottaviano proved a memorable one. Especially since other business people who had dared to stand up to the Mafia had paid dearly for their audacity. One such was Sofia Ciriello, who owned a bread bakery in the centre of Ercolano. Not only did the gangsters come one day to wave a gun to persuade her it was better to pay, they set off a bomb in her bakery.

The great turning point, though, came in 2005, when a man named Nino Daniele was elected mayor of Ercolano, which was then immersed in a bloody war between two Camorra clans that saw about one killing a week and where traders were being suffocated by the “pizzo”. "I can’t give you a figure, but plenty of shops had been forced to close up because they couldn’t handle that burden. All the businesses in the town were in crisis. Ercolano was going through an economic and human drama. I had to do something,” the former mayor of the town recalls.

No more murders or guns

Daniele rolled up his sleeves, and for the four years he was mayor worked hard to try to rebuild the trust of the inhabitants of Ercolano in the institutions and in the state. He not only dared to stand up and speak out against the mobsters, marching at the head of numerous popular demonstrations against them, he cancelled each and every municipal contract with companies suspected of being related to the Camorra, began to fight against the real-estate abuses so typical of organised crime, and dared to take part in many civil cases against camorristi...

He also brought in measures to encourage merchants to refuse pay the pizzo, passing for example a law that exempts them from all local taxes for three years in exchange for reporting extortion by the Mafia. And, as if that were not enough, he spearheaded the Ercolano Association against Mafia Extortions, whose president is Raffaella Ottaviano.

The results have been striking: the law enforcement and judicial operations have put around 250 mobsters from Ercolano behind bars today. There are no more murders or guns. A total of 23 local businessmen who had to pay off the mob have summoned up the courage to denounce 41 members of organised criminal gangs and to take part in the legal actions now underway against them. Paying the “pizzo” is history.

Translated from the Spanish by Anton Baer