Dissecting the Mafia: Campania’s Camorra

Campania’s Camorra, one of the four major Mafia groups in Italy, along with Sicily’s Cosa Nostra, Calabria’s ‘Ndrangheta and Puglia’s Sacra Corona Unita, is one of the most insidious and dangerous criminal organisations in the world. With a history spanning over a century, Camorra has seeped into every sphere of Campanian society, from business to politics, terrorizing the local population through a quasi-unbreakable cycle of violence and corruption.

A Brief History of Camorra

An abundance of myths point the organisation’s origins toward the 16th-century Spanish secret societies and the 19th-century Sicilian influences.1 Most historians agree that the Camorra originated with the creation of gangs in the Neapolitan prison system shortly prior to the unification of Italy in 1861. Upon release from prison, the political upheaval of the time allowed the gangs to cast their influence over candidates in local elections. Highway robberies and extortions provided them with the money needed for power.2

The etymology of the name Camorra is still disputed by historians. A common theory is that it derives from a gambling game called “morra” and from the word “capo,” meaning boss, referring to the money taken by the bosses overseeing the games.3

The Fascist regime of the 1920s conducted a purge of Camorra gangs and other Mafia-style organizations as part of their crackdown against fascist dissidents and anarchists. By 1930, it was believed that the Camorra had been entirely wiped out, but a number of clans lay dormant, awaiting their resurgence.4

Their opportunity came at the end of World War II when Camorra gangs established in Naples’ black markets for food, following the destruction of the city left by Allied bombing campaigns. In 1943, with the Allied invasion of Italy, U.S. forces made deals with Camorra bosses to provide intelligence and protection to American shipyards, allowing the clans to thrive.5

The Camorra gangs continued to grow in the post-war years, and in the late 1960s, Naples was turned into the centre of international tobacco smuggling. By the 1970s, Camorra gangs were making roughly today’s equivalent of $215 million a year and employed between 40,000 and 60,000 people in the region of Campania.6

The late 1970s saw Camorra investing in the illegal cocaine and heroin business, turning southern Italy into a quasi-narco-state. Brutal violence erupted in the following decade with the assassination of major political figures and anti-Camorra judges. Boss Raffaele Cutolo’s attempt to unite the Camorra gangs under his rule led to more bloodshed and civil war.7

Waves of arrests followed in the 1990s with the hope of lessening the power of the Camorra, but the attempt only created power vacuums promptly filled by a new generation of camorristi.8

Camorra’s Money Laundering Methods

Unlike Cosa Nostra and the ‘Ndrangheta, which operate under a centralised control system made up of heads of families, Camorra has no dominant authority, and it is made up of independent clans that control territories in and around Naples. It is estimated that around 180 clans currently exist. They forge alliances or wage wars among themselves depending on their interests.9

The vast amount of cash generated from the sale of drugs, counterfeit goods of major brands, large-scale fraud schemes and illegal waste disposal have pushed members of Camorra to invest in legitimate businesses to launder their immense gains. The most common of these include real estate, retail and large distribution, tourism, supplies to government agencies and the restaurant sector.10

The latter has made the Camorra notorious throughout the world. In the early 1980s, Ciro Righi, owner of the restaurant “Pizza Ciro,” was tasked by the Contini clan to launder part of the ransom received from the kidnapping of one of Naples’s most famous jewellers, Luigi Presta. The event sparked the creation of Righi’s restaurant empire and his family’s close association with the clan. “Pizza Ciro” expanded across Italy and opened establishments in Spain, the U.K. and China, all using Contini clan’s money. In 2014, authorities seized the Righi family’s fortune and companies, ending “Pizza Ciro” and accusing its members of conspiracy to launder and conceal illicit money.11

Contini clan’s investments in the Righi family’s pizzerias are but a drop in the vast ocean of the Camorra’s illegal use of the restaurant sector. In September 2020, the Anti-mafia District Directorate (DDA) seized 14 restaurants in the centre of Rome belonging to the Moccia di Afragola clan. In a wiretap, an affiliate of the clan was heard saying, “They [the Moccia clan] really have an army there… The restaurants in Rome are all theirs! All of them! Non traceable!”12

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“Where there is confusion, money goes around.” Those words—heard during a wiretap—were spoken by a member of the Camorra and sum up the crime syndicate’s philosophy during the COVID-19 crisis. The harsh economic situation created by the pandemic has left the restaurant sector weak and in need of liquidity. Cerved, an information provider firm, estimates that 32% of restaurants and bars are in risk of being infiltrated by Camorra clans following the COVID-19 lockdowns.13

This does not stop at the restaurant sector. It is estimated that 1,098 entities throughout the entire region of Campania are at danger of infiltration.

The bed-and-breakfast (B&B) sector is also at risk. Estimates believe that there are around 18,000 rooms, vacation homes and B&B establishments that are offered online in Campania, but only 3,000 of them result in the commune’s official list of sojourn taxpayers.14

A 2021-2022 investigation also shed light onCamorra’s interests outside of Italy. It was discovered that the Secondigliano clan had assembled an elaborate money laundering scheme whereby drug money was transferred to Dubai through the hawala system and invested in real estate and financial assets.15

The Fight Against the Camorra

The decentralised nature of the Camorra and the multitude of clans, each with its own legion of affiliates, makes it problematic for Italian authorities to take strong action. Another issue is the power that the clans hold, often linked to influential political figures that allow the clans to have a substantial dominance over various sectors in and around Naples.16

There are various government bodies tasked with fighting the Camorra. The Anti-Mafia District Directorate has a strong presence in Campania with its Sector III – Economic Crimes responsible, among other duties, for stopping money laundering.17 Interforce Anti-Mafia Groups coordinated by the Government Territorial Offices also play a decisive role in dealing with Camorra’s attempts at infiltrating the legal economy by monitoring, collecting and analysing relevant information.18

Initiatives by local organisations to dissuade entrepreneurs from doing business with Camorra have also had a substantial impact in the past. Since 2012, the Nuova Cooperazione Organizzata (NCO) or New Organized Cooperation, whose name riffs on Nuova Camorra Organizzata once led by the Camorra boss Raffaele Cutulo, has been working to redeem land confiscated to the Camorra by primarily focusing on social agriculture.19

The road to ridding Campania and the rest of the world from the Camorra is a long one. Giovanni Melillo, head of the Naples prosecutor's office and national anti-mafia and anti-terrorism prosecutor, believes that the issue of crime in Naples is not sufficiently present in national public debate.20 Moreover, the sheer number of clans makes it almost impossible to eradicate the Mafia group in the near future. To combat the pervasive influence of the Camorra, law enforcement agencies and public organisations will have to target corruption and poverty to weaken the group’s hold on society and provide alternative opportunities and support for individuals and companies.  

Stefano Siggia, CAMS, senior consultant, Pideeco, Belgium, stefano@pideeco.be , 

  1. Pasquale Peluso, “The Roots of the Organized Criminal World in Campania,” Sociology and Anthropology, September 2013, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/260834618_The_Roots_of_the_Organized_Criminal_Underworld_in_Campania
  2. Ciara Nugent, “Organized Crime Lurks Everywhere in My Brilliant Friend. Here’s the Real Story of the Rise of the Naples Underworld,” Time, 16 November 2018, https://time.com/5435772/elena-ferrante-hbo-mafia-camorra/
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. “Le Mafie Oggi. L’Analisi della Commissione Antimafia,” Avviso Pubblico, http://www.avvisopubblico.it/home/home/cosa-facciamo/informare/osservatorio-parlamentare/attivita-dinchiesta/attivita-dinchiesta-xvii/commissione-bicamerale-antimafia/le-mafie-oggi-lanalisi-della-commissione-antimafia/
  10. Ibid.
  11. Cecilia Anesi, Matteo Civillini, and Giulio Rubino, “UK – Pizza, friarielli e pounds, la ricetta per il riciclaggio a Londra,” Il Fatto Quotidiano, https://www.ilfattoquotidiano.it/longform/mafie-europa/focus/gran-bretagna/
  12. Unknown, “Scoperti 14 ristoranti della Camorra nei luoghi più prestigiosi del Centro di Roma,” Il Fatto Quotidiano del Lazio, September 29, 2020, https://www.ilquotidianodellazio.it/scoperti-14-ristoranti-della-camorra-nei-luoghi-piu-prestigiosi-del-centro-di-roma.html
  13. Gigi di Fiore, “Camorra e Covid, cosi il denaro sporco circola di piu nel post pandemia,” Il Mattino, 23 September  2022, https://www.ilmattino.it/rubriche/criminapoli/camorra_covid_denaro_sporco_post_pandemia-6944343.html
  14. Ibid.
  15. Dario del Porto, “Dubai, provincia di Secondigliano: così dagli Emirati la Camorra governa il traffico di stupefacenti,” La Repubblica, 8 April 2022, https://www.repubblica.it/dossier/cronaca/storie-di-mafia/2022/04/08/news/camorra_dubai_secondigliano-344721145/
  16. Le Figaro with AFP, “Naples: L’emprise de la mafia Camorra difficile a combattre, indique le procureur,” Le Figaro, 7 June 2019, https://www.lefigaro.fr/flash-actu/naples-l-emprise-de-la-mafia-camorra-difficile-a-combattre-indique-le-procureur-20190607
  17. “Direzione Distrettuale Antimafia,” Procura della Repubblica Presso il Tribunale di Napoli, https://procura-napoli.giustizia.it/it/direz_distrettuale_antimafia.page
  18. “Attività svolta e risultati conseguiti dalla Direzione Investigativa Antimafia Gennaio – Giugno 2021,” Direzione Investigative Antimafia, https://direzioneinvestigativaantimafia.interno.gov.it/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/Relazione_Sem_I_2021.pdf
  19. Lia Curcio, “NCO, nuova cooperazione organizzata,” Unimondo.org, 12 January 2018, https://www.unimondo.org/Guide/Politica/Mafie/NCO-nuova-cooperazione-organizzata-171003
  20. Le Figaro with AFP, “Naples: l’emprise de la mafia Camorra difficile a combattre, indique le procureur,” Le Figaro, 7 June 2019, https://www.lefigaro.fr/flash-actu/naples-l-emprise-de-la-mafia-camorra-difficile-a-combattre-indique-le-procureur-20190607

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