Pay or burn: an Italian mafia’s message to businesses

FOGGIA—One November morning, Gianpaolo Romano found an unsigned letter under the glass entrance to his car showroom in this southern Italian province known for its pristine beaches, vast tomato fields and, these days, a ruthless local mafia.

The message said he had to pay €250,000, or $286,000, to be safe. He didn’t say who he had to pay the pizzo to, or the protection money, but that he had to find them himself. They knew his habits and where his family lived, the letter said. It was the first time he had received such a request.

Mr. Romano and his two brothers, co-owners of the family business founded in 1964, decided not to pay and report the threat to the police.

At dawn on January 4, a bomb mixing gunpowder with nails and bolts blew out all the showroom windows, badly damaged three cars on display and left holes in the metal shutter of the store. ‘opposite.

“We don’t regret reporting it, although we don’t feel safe now,” Romano said.

The explosion at Mr Romano’s showroom ushered in a series of unprecedented attacks in the province of Foggia in the southern region of Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot-shaped peninsula.

Fourteen businesses or businesses have been victims of bombings or arson since the start of the year, according to the anti-extortion association of Foggia.

An aerial view of Foggia, Italy, in the southern region of Puglia, the heel of the boot-shaped Italian peninsula.

The wave of violence marks an attempt by the Foggia mafia to reassert its power, after a crackdown by Italian authorities in recent years led to the arrest of hundreds of local mafiosos, judicial officials and landlords said of companies.

The local mob, which has been active in the region for three decades, is often referred to as the fourth mafia, as it is smaller and less notorious than the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, the ‘Ndrangheta of Calabria or the Camorra of Naples.

Ongoing criminal trials in Foggia have risen to more than 12,000 from 9,700 four years ago, largely due to authorities cracking down on crowds, Foggia chief prosecutor Ludovico Vaccaro said.

Puglia is one of the richest regions in southern Italy. But Foggia, with its mafia problem, is one of the poorest regions of Puglia.

The showroom of Gianpaolo Romano’s car dealership was the victim of a bomb attack in early January.

Unemployment in Foggia stands at 25%, one of the highest rates in Italy and around double the rest of Puglia. Many people only have seasonal jobs in tourism or the large fields of tomatoes and wheat. Young people often emigrate to the wealthier north of Italy or abroad. Over the past 20 years, the population of Foggia has decreased by 13% to 600,000.

Extortion has been the mainstay of the local mafia, so much so that 80% of Foggia’s business was supposed to pay the pizzo until recently, said Antonio Laronga, a Foggia magistrate and author of a book on the local mafia. . Few report requests for protection money to the police, magistrates say.

“We even found that some contractors spontaneously contacted the crowd and offered to pay,” Mr. Laronga said.

But the Fourth Mafia also smuggles through Albania most of the marijuana that enters Italy, Mr Laronga said, and has often robbed security vans on highways armed with Kalashnikovs.

The Fourth Mafia suffered major setbacks from 2017. In August of the same year, two local mafiosi, including clan leader Mario Romito, were killed on a country road near the village of San Marco in Lamis by rival gangsters who drove beside their car and opened shooting with kalashnikovs. It was the latest in a series of murders in a feud between the Romito clan and the rival Li Bergolis family, according to Mr Laronga.

Two farmers, who saw the August shooting and tried to flee, were chased by the killers and shot dead.

The interior of a local business burned down by fire following a bomb attack in Foggia, Italy.

The killing of the two witnesses shocked the province and led to a crackdown by Italian authorities, including investigations by specialist anti-mafia prosecutors. According to the magistrates, a small number of mafiosi have become informants, helping the prosecutors to build their case.

Hundreds of suspected gangsters have been arrested over the following years, including 32 in December last year, on charges ranging from extortion and drug and arms trafficking to membership in a mafia organization.

The arrests gave more local entrepreneurs the confidence to report extortion attempts last year than in previous years, prosecutors said.

But the fourth mafia retaliates. The spate of recent attacks on local businesses, showing a ferocity never seen before, shows the mob trying to restore the climate of fear that allowed it to dominate the province for years, prosecutors and business owners say .

Ludovico Vaccaro, prosecutor of Foggia.

“I think it’s a sign of their vitality,” Foggia chief prosecutor Mr. Vaccaro said. “We put a lot of pressure on them, but they are still very active. I’m worried.”

Law enforcement in Foggia is chronically understaffed for the number of crimes committed in the area, Vaccaro said. His team of 25 prosecutors needs more recruits, but it’s hard to persuade people to apply here, he said.

In mid-January, as bombings and arson attacks increased, Italian Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese held an emergency meeting in Foggia with local police chiefs, prosecutors and business owners. “The state must make its presence felt in a strong, decisive and united way,” Ms. Lamorgese said at the meeting. She promised to send 50 additional police officers to Foggia.

The events leading up to Mafia attacks often follow the same script.

First, business owners receive a request for protection money. If they ignore it or report it, then a few weeks later their business is set on fire or bombed, according to Alessandro Zito, president of the Foggia Anti-Extortion Association, a group created in January to support entrepreneurs.

A hairdresser in the area said he received the first “insurance” payment claim of €250,000 in October. He ignored it, hoping it was a bad joke. A few days later, he receives a second identical written request.

In mid-January, a bomb exploded at the entrance to her hair salon, setting fire to furniture and lacquerware inside, and ripping open the salon. Its reconstruction will cost up to €160,000, the owner estimated.

More contractors have reported mob threats to police, but many more are choosing to shut up and pay the pizza.

“I’m sorry to say this, but people here haven’t been very collaborative,” Vaccaro said.

Lazzaro D’Auria, an agricultural business owner, has been living under police protection for years.

Farmer Lazzaro D’Auria is among those who refuse to bow to the crowd.

In 2017, he says, he was alone in one of his tomato fields when he was surrounded by 10 mafiosi. In the previous two years he had repeatedly refused to meet the Mafia’s demand for an annual pizzo of €200,000, Mr D’Auria said.

The men threatened to harm him and his family, he said, but reduced their demand to €150,000 a year. He reported them to the police.

Since then, he has been living under police protection. He testified at a trial, where five of the Mafiosi who threatened him were convicted. But the crowd has not forgotten him. In the past six years, he has suffered six bombings, 15 robberies and vandalism of his farm machinery, he said.

The remains of the Lazzaro D’Auria warehouse that burned down in August 2021 in San Severo, Italy.

Over the years, Lazzaro D’Auria, has suffered numerous bombings, thefts and acts of vandalism to his equipment.

“At first I thought about closing the business,” Mr D’Auria said, as three casually dressed police officers watched him from a few feet away. “But then I thought, why the hell do I have to throw away everything I’ve created in 25 years?”

In some cases, clans attacked businesses without warning or demand for money. Prosecutors say such tactics are part of the mob’s efforts to show power and reassert control over the area.

“All the attacks are a commercial to show that they are still alive, still present, a kind of marketing tool,” Mr Laronga said.

The courthouse in Foggia, Italy.

In other cases, minor vandalism sends a hint that a contractor should seek out the Mafia and pay for their protection. Refusal is later followed by fire.

Such was the experience of Dario Melillo whose resort was destroyed by arson in late January. The only previous hint that the mafia was targeting him came last summer when someone drilled holes in the resort’s plastic water tanks, he said. He reported it to the police.

“My only ambition was to be able to work honestly,” Mr. Melillo said, amid the still-smoldering rubble of his seaside resort. “This is not a message just for me, it’s for everyone on this earth.”

The remains of an arson attack in Manfredonia, Italy.

Write to Giovanni Legorano at [email protected]

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