Italy's 'Fourth Mafia', little-known but extremely violent

Saturday March 18 2023
Italian farmer

Italian farmer Lazzaro D’Auria lives under police protection. Some of his vehicles were burned by mafia. PHOTO | AFP


It took a loaded pistol pointed at Lazzaro D'Auria's head for the Italian landowner to finally say yes to the country's newest and most violent mafia.

The Puglia farmer had resisted their extortion attempts in the past ranging from threats, fire attacks as well as damage to his crops and property.

But surprised early morning by a visit of a dozen men led by an armed man, he agreed to their demand for 150,000 euros a year.

Instead of paying up the next day, D'Auria went to the police, making him one of the few people to ever denounce Foggia's little-known mafia; a long-ignored and today’s most violent organised crime syndicate.

"If more citizens pressed charges, the local mafia could be weakened," D'Auria, who has lived under police protection since 2017, told AFP.

"Citizens, speak out!" implored the 57-year-old, who sees recent crackdowns by authorities as a sign the mafia can be weakened if locals overcome their fears.  

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Italy's top wanted mafia boss, Matteo Messina Denaro (C) being transferred from the Carabinieri police station of San Lorenzo in Palermo to an undisclosed location. PHOTO | ITALIAN CARABINIERI PRESS OFFICE VIA AFP

Its bloody clan wars were once dismissed as farmers' feuds, but the "Fourth Mafia" (named after Sicily's Cosa Nostra, Calabria's Ndrangheta and Naples' Camorra), is finally setting off alarm bells inside the Italian state.

But it has come late. Italy's youngest mafia already has a stranglehold over the country’s south-eastern province, filling its coffers and cementing its control through drug trafficking, extortion, armed robberies and theft of vehicles as well as livestock for ransom.

"It's a rudimentary, primitive mafia. Very violent and aggressive," said Ludovico Vaccaro, Foggia's public prosecutor. 

While the other main mafias have become less active in streets and more profitable in activities including infiltrating Italian legitimate economy, the Foggia mafia is still in a nascent phase.

"Today, Italian mafias have evolved to shooting less and seeking a silence strategy to stay unnoticed," Vaccaro said. 

However, Vaccaro said still shot and killed people to show its power over the territories.

Battalions and bombings

The "Foggia mafia" is a catch-all label for a syndicate involved in a wide array of crimes.

Foggia Province has Italy's third-highest homicide rate, and five of the 16 murders last year were mafia-related.

Family-based "battalions" from different areas often cooperate, dividing extortion money that pays associates and prisoners. 

"When conflicts sometimes arise over the division of the illicit proceeds, these battalions clash and start killing each other," said Italy’s Deputy Police Chief Mario Grassia.

Each group has its speciality, from the military-style armed robberies of freight trucks in Cerignola, to the old-school tactics used in the city of Foggia where night-time bombings of storefronts and cars persuade hesitating shopkeepers to pay up.

Farmers in San Severo like D'Auria often find their olive trees felled, their harvests torched, or tractors and livestock stolen. 

The mafia is particularly violent in Gargano, whose coast welcomes tourists as well as Albanian drug shipments. 

Four years ago, a human skull was left outside a municipal building for the mayor of Monte Sant'Angelo. The skinned head of a goat with a dagger through it was parallel with the disappearance of a lawyer to a mafia victim's mother.

The Gargano mafia's calling card, authorities say, is shooting victims in the face, or dumping them in caves.  

"It's easy to hide things. Every once in a while, we find something serious like stolen cars or bodies of missing people," prosecutor Vaccaro said. 

'No one spoke up'

During a recent drive with police through the city of Foggia, AFP saw countless reminders of the bloodshed that has terrorised the population for decades.

There is the spot where builder Giovanni Panuzio was shot in 1992 for being the first to denounce the mafia, the abandoned farmhouse where police thwarted an ambush of a local businessman last year and the cafe whose owner died after being stabbed in the eye during a 2020 robbery.

"Right now, there's no mafia war, but there's a settling of accounts," said a detective who requested anonymity.

In November, Nicola Di Rienzo, 21, lay dead for hours in a public park after being shot five times before his 17-year-old killer turned himself in. 

“No one spoke up," said the detective.

Deputy chief Grassia said he was particularly concerned by three of last year's Italian murders being committed by minors.

"Those participating in these 'baby gangs' have kinship ties with subjects linked to organised crime," he said.

The newest danger posed by the mafia is infiltrating public institutions. Foggia's city council was dissolved in 2021 due to mafia infiltration and its mayor arrested on corruption charges, one of five Italian local governments in the province dissolved since 2015.

Backlogged trials

In recent years a number of top bosses, including Rocco Moretti and Roberto Sinesi, have been jailed as authorities try to wrest control of the territory from the mafia. 

But the upcoming release of one of their rivals, Raffaele Tolonese, and last month's prison escape of Gargano boss Marco Raduano, underscore the challenges. 

Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi visited Foggia in February to reassure locals and pledging to reinforce security, including addition of surveillance cameras and streetlamps desperately needed by local authorities.

Vaccaro argued that beyond those basics, more police, prosecutors and courts were desperately needed to counter the "climate of fear and intimidation, the cultural and social poverty".

Only one courthouse currently serves the entire Foggia Province, where a backlog of over 12,000 criminal cases is waiting to be tried.

"In this vast territory, either the state has control, or the criminals will take it," said Vaccaro. 

Last summer, D'Auria's grain fields went up in flames. Three of his tractor units have been burned. He also said his banking provider cut his credit lines by half, considering him "high risk".

Still, the farmer sees signs of hope in recent arrests and convictions that show the state finally stepping up.

"I feel a lot safer than before. But you always feel the fear," he said.