Young guns take charge of Europe’s mafia clans – with deadly results

A gang-related shooting in Naples. Ciro Fusco/EPA

Over the last few years, the police and judiciary have proved largely successful in capturing and prosecuting the leadership of some of Europe’s most notorious crime syndicates. Nowhere is this clearer than in Naples – home to the Camorra, the notorious Neapolitan mafia.

Many of the Camorra clans that dominated the city during the 1990s and early 2000s have seen their most experienced leaders arrested and sent to prison, including Paolo Di Lauro, Salvatore D’Avino, Raffaele Amato, Edoardo Contini, and many more.

This should be good news; the arrests of these middle-aged mob bosses mean that the criminal underworld has been emptied of charismatic leaders, disrupting the clans’ hierarchies and operations. But there have been unintended consequences. Efficient law enforcement strategies have left a vast vacuum in the Camorra, which a younger, more reckless generation of aspiring clan leaders are now vying to fill.

As a result, the situation in Naples is one of anarchy, instability and danger. With no guidance from established camorristi, inexperienced young men are inflicting chaos on the city. Local businesses which once formed the power base of established clans now suffer from even greater extortion and violence at the hands of their successors.

Turmoil in the illicit drugs trade is indicated by ever more frequent shoot outs between rival clans, as they fight over control of supply and distribution. Meanwhile, young teenagers who lack prospects in the context of Italy’s stagnant economy are easily recruited as foot soldiers and drug dealers, in exchange for instant cash.

And whereas the previous generation tried to be discreet, this next generation of camorristi have taken to Facebook to threaten rivals, goad the police and glorify mob culture and death. They imitate Islamic State by growing beards and using strong language with references to terrorism, to create a sense of shared identity among their group.

Their latest form of power play is to drive around at night on mopeds, shooting in the air. These raids (called “stese”) are a way for young gangs to affirm their existence, intimidate citizens and threaten rivals. This behaviour has led the judiciary to speak of their crimes as a form of “urban terrorism”.

Young lives claimed

Inevitably, innocent bystanders have been caught in the crossfire: in September 2015, a 17-year-old was killed as he sat on his moped while out with friends on a Saturday night. And in January 2017, a ten-year-old girl got caught up in a punitive shoot out.

Victims of their circumstances. pixelthing/Flickr, CC BY-SA

But this erratic violence is also removing the possibility of redemption for those who get caught early in their criminal careers. In his 2016 documentary Robinù, Italian journalist Michele Santoro quoted some emerging criminals, saying: “At 15, they learn how to shoot, at 20, they are killers and they don’t reach 30”. During their short lives, there is no time for traditional values. Instead, they crave celebrity status. As one young camorristi said:

Nowadays, it is those who commit the most crimes and break the most rules, who are recognised as the leaders.

Worryingly, this trend is emerging in other cities across Europe. Liverpool, England has also become a hub for drugs and arms sales, with a thriving organised crime community seeking to control these activities. There have been four murders since April 2016, which were thought to be associated with local gang turf wars.

The use of firearms, especially in turf wars, often revolves around drug markets. This remains a major concern in European cities, but appears to be low down the political and police agendas. For instance, Europol’s latest serious and organised crime threat assessment clearly prioritises technological innovation, and criminals’ capacity to engage with and adapt to the digital age through new online developments such as online illicit trade, encrypted communication channels and so on. But the guns wielded by territorial clans are not virtual. They are real – and they kill.

In 2013, 58% of EU citizens expected the level of firearms-related crime to increase over the next five years. Between July 2014 and June 2015, 1,285 guns and 23,000 munitions were seized in the province of Naples. And in the UK, the latest figures up to June 2016 indicate that gun crime is also on the rise (an increase of 7%). In 2015 alone, 714 firearms were taken off the streets of London.

Organised crime groups, gangs and mafias operate within a vicious world of crime, power and money. But there have been unintended consequences, since the police and judiciary have finally taken effective action against these groups. The emergence of a new generation of gang leaders suggests that effective law enforcement is not enough to dampen the incentive for young people to get involved in criminal gangs. Instead, it may be time to reconsider the impact of the principles behind some recent social and economic policies, which are affecting the lives of so many people across Europe.

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