Camorra, the Neapolitan mafia. Cosa Nostra, the "dons" of Sicily. Sacra Corona Unita, the mob of Puglia. The ‘Ndrangheta of Calabria, bosses of the European cocaine trade, today the wealthiest and most violent of the Italian mafias. These are the brutal, hugely profitable criminal organizations that, as Italians say, "control the territory" in many parts of southern Italy. Meaning that they, and not the Italian state, have the monopoly of force in these outlaw regions: they dictate the rules, they supply jobs (27 percent of working Calabrians work for the ‘Ndrangheta), they even look after families in need. With guns as their rule of law, the mafias exploit and often terrorize their fellow citizens–who are reluctant to help the police fight them, in part because they have been co-opted.
So when in January scores of African migrant workers marched though the Calabrian town of Rosarno waving sticks and banners (We Are Not Animals), battering and burning cars and smashing shop windows, it came as a tremendous shock to the frightened, browbeaten locals, not to mention to the local powers that be.
The protesters were the lowest of the low: young men sleeping on grimy mattresses on the concrete floors of an abandoned factory; paid some $30 for ten to fourteen hours picking oranges and clementines, minus $7 to $8 in kickbacks to the bus driver and the caporale, the gang boss. Some were new arrivals, undocumented, from Mali, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Senegal, Morocco; some, seasoned immigrant workers who had been turned out of their well-paying factory jobs by the economic crisis, reduced to little more than slaves as they waited for the economy to pick up again. It was one thing to earn 2 euros an hour for a job that pays 10 to 11 euros an hour on the books in other regions. But when some local thugs took potshots at them with an air gun and injured two men, the lowest of the low erupted.
Later we would learn, thanks to the enterprising nonprofit organization daSud, that these shootings were by no means the first. According to the anti-mafia activists of daSud, since 1990 a dozen African migrant workers have been shot to death in Rosarno, and hundreds have been injured–all in virtual media silence. Like Alabama or Mississippi before civil rights, this is dangerous territory for blacks.
"Opposing the clans is a matter of life and death for [the Africans]," says Roberto Saviano, author of Gomorrah, a passionate, eloquent piece of literary reportage on the Camorra. "When it comes to the mafia, immigrants are more courageous than we are." Treated as slaves in the citrus orchards and tomato fields of the south, despised as outsiders by the racist, xenophobic Northern League, the thousands of immigrants who have moved into the lowest jobs are nonetheless challenging the balance of power in mafia-ridden southern Italy, Saviano believes. "They don’t reproduce the pre-existing criminal system–they try to demolish it." Unlike so many resigned southern Italians, they don’t automatically bow to the power of organized crime.