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 — the threats, the fires, the damage to his crops and property.
But surprised by the early morning visit of a dozen men, including a boss with a gun, 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, Italy’s long-ignored and today its most violent organized 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.
Its bloody clan wars were once dismissed as farmers’ feuds, but the so-called “Fourth Mafia” — 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 vast southeastern province, filling its coffers and cementing its control through drug trafficking, extortion, armed robberies and the theft of vehicles and livestock for ransom.
“It’s a rudimentary, primitive mafia. Very violent, very aggressive,” said Ludovico Vaccaro, Foggia’s public prosecutor.
While the other main mafias have graduated to less visible, more profitable activities, including infiltrating the legitimate economy, the Foggia mafia is still in a nascent phase.
“Today the mafias have evolved, so they shoot less, seeking a strategy of silence to stay unnoticed,” Vaccaro said.
“Whereas this is still a mafia that, to show its power over the territory, shoots and kills.”
According to a 2021 report issued by the Anti-Mafia Directorate (DIA) in Italy, the Foggia mafia was singled out for its “unscrupulous use of violence and the ready availability of large quantities of weapons and explosives.”
“It’s easy to hide things”
The “Foggia mafia” is a catch-all label for a syndicate comprised of different groups involved in a wide array of crimes.
The province of Foggia 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, there are quarrels and the battalions clash and start killing each other,” said deputy police chief Mario Grassia.
Each group has its specialty, from the military-style armed robberies of freight trucks in Cerignola to the old-school tactics used in the city of Foggia, where nighttime 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 or livestock stolen.
In Gargano, whose spectacular coast welcomes tourists as well as Albanian drug shipments, the mafia is particularly violent.
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 left the same year for the lawyer of a disappeared 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, stolen cars, bodies of missing people,” prosecutor Vaccaro said.
During a recent drive with police through the city of Foggia, AFP saw countless reminders of the bloodshed that has terrorized the population for decades.
There is the spot where builder Giovanni Panunzio 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.
In the meantime, “no one said anything, no one heard anything, no one spoke up,” said the detective.
Deputy chief Grassia said he was particularly concerned by three of last year’s murders being committed by minors.
“Those participating in these ‘baby gangs’ have kinship ties with subjects linked to organized 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 local governments in the province dissolved since 2015.
“You always feel the fear”
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.
Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi visited Foggia in February to seek to reassure locals, pledging to reinforce security, including adding what local authorities say are badly needed surveillance cameras and street lamps.
Beyond those basics, argued Vaccaro, more police, prosecutors and courts are desperately needed to counter the “climate of fear and intimidation, the cultural and social poverty.”
Only one courthouse serves the entire 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. Worse, he said, is the bank, which 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 more safe than before. But you always feel the fear,” he said.