Dons of a different kind: researching the Mafia

An academic researching the Camorra talks to John Elmes about Kalashnikovs and pizza, investigating a closed community, and how she stays safe

February 23, 2017
Source: Samuel Aranda/Panos

"Maledetti bastardi, sono ancora vivo!

This is Italian anti-Mafia journalist Roberto Saviano’s parting shot in an article that he wrote in October last year for Italian newspaper La Repubblica to mark his 10th year living under police protection. The phrase, which translates as “Damn bastards, I am still alive”, gives an indication of the resolve required by those attempting to shine a light on Italy’s notorious criminal underworld.

Saviano became internationally famous for his best-selling 2006 book Gomorrah – later turned into a film, play and television series – about the brutal actions of the Neapolitan Camorra. But the endless death threats that he has since received from the crime syndicate might well be expected to deter anyone thinking of following in his footsteps.

However, for Felia Allum, lecturer in Italian history and politics at the University of Bath, interest in the Camorra overrides any anxiety about letting her curiosity get the better of her. Her fascination with the subject, which culminated in the publication of her book The Invisible Camorra: Neapolitan Crime Families across Europe last November, has its origins in the work of her academic father, Percy Allum. The former University of Reading Italianist’s PhD thesis and 1973 book, Politics and Society in Post-War Naples, explored Italian politics during the 1950s and 1960s but didn’t cover the Camorra. It intrigued his daughter as to why “he hadn’t dealt with it, and what the Camorra actually meant”.

Nor, before Saviano, had anglophone researchers taken much of an interest in the Camorra, preferring to concentrate instead on the Sicilian Mafia. But with the added impetus of a Neapolitan boyfriend (who eventually became her husband), Allum took the plunge in the mid-1990s, enrolling at Brunel University London to research a PhD project on the Camorra’s relationship with politics.

She remembers one incident in particular from her doctoral research in Naples: “I was walking to get pizza and, at one point, I looked up and there were two young men on a moped zooming around with a massive Kalashnikov, and everybody was looking at their feet. That was a real moment of waking up: people accept that [the Mafia] is here, but they’re not interested in [challenging it],” she tells Times Higher Education.

Meanwhile, researching her book involved her spending some time with the Neapolitan “flying squad”.

“They took me round the different districts of the clans I was looking at, because I wanted to have a feel for the local territory,” she says. “One of the police officers at one point asked me to put on a bulletproof jacket. All his colleagues said: ‘Don’t be silly.’ [But he countered:] ‘This is a district that is in full war, and I don’t want to take her round [without protection]. Then someone said: ‘Yeah, but we’re not in Belgrade.’ But [the first officer persisted]: ‘There was a murder yesterday and God knows what is going on.’”

However, for Allum, the situation in Naples is as much chess game as guerrilla war, given the “clear rules of engagement” that the authorities and clan members follow. For example, Allum remembers driving into a piazza in a marked police car, prompting a group of about 20 young men to “scarper”.

“The police got really upset,” she says. “They got out and ran after them, saying: ‘You don’t run away when we come: you know we’re here, you know what we’re doing.’” Rules of engagement also apply in police stations and even the courts, Allum adds, where a code of grudging mutual respect is observed between law enforcers and the camorristi. “When criminals are arrested, they often say: ‘Well done, you have got me!’ or ‘Well done, it was me: it is a fair cop,’” she says.

Academic researchers are also obliged to go about things in a certain way, as she first discovered during her PhD. She recognises her “privileged position as an academic” in terms of the access she is able to secure. Going to [Mafia trials], for example, is always an enlightening experience, as is sitting down with the [Mafia] families, she says. “They look at you and think: ‘Who the hell are you? I don’t know you.’ But it’s an important part of that ethnographic approach: not being in my ivory tower, but going, listening and seeing. Moments when young women start crying or someone makes a scene – which happens quite regularly – those, for me, are part of a process. I use this approach to try and get as close as I can...without becoming a criminal myself.”

Still, she is wary of conspicuously making contemporaneous notes. “A lot of it I just take in because I know that writing notes could be dangerous,” she says. “Even if you’re sitting down in a tribunal, you don’t take notes: that really demarks you. Being blonde, and not a typically southern Italian-looking person, I already stand out, so I take it in with my eyes and then write it up when I get home.”

Samuel Aranda/Panos

Noting that the Camorra families constitute a “compact and closed community”, Allum tends not to approach active camorristi or their relatives, confining her purview to “people at state witness level: people who decided to turn” against the Mafia. These people “understand who you are, and they want to give you information”. Even then, she thinks very hard beforehand about what the appropriate questions might be, aware that, for some witnesses, there are certain things that they just “don’t want to talk about”.

For her book, Allum also had “in-depth conversations with former criminals, judges and police officers”. But her focus in the book is less on the detail of the conversations with the former criminals, and more on the “personal encounter” with them. Her aim is to convey “a sense of who [the camorristi] are and what their background is. You can read about them on the page but when you’ve got them in front of you, clearly they manipulate information or present themselves differently, so I try and get a sense that all these people [enter] this criminal life in a different way.”

Manipulation is an apt word to use in the context of Mafia research, given the major role that the corruption of politicians and police officials has played in the Mob’s historical modus operandi. In 1992, a judicial investigation into Italian political corruption, dubbed Mani Pulite – literally, “Clean Hands” – was conducted to clean up the tangentopoli (“Kickback City”) culture. The report illustrated how easily Italian politicians could be bought. The nationwide investigation led to the demise of many political parties and some reports estimate that 5,000 public figures fell under suspicion, with more than 1,000 ultimately convicted. So did it not worry Allum that corrupt authority figures might block her research into the Camorra?

“It’s strange: you start a journey when you do research,” she replies. “There are people who take to you and your project and there are others who walk on by. But those who stop to look at your project and help out, you can see that they’re interested in not just the project but you as a person, and how you understand these things.

“There were five or six judges that really took an interest and I was able to build a strong bond with these people. I have come across a series of judges: ones who have two or three bodyguards every time they move. They are the unsung, invisible heroes who, every day, put their [necks] on the line, trying to dismantle these organisations. Probably the corrupt ones...are the ones who walk on by and aren’t interested.”

Judges’ and police officers’ advice was instrumental in helping Allum to overcome the concerns that she first felt when speaking to people who were, in reality, criminals-turned-informers. One such was the cousin of Antonio La Torre, the alleged former head of the La Torre clan: a medium-sized family-based gang who, as Allum points out in her book, were “a visible and violent presence” during the 1990s in the Mondragone region northwest of Naples.

“I had concerns about talking to his cousin, who had spent 16 years in the UK,” she says. “I was asking [myself]: ‘How close am I getting to this?’” But such informers have “moved on” from their criminal pasts, so, as a researcher interviewing them, “you’re close behind [them] without necessarily feeling in danger”.

Her book examines various camorristi who have moved abroad, examining both their legal and illegal activities and probing whether their motivation is to “go straight” or lie low until it is safe to go back to Italy. One section examines the Camorra’s presence in the UK. La Torre, the eldest son of Tiberio Francesco La Torre, the founding father of the clan, relocated to Aberdeen in the 1980s, probably to escape criminal sanction in Italy. He was quickly followed by two of his cousins, who were also wanted in Naples, while another camorrista from a different clan relocated to Preston in Lancashire. All this prompted a considerable degree of interest from both the local and national press, such as The Daily Telegraph’s 2014 story “The McMafia: Is there a mob in Aberdeen?”, in which Allum was quoted.

In her book, she argues that there was never much in the way of traditional Mafia practice in Scotland’s oil capital. “La Torre’s business activities abroad were not an expansion strategy by one clan member to undertake traditional Camorra criminal activities in a new location in order to gain independence or colonise a new territory,” she writes. Instead, she says, he went to Scotland primarily because his wife was Scottish.

“I interviewed some of the local police up there and they said: ‘We had no idea what was going on: the only time we saw [La Torre and his associates] was when they were going a bit too fast in their red Porsches, doing no harm,’” she adds.

La Torre was eventually arrested and extradited to Italy in 2005, and the present extent of Camorra activity in Aberdeen is very much open to question. “I suggest in my book that there’s a money cycle,” Allum says. “In other words, money being made illegally in Italy is being sent to and invested in Scotland.”

However, there “isn’t a clan up there. There isn’t a group of 50 people going around beating up locals,” she adds. And she believes that it is the responsibility of academics to ensure that they “get the balance right” and present “an accurate picture”.

In that regard, one slight criticism she has of Saviano is that his work is “extremely negative. There are no positive characters – a police officer or judge – [offering] an alternative vision in his accounts. That’s because he predominantly worked on judicial documents, which were trying to make a case to get these people locked up,” she says.

“There’s more to it than we know, and we mustn’t fall for the kinds of sensationalist ideas that films, novels and [TV series such as] Mob Wives give us.” Apart from the question of accuracy, she worries that the “mixing of trash and glam and crime” in the entertainment industry’s depiction of the Mafia has a morally normalising effect on their criminal activities.

Allum believes that academic research into criminal cases is “crucial” in the long-term struggle to bring down the Mafia. If the Camorra agreed with her, no doubt she would find herself in its cross hairs. But although the risks are always in the back of her mind when she visits Naples, Allum has never been directly threatened because the organisation’s focus is elsewhere.

“You’ve got to take into account that a lot of these criminal groups advance very quickly. The type of stuff that I’m talking about is very dated as far as they’re concerned,” she says. By contrast, Neapolitan journalists reporting contemporary events “are being threatened on a daily basis”, she says. “These are very brave journalists who go and report, and who say things that are uncomfortable. They’re being threatened either publicly or indirectly.”

For her part, Allum is keen, for her next project, to turn the spotlight on to other nations’ transnational organised crime groups.

“There’s a lot of stuff on Nigerians and Albanians that I can access,” she says. “I want to compare various groups: how they behave in one specific location and how they’re behaving across locations.”

Some of the Nigerian case notes that Allum has already secured access to are “extremely violent”, and “my stomach does start to feel the trepidation” about investigating them, she admits.

“Hopefully, the fact that I work only on historical cases will mean that they will not see me as a current threat, or a nosy parker!” 

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