Are Children Latest Target of Italian Crime?

"I could have died dancing that Tarantella," says one of the victims.

ROME, Nov 3, 2008— -- Violence in the crime-ridden outskirts of Naples moved to new heights Saturday when the local mob -- the Camorra -- took aim at children.

Four gunmen on motorcycles, their faces hidden by helmets, opened fire on a group of teenagers at a video arcade in the dilapidated neighborhood of Secondigliano, injuring five boys between the ages of 12 and 16 in the legs.

The reason for the attack is still unclear, although investigators believe it could be either a warning to the owner of the arcade -- a known drug dealer -- or a punitive raid on the boys for their role in a brawl earlier that evening. The 40 shots were apparently meant as an intimidation, since the gunmen aimed low, avoiding fatal shots.

Organized crime groups in Italy traditionally respect children, pregnant women and the elderly, and using children for a Camorra warning is "extremely serious," said Naples Mayor Rosa Russo Iervolino. "It breaks with one of the fundamental values of civil coexistence," she said.

Italian daily La Repubblica reports on the children, the latest target, of the Camorra.

"All I remember is the noise, the shots. And all my friends diving to the ground," recounts Vittorio from his hospital bed, 20 hours after the shooting in Secondigliano.

"And me too, although I am older and bigger than they are, I could have died in the middle of that tarantella, that shooting. I scrambled under the chairs in the arcade so I wouldn't die by mistake. Then again, it isn't the first time this has happened in our neighborhood."

Vittorio is 16 years old, and if it weren't for his round face, the frightened look in his eyes, and his lost innocence, he would look four years older.

"Luckily I only broke my foot. Who knows who they were, what the killers wanted. I don't have anything to do with them. I installed light fixtures, I had a job. Now I am out of work," he says with a forced smile and the doleful optimism of children who have grown up too fast.

Vittorio cried all night, but now, a day later, he is getting ready to listen to the Milan-Naples football game on his headphones. And he laughs: "If I had died, I would have missed this great game."

More or less at the same time, anti-mafia prosecutor Stefania Castaldi, responsible for putting numerous killers from the local Scampia clan behind bars, watched the images of the shooting on the evening news.

She shakes her head. "The legacy that the ruthless conflict in the northern suburbs of Naples has left is apparent," she reflected. "The clans increasingly turn to kids for dangerous missions. The "human resources" they recruit are younger and younger, easier to condition, fragile and unaffiliated."

There are numerous court cases indicating this, and disturbing events continue to illustrate it every day. There are baby godfathers, children such as 18-year-old Raffaele Amato, related to the fugitive Camorra boss of the same name, who is already a boss in his own right.

Amato was arrested by the anti-mafia police in Melito, outside Naples, last Aug. 30. After reportedly escaping a police blockade followed by a 40-minute car chase, he allegedly used his cell phone to organize a revolt in the Melito neighborhood.

When the police finally picked him up, they were attacked and spat upon by locals faithful to the Amato clan. As he was handcuffed he told a policeman: "I'm going to get out, anyway, and then I'll cut your head off."

The judge did not confirm his arrest two days later, because he said there was no evidence that he belonged to the mob, even though a state-witness from another clan had testified to that effect. Amato returned to his hideout, but on appeal his arrest was confirmed by another judge, though he is still free.

Prosecutor Castaldi is bitter: "There are other bosses who have started even younger than 18," she remarked.

Such as the 17-year-old who killed clan member Nunzio Cangiano, when asked to show his loyalty to the Di Lauro clan, by "participating in bloodshed," recounts Castaldi.

"These stories are dramatic, but there are others about small kids and young 'adults' that are encouraging," Cataldi stressed.

"For example, the killing of Carmela Attrice -- the 34th killing in the Scampia clan war involved a 16-year-old kid whose job it was to ring the victim's doorbell. He was the messenger who handed the woman over to her murderers. The victim was shot 20 times in the face and chest, her housecoat drenched in blood. However, in that same case another 16-year-old was a key witness. He identified the killers, testified against them and had them convicted. He now lives a different life."

Not so the children who were injured by gunshots in front of their club. Those who escape are the exception. For those who remain, drugs and the Camorra are the rule.

Translated by Ann Wise.