By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus
Of the some 200 camorra clans in the Italian region of Campania, the Casalesi group is considered one of the most deadly and expansive.
During previous generations in the world of the camorra the dagger served as the weapon of choice, and equally as a symbol of baptism, a rite of passage, into a secret and exclusive union of fellow conspirators. Turning to the present day, the weapon of choice is much more lethal, it symbolism slight. The current notorious reputation of the Casalesi rests on the liberal use of the gun rather than a period of apprenticeship and adherence to a strict traditional code of criminal ethics.
The culture of violence nurtured in the camorra of the 1800s tested the courage and resolve of the novice. The path to membership was arduous; the belief being that to come face to face with death and from laborious exertions and pains that toughness was engendered. The elders taught the recruits, and on the most determined who could weather the challenges would be judged men of mettle. The camorra boot camp began with the "spirit of the dagger."
To quote from a description published in 1885, "The pupil of the camorra is instructed in the scientific use of the knife, and such rough fencing as the weapon permits, and shown the parts of the human body where a mortal wound may be inflicted, the latter rather that he may avoid than choose them. He is also subjected to various exercises that tend to develop strength and agility, and taught to endure long fasts and a prolonged want of sleep. Nor is his intellectual education neglected. Everything is done to train his eye and ear, to quicken his observation, and to strengthen his memory. He is finally instructed in the use of disguises, and in the means by which he may avoid attention or elude pursuit. Some masters teach the pupils in whom they are interested far more than this, while others are negligent to teach them less; the above may, however, be considered the normal course of training, which rarely if ever lasts for less than a year. When a Capo believes that his pupil is sufficiently instructed to advance a stage he communicates with other officers of a similar kind in different parts of the town. At an appointed place and hour they appear with their respective charges and pit them against each other. A series of fights with knives then takes place, and whoever shows sufficient skill in the use of his weapon and stoicism in bearing his wounds is promoted to the rank of a Picciotto di Sgarro. The greatest proof of hardiness is to seize the opponent's knife by the blade and to wrench it from his hands, a feat which is frequently attempted, but rarely succeeds. When the police find that the interior of one of their prisoner's right hand is marked by deep scars, they at once conclude that he belongs to the camorra. In the old days, these matches, which had frequently a serious, and occasionally a fatal, termination, used to be fought out with great ceremony, though, of course, in secrecy. The victors were presented with gaudy caps and chains, while the wounded men were deposited in the neighboring streets, through which friends of the association had promised to pass at a late hour, and by these they were conveyed to the nearest hospital. Now nobody but those concerned seems to know where and how the combats are conducted, but it is universally believed that they are still continued."
The history of the Casalesi can be traced to its most famous boss, Francesco Schiavone. He was born in Casal di Principe, in 1953, thus the clan term Casalesi. He earned the nickname "Sandokan" for his resemblance to the actor Kabir Bedi, who played the character in film. Schiavone achieved notoriety by establishing a viable camorra base in his hometown in the seventies and eighties.
After a number of arrests, Schiavone was taken into custody in 1998, found guilty, and condemned to a life sentence for the crime of mafia association, the Italian equivalent of the RICO statute. The clan leader had certain artistic and intellectual pretensions. He painted and had a large library; many of the volumes were biographies of Napoleon Bonaparte. In one of the more recent police operations against the Casalesi, in September of 2008, Sandokan's wife, Giuseppina Nappa, was arrested.
During his rein, Schiavone kept a very low profile and dreaded any form of publicity, which meant that journalists eager for a big scoop were ever ready to interview the big boss. Rosaria Capacchione, a journalist from the Campania city of Caserta, dogged his heels for years without success. Finally, in 1992, Schiavone had had enough of this persistent woman and called her editor at the newspaper saying, "You tell that Rosaria Capacchione that if she does not stop busting my balls, I'm going to kneecap her. She must never again mention my name. Forget I exist!" And she did, while getting police protection.
From 1985 to 2004, the Casalesi registered 646 homicides in fifty-four of the one hundred and four communes in the province of Caserta. During that period, narcotics and arms trafficking, prostitution, extortions and loan sharking have produced an estimated 12.5 billion euros from an expanding territory that now includes central and northern Italy. The violence has continued unabated. One news report among many: "On 18 September 2008, six innocent African immigrants gunned down by Casalesi at Castelvolturno." The killings were a message by the Casalesi to those newcomers who might contemplate taking a piece of the Casalesi action in towns where immigrants have congregated.
The Casalesi group includes the Schiavone and Bidognetti families, and others. During the past few decades the Casalesi has been able to establish its hegemony in the province of Caserta and to develop alliances with potent camorristi in nearby Naples.
The Casalesi can be distinguished from the Neapolitan camorra by its rural origins. It engaged in extortions of small businesses and penetrated the agricultural markets. Seeking more profitable ventures, the clan established ties with the Sicilians in the illicit trafficking of cigarettes and narcotics. The opposing band in the area, the Cutoliani, were to be united in a confederation with the Casalesi, with Antonio Bardellino as capo. He had succeeded in gaining control of the political and commercial systems of at least two villages in the Caserta province.
Among the leaders of the criminal combine, the one who demonstrated the most effective leadership was Sandokan. His organizational talents earned him the unofficial title of "imprenditore del crimine," the director of crime. With a few relatives and others, each with his own criminal specialty, the Casalesi came to power. Since 1990, despite many reversals in the fortunes of the clan, including constant police surveillance, arrests, imprisonments and internecine disputes, the Casalesi has been able to endure and prosper.
The criminal group is considered to be the most progressive in Italy, with a variety of features that resembles the traditional Sicilian mafia, particularly in terms of territorial control and infiltration into the societal institutions. The model is more Sicilian than it is Neapolitan camorra, yet with innovative aspects.
The clan, or perhaps more accurately, the system of clans, is organized as a federation of families that come together under the umbrella of a Cupola, or Commission. Its structure is said to be elastic, post-modern and aggressive.
The Casalesi today can be said to be an admixture of its previous rural and village roots with a modern flair for business opportunities. This seemingly unwieldy combination, along with its international contacts and the collusion of those in the legitimate community, has made the Casalesi, according to the judgment of Italian organized crime experts, a most profitable, influential and violent economic criminal presence, equal to the influence in transnational narcotrafficking enjoyed by the 'Ndrangheta.
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