ACERRA, Italy — The bishop of Acerra is a spare, courageous and endangered man who lives in a neighborhood where festering scars from a 1980 earthquake mirror the degradation of his flock.
Two churches face one another across Acerra's main piazza. One is a fissured ruin. The other, the cathedral, is protected by a fence. Between them, grimy street kids play soccer. Many are illiterate, and some are already accomplished criminals.
"The boys talk admiringly about gang leaders the way we might talk about John Kennedy--how many bodyguards he's got, how many machine guns," said Bishop Antonio Riboldi.
In a poor and desperate part of Italy that one senior official from Rome has publicly termed "an unlivable monster," Riboldi said it is past time to stop the rot. "Fear is no longer a good enough excuse. Whoever does not denounce lawlessness becomes its accomplice."
Acerra, a slum of 50,000, lies in the decayed hinterland of Naples, spawning ground--and killing ground--of La Camorra, one of the three branches of the organized crime cartel that loots a nation unable to control it.
While Italy celebrates a robust First World economy and the current presidency of the European Community, its children are bleeding, victims of an atavistic underworld that transcends frontiers of time and morality.
In the aftermath of accelerating gangland savagery here in the Italian south, the bishop's pain is echoed in a national outcry: \o7 Basta\f7 --Enough! There are new anti-crime programs and promises aplenty. But, as ever, the bad guys are winning.
For many Italians, the crisis is not simply one of crime, or even of violence. On trial, they say, are the rule of law, and national values.
Designer-dressed Italy has never been richer or more democratic, but in some parts of its south the state's writ ends abruptly at the borders of shoot-first gangland fiefdoms. Fully one-quarter of the children of Acerra are not enrolled in school, and nearly half of all young people can find no honest work, their bishop says.
"It is clear that there are places in Italy where the presence, or at least the functioning, of state institutions has become enfeebled," laments President Francesco Cossiga.
La Camorra, like its outlaw kin, the Mafia in Sicily and the 'Ndrangheta in Calabria, is ruthless and relentless, but even Neapolitans inured to its predations are stunned by a current anarchic struggle for power in which gangland recruits, like their prey, are ever younger.
"Baby killers," the Italian press calls them, using the English words. A 15-year-old murdered a 12-year-old witness to a Camorra execution attempt one day last month. One shot to the back of the neck killed Andrea Esposito.
Less than 24 hours later, 8-year-old Paolo Longobardi, who happened to be home when Camorra killers came for his father, also died of bullet wounds.
"They are beasts, no more than wild animals," said Naples Police Chief Vito Mattera.
The Mafia and the 'Ndrangheta have been settling accounts as well this fall: an anti-Mafia judge murdered in Agrigento, Sicily; broad swaths of Calabria terrorized by one-a-day 'Ndrangheta killers. In Calabria, 9-year-old Elisabetta Gagliardi died instantly last month, an incidental casualty of her mother's assassination.
By tradition, Italy is not a violent country: There will be fewer homicides among the 60 million Italians this year than in the 14 1/2 million of New York City. In the world of organized crime, though, violence is an appalling staple. Of 1,055 homicides in Italy through the first eight months of this year, there were 250 in Sicily, 213 in Calabria, and 209 in the Campania region headed by Naples.
"That there are zones of Italy presided over by the Camorra, the 'Ndrangheta and the Mafia is true, but it is also true that there are police there as well, good police. But we alone are not the state," said Matteo Cinque, chief of criminal police for the Campania region.
Counterattacking, the government of Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti promises more money, more police, a toughened and streamlined justice system, more and better-protected judges, stricter gun laws and tighter fiscal control on municipalities where gangland infiltration is suspected.
But Italians such as Calabrian farmer Carlo de Biaso, whose orchard was decimated by vandals after he refused to pay protection money, have heard it all before.
In the belt of despair around Naples, where 2 million people live amid some of Italy's most grinding poverty, there is a pathetic procession of slum towns where elected officials are beholden to the Camorra. Nominal members of Italian political parties, they are in fact elected on the Camorra ticket.
In Calabria, seven women judges, impartial outsiders, were named with great fanfare last March to help fight crime in the besieged town of Locri. One never went, and four of the remaining six are asking for transfers back north.