On 11 June 1997, a 10-year-old girl named Alessandra Clemente heard 41 gunshots from an open window at her home in Naples, as she was waiting for her mother to return for lunch. When the shooting stopped, she ran to the window and saw her mother, Silvia, lying in a pool of blood. Alessandra’s little brother stood next to their mother, wailing. Silvia Clemente was not the assassin’s target, but, at age thirty nine, she had been killed by a stray bullet. Until that day, Alessandra had never heard of the organisation that had ended her mother’s life, and would now begin to shape the rest of hers: the Camorra—the Napolitan mafia.
Twenty-four years later, Alessandra Clemente, now a 34-year-old woman, is running to become the next mayor of Naples. Her campaign includes other relatives of Mafia victims and the son of a top Camorra mobster. At each election rally, Clemente recalls the occasion of her mother’s death.
“I had never heard gunshots before then, so my first thought was of a car accident,” she said, in a recent interview. “Only later did I learn that the Camorra had planned to murder a high-ranking boss.”
That day, seven Mafia assassins took to the roads of Arenella, a neighbourhood on the Vomero hill, on motorbikes. A war was raging within the local gangs, and the night before, the group of hitmen received the order to kill Luigi Cimino, a top mafia boss from a rival clan. They had received that order 13 times in the last year, and 13 times they failed, as the boss proved an elusive target. They knew, this time, there could be no mistake. When they saw two of Cimino’s men under his apartment, they started shooting wildly.
Mafia hits are often carried out in crowded urban areas, with dozens of innocents diving for cover. “When I looked out the window, I saw that my younger brother, Francesco, was holding our mother’s hand,” says Ms. Clemente. When the police arrived, Francesco refused to let go. “I was devastated, but I knew I had to look after my brother,” Clemente said. “I decided to run for mayor because I don’t want any more children, like my brother, to live through these tragedies.”
Clemente’s plan to end the cycle of violence relies on mothers and wives of mobsters. “I grew up with the idea that someone else was supposed to die in my mother’s place,” she said. “But over time, I understood that change isn’t born out of hatred, but through love, and that if I wanted to change things, I would need the help of mothers of camorristi. These mothers had to become my allies if we wanted to really achieve success. Mothers and, more generally, women, within the Camorra, have an almost structured power. They are very, very influential.’’
The rise of women who command positions within the mafia is an increasingly widespread phenomenon in Italy. Known as ‘bosses in skirts’, they have replaced their jailed husbands and sons in mafia hotspots all over the south of Italy.
But the real strength of the Camorra comes from the teenagers. In the suburbs of Naples, crime is seen as a path to financial success, as well as respect within the community. Few institutions exist to offer a credible alternative to children in these neighbourhoods. They are easy targets for mafia recruitment.
‘‘They are young people who in the absence of positive role models, find themselves peddling drugs for the Camorra for 100 euros a day,’’ says Clemente, who has served since 2013 as a local council member focusing on youth policies. ‘‘Here we need to make them and their mothers understand that this easy money is an illusion. Because, at 23 years old, at best, they will end up in prison and, at worst, they will be killed.’’
As a candidate for Mayor, Clemente is backed by both moderate left and far left-wing parties. She is not the favourite, with an estimate of votes ranging between 11% and 22%. At the moment, the polls give the candidate Gaetano Manfredi, former dean of the University of Naples Federico II, supported by the Democrat party and the anti-establishment Five Star movement, a clear advantage.
But surveys carried out in the city have often proved unreliable, overturned by the undecided voters and those who abstained, who currently account for 52% in Naples.
For whoever wins, the task will be complicated. Although the city has clearly improved from a social and cultural point of view, problems remain. According to official data from local authorities, over 30% of Naples inhabitants are unemployed.
In the last days of the election campaign, Clemente has attended dozens of meetings with people who have lost their jobs, many of them due to the pandemic.
Alongside her is Antonio Piccirillo, candidate for the city council and son of the Camorra boss, Rosario Piccirillo. Antonio is only 25 years old, and has grown up knowing his father, who has been in various prisons throughout Italy, from the other side of the bars. One day, tired of watching him serve yet another sentence, Piccirillo decided to publicly distance himself from everything his father had done.
‘‘Mine is a story of suffering, marked by the pain my father caused me,’’ Antonio told the Observer. ‘‘I stopped visiting him in prison. It was too painful. I would have had my road paved for me in the Camorra. I could have done my dad’s ‘job’, but that world made me sick. So, a few years ago, I decided to vent my anger towards this world.
“I wish my father knew that I am against him to save him. My rebellion is a way to reach out to him. I’m holding out the hand that he should have held out to me when I was little.”
On the campaign trail, Clemente likes to tell the story of the time she visited a young girl in hospital whose life had nearly ended, in the same way as that of Clemente’s mother. The girl’s name is Noemi, and she was only four at the time. She too was wounded by a stray bullet, fired during a mafia attack. Her life hung by a thread, the bullet having hit her spine and punctured her lungs.
‘‘Her conditions were desperate,’’ says Alessandra. ‘‘Then, one day, after dozens of surgeries, she woke up. She began to breathe independently and to walk. Today, she is a beautiful child. And to me, Naples is a child like Noemi, who was seriously injured in the past. And who is finally able to breathe again, to walk again. But now, now I want to make Naples run.’’