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the nyt on ms. capacchione

Posted on | 30 novembre 2008 | No Comments

Rachel Donadio su Rosaria Capacchione per il New York Times di ieri.

A Reporter Lands a Slot on Italian Best-Seller Lists and Hit Lists

In Italy, it is called the “Saviano effect,” the intense national focus on the Camorra elicited by Roberto Saviano’s 2006 best seller, “Gomorrah,” which traced the rise of the Campania region’s violent and economically mighty clans.

But while Mr. Saviano, 29, has become a household name – appearing regularly in the Italian news media even after death threats forced him into hiding – others have spent years quietly covering – and uncovering – the same polluted terrain.

One of the most respected is Rosaria Capacchione, a veteran reporter for Il Mattino, a daily newspaper in Caserta, outside Naples, who since the mid-1980s has reported on the short lives, violent deaths and intricate finances of the members of the Camorra’s ruling families, particularly the Casalesi, as those from the town of Castel di Principe are known.

Recently, that has led to another kind of “Saviano effect.” In March, Ms. Capacchione was given a police escort after a Camorra defendant in a high-profile trial issued a death threat against her – as well as against Mr. Saviano and a magistrate, Raffaele Cantone, both of whom already had constant police protection.

Ms. Capacchione hates having a police escort. “I lost all the freedom I had,” she said glumly last week, sitting at her desk at Il Mattino, in a concrete office block in nondescript downtown Caserta.

“The funny thing is, I’ve had much more serious and clear and evident threats over the years. But there wasn’t the Saviano phenomenon,” she said. “The rest of the world didn’t know that the Camorra or the Casalesi existed,” she said, adding, “I’ve been doing this job since before Saviano was born.”

Under the Camorra in recent decades the Campania region, which surrounds Naples, has become the hub of an international criminal web involving drug trafficking, illegal waste dumping, public works fraud and money laundering through semi-legitimate businesses like supermarkets and gaming parlors.

In her first book, “The Gold of the Camorra,” which appeared this month and is already on Italian best-seller lists, Ms. Capacchione tracks the careers of four of the Casalesi’s most brilliant criminal minds: Francesco Schiavone, Francesco Bidognetti, Michele Zagaria and Antonio Iovine. The first two are serving life sentences; the others are on Italy’s most wanted list.

Using trial transcripts and her own reporting, she shows how the bosses profited from contracts to build a high-speed train to Naples, through construction and through cartels that distribute sugar and other basic commodities to Campania. Thanks to the Camorra, the region also has high rates of cocaine addiction and elevated cancer levels from toxic waste dumping.

“I didn’t want to write a book, but Rizzoli practically forced me to,” Ms. Capacchione said, referring to her Italian publisher. Instead, she sees herself as a beat reporter, uncomfortable with the “media circus” that erupted after she was threatened.

Ms. Capacchione, 48, was born and raised in Caserta and still lives there today. She has heavy, Levantine eyes, a smoker’s voice and a small, sparkling cross around her neck. Reserved and at times sardonic, she sometimes smiles and occasionally laughs. But to be in Ms. Capacchione’s presence is to absorb an intensity – and fatalism – born from years spent covering a violent, seemingly intractable conflict.

Being on the front lines has its risks. Last month, Ms. Capacchione went home to find things had been moved around in her apartment – she lives alone – though nothing of material value was missing. “They took a journalism prize I had won,” she said. “That one meant a lot to me.”

She does not know who did it. She does know that her police escort will only protect her so much. “If they wanted to kill me, they’d kill me with or without an escort here or abroad,” she said.

Ms. Capacchione prides herself on her “scientific” approach – reading the signs, combing through court documents. In one trial, she noticed that prosecutors had not provided as much background information on one defendant as they had on the others. “I went and filled in the missing pieces.”

It is a battle of wits and wills between the Camorristi and the authorities. “The most fun thing is when you find smart authorities fighting smart criminals,” she said. “It becomes like a chess game.”

In the land of the Camorra, there is a blurry line between legality and illegality. It is not uncommon to find organized crime figures with relatives in public office, law enforcement, the judicial system or other state operations like health care, Ms. Capacchione said. “If I buy a sentence, it means that someone sold it,” she said.

While the Camorra may rely less on politicians today, she said politicians still relied on the Camorra to deliver votes. And it is hard for citizens to distinguish between criminals and noncriminals. “You never know,” Ms. Capacchione said. “Or even worse, you do know.”

A study last year found that organized crime was the largest segment of the Italian economy, accounting for 7 percent of Italy’s gross domestic product, or $127 billion a year.

So what’s the solution? “I don’t know,” Ms. Capacchione said. “It’s a complex problem.” Over the years “they’ve arrested hundreds and hundreds of people.”

Indeed, since the mid-1990s, more than 500 people have been arrested and more than 4,000 investigated as part of operations like the continuing “Spartacus” trial, one of the most complex in Italian history. “My book is the story of investigations,” she says.

And yet nothing changes. The clan members “regenerate themselves.” As a reporter, “I’m on the third generation,” she notes. “They live short lives.”

That everyone knows there is a problem and yet no one – not the government, not the church, not the military – applies the political will to solve it can seem worse than the problem itself.

Public officials have frequently been caught up in the violence. One day in 1990, a deputy mayor of the city of Mondragone, just north of Naples, who was involved in awarding public works contracts, simply disappeared. His remains were found only in 2003, in the course of another organized crime investigation.

In some countries, the murder of a public official would cause a public outcry and things would change. “Oh, really; interesting,” she said in a dark deadpan. “Here, they kill everyone and nothing happens.”

Still, she added, the politicians in question perhaps were not world caliber. “It’s not like they killed John Kennedy.”

Over the years, Ms. Capacchione has learned to read signs. Over a lunch of steak and cigarettes at a local restaurant, she makes a phone call. In photos of a recent murder she’d noticed that the dead man had his hands in his jeans. “What do we make of that?” she says into the phone. “That says to me that he knew and trusted whomever he was talking to.”

As a reporter “you’re a neutral party,” she says. “You go there and look. You don’t have to make an arrest to keep your boss off your case. You can look for the truth.”

After all that she has seen, what was her hardest day on the job? Here Ms. Capacchione pauses for a long time, her fingers clasping a plastic cigarette lighter embedded with a tiny pair of dice. Finally, she draws a breath. “It hasn’t come yet,” she answers.

But she has no intention of changing jobs. “No,” she said decisively. “My plan is to keep doing what I’ve always done.” And with that Ms. Cappachione walked back to her office in the rain, two plainclothes policemen by her side.