CASAL DI PRINCIPE, Italy - The paratroopers' armored vehicles had barely taken up position in this fiefdom of the Casalesi crime clan when the mobsters decided to show who was boss.
On a sleepy Sunday, a few hundred yards from where the crack Thunderbolt brigade was deployed with automatic rifles, two gunmen drove down the town's main street and pumped bullets into a 60-year-old man at a table just inside the entrance of a card parlor.
The murder of an uncle of a crime syndicate turncoat left blood oozing across the stone sidewalk and a collective silence by potential witnesses among fellow card players, prompting a wry comment that the victim must have been playing solitaire.
After dealing blows that left Sicily's Cosa Nostra reeling and making inroads against Calabria's potent 'ndrangheta syndicate, Italy's new war against organized crime is challenging the Camorra, the Naples regional mafia depicted in a film just released in the U.S., after the mob carried out a brutal, monthslong murder spree that included gunning down six Ghanaian immigrants in one swoop.
In recent months, the government has sent 3,000 soldiers into other cities across Italy to help battle crime syndicates. Now it has poured 500 soldiers and 400 police investigators into the region northwest of Naples, with most patrolling the flat, bleak, provincial countryside that is under the sway of the Casalesi, so named for its stronghold here in the town of Casal di Principe.
The deployment is set to last until December and could be extended if violence persists. Using the military against criminals is not new — it has been done in Naples and Sicily — but the theory still stands that sending in troops can free up local police who know the territory to intensify the search for clues and suspects.
However, as shown by the brazen murder of the card player on Oct. 5, the Camorra is proving a fiercely tenacious enemy.
"They are not in decline. They are very strong economically," said magistrate Franco Roberti, who heads a team of anti-mob prosecutors in Naples.
The Camorra runs lucrative rackets ranging from numbers games to horse race betting, drugs and smuggling immigrants. The Casalesi are also involved in illegal transport and disposal of tons of toxic waste from the industrial north to the underdeveloped south, according to a report by a parliamentary anti-Mafia commission.
But the Camorra, and in particular the Casalesi, thrive mainly on extorting "protection" money from a terrorized citizenry.
"You kill one to teach a lesson to 100," is how Rodolfo Ruperti, a police official in the provincial capital of Caserta, describes the thinking behind a murder spree blamed on the Casalesi, which has claimed at least 18 lives since spring.
Victims have included relatives of turncoats, a few rare businessmen who dared refuse extortion demands and, last month, six immigrants in the nearby town of Castel Volturno.
Investigators described the massacre of the Africans as an intimidating show of firepower, possibly meant to signal Nigerian drug traffickers to stop operating in Casalesi territory. The attackers sprayed a hail of bullets at the immigrants chatting outside a social club.
Ruperti said in an interview that investigators believe the driving force behind the orgy of bloodshed is Giuseppe Setola, a sharp-shooting fugitive mobster who was sentenced to life imprisonment for murder in the past.
Setola is waging a "strategy of terror," Ruperti said. "He needs to use sheer power" to win command of the Casalesi clan since he lacks the charisma of imprisoned clan boss Francesco Schiavone.
Schiavone, known as Sandokan after the hero of a series of pirate adventure books popular in Italy, is believed to rule the Casalesi despite being behind bars for years. Schiavone's wife was arrested as an alleged clan paymaster in one of the recent police raids that have netted dozens of suspected Camorra members.
A manhunt is on for Setola, who escaped in spring from house arrest, granted so he could recover from an eye problem. "His eyes can't be so bad," Ruperti commented drily — since Setola is believed to have carried out some of the recent killings himself.
Paramilitary police last month unearthed a cache of weapons, including a Kalashnikov, buried in a basement in Castel Volturno. The arms are believed to be part of the arsenal used by Setola and his men.
The arrests of Camorra suspects have dealt a severe blow to the syndicate, but it keeps finding ways to renew itself: "There are always new recruits, because more than being a criminal phenomenon, the Camorra is a social phenomenon," Roberti said.
Potential mobsters are tempted by the mob's quick money in bleak towns like Casal di Principe, where most of the young are unemployed.
One job is shaking down businessmen like Pietro Russo, who squinted in the sunlight as he walked among charred ruins of his mattress factory in the town of Santa Maria Capua Vetere.
Russo rebelled in 2004 against the Casalesi extortion gangs, wearing a police wire to negotiations with his extortioners. This year, the mob got its revenge, burning down his business and forcing him to lay off his seven factory workers.
"They sent youths around who'd come into the store and say, 'Get yourself in good stead with the Casalesi,'" Russo said. "Then they'd accompany you to Casal di Principle to give you the details. They'd tell how much you have to pay and how you have to pay it."
His cooperation with the police led to the arrests of Casalesi clan members. But he has yet to rebuild his business, and he and his family live under the strain of a constant police escort.
Russo scoffed at the term "protection" money. "What could these people give you? They are squalid, ignorant .... They destroy the few jobs we have," he said.
The 42-year-old businessman heads a fledgling association of about a dozen businessmen daring to defy the Camorra. But so far, the Casalesi haven't suffered the far wider rebellion like the one that has hurt Cosa Nostra in recent years.
The Camorra's notoriety is spreading to the U.S. "Gomorra," a film that premiered this month in New York, is based on a Neapolitan journalist's best-selling book about the syndicate, and is Italy's entry for the best foreign film Oscar.
The book by Roberto Saviano tells in grisly detail how the Camorra infiltrates nearly every facet of life. The 29-year-old Saviano lived for a time in Casal di Principe, a town of about 20,000 people. Since writing his book about the Naples region's crime syndicate, he has been given a police escort and recently said he might flee Italy in fear he could be slain.
For those waging less sensational battles against the Camorra, living in the stronghold of the Casalesi clan leaves its mark.
Here, we "breathe fear," said Genoveffa Corvino, a psychologist at a home for boys with family problems that was recently opened in a villa, replete with marble staircases, confiscated from a Casal di Principe mob boss.
Corvino said the peculiar style of residences here — most are behind thick, high walls topped by metal fences — reflects the siege mentality.
"There's a culture of staying closed inside, of minding your own business," said Corvino.
The villa is now called the Don Peppino Diana Home after the name of a town priest fatally shot in the face after using his pulpit to denounce the Casalesi clan.
When the boys' home opened, some neighbors donated their children's old bicycles to quietly make clear they supported converting a mobster's luxury mansion into a refuge for children, Corvino said.
"It's a small thing that shows what side they are on," he said.