Stallion statues and cocaine: Rome officially has a new mafia

They threatened to dissolve her in acid. But Debora Cerreoni would not be cowed, and her testimony in Italy has proved decisive in exposing a new mafia – the Casamonica.

Stallion statues and cocaine: Rome officially has a new mafia
Furniture inside one of the Casamonica clan’s eight illegally built villas seized by Rome police in 2018. Alberto Pizzoli/AFP

The organised crime family hit the headlines in 2015 when it laid on a flashy funeral in Rome for “uncle” Vittorio Casamonica, with his coffin borne on a gilded horse-drawn carriage.

Rose petals were dropped from a helicopter and posters outside the church in the east of the capital declared him the “King of Rome”, while mourners were greeted with music from the film “The Godfather”.

Despite family members boasting in wiretapped conversations of being powerful enough to challenge Italy’s storied mafias, the Casamonica were long seen as a local, if violent, criminal gang.

READ ALSO: ‘The recovery fund is in their sights’: Europol warns of Italian mafia profiting from crisis across EU

But that all changed this week, when a Rome court classified it as a mafia association and sentenced five of its chief members to up to 30 years each, under Italy’s strict prison regime for mobsters.

“It’s a very important verdict, primarily because it destroys the illusion that there is no mafia in Rome,” said Nando Dalla Chiesa, a professor of organised crime at Milan University.

“The city has struggled to accept the fact that there are not just elements of the powerful (Calabrian) ‘Ndrangheta or (Neapolitan) Camorra crime groups here, but there’s a homegrown mafia too,” he said.

Furniture inside one of the Casamonica clan’s eight illegally built villas seized by Rome police in 2018. Alberto Pizzoli/AFP

Loan sharks

Two other crime families have been designated as mafia in the municipality of Rome in recent years, but both are based in the neighbouring seaside town of Ostia, not in the Eternal City itself.

The court found the Casamonica members guilty of drug trafficking, extortion and usury.

The clan – which has its roots in the Sinti Roma community – controls the southeastern suburbs of the capital and the Alban hills beyond, according to a report commissioned by the Lazio regional authorities in July.

The Sinti are a traditionally nomadic ethnic group that has lived in Europe for centuries.

READ ALSO: Meet the Italian prosecutor set for ‘historic’ anti-mafia court battle

The first Casamonica moved to Rome from the Abruzzo region in 1939. When Vittorio died in 2015, his descendants were known to police as particularly fierce loan sharks with a penchant for bling.

Vittorio had learned from a friend in Rome’s underworld in the 1970s — Enrico Nicoletti, the “cashier” of the Banda della Magliana, which controlled drug trafficking in the capital.

Like Nicoletti, “Uncle Vittorio” cultivated ties to the rich and powerful. He was “a man with contacts… (in) the police, the Vatican… he got in everywhere, got whatever he wanted”, one witness said.

The family grew rich and built villas with marble and gold furnishings, swimming pools and large stallion statues – a nod to their horse trader origins – as well as bundles of cash hidden in walls, witnesses said.

It forged contacts with Colombian drug dealers and started trafficking cocaine into the capital.

A bulldozer demolishes the Casamonica clan’s eight illegally built villas in November 2018. Alberto Pizzoli/AFP

Thrones and trap music

A major drug bust in 2012 saw 32 members of the clan arrested and millions of euros in assets seized, and the family came under greater scrutiny.

Rome Mayor Virginia Raggi ordered eight illegal Casamonica villas – complete with chandeliers, ceramic tiger, thrones and imitation frescoes – bulldozed in 2018. She vowed this week that “the fight will go on”.

The Casamonica does not have a boss but is an “archipelago” of genealogical branches joined by arranged marriages, according to the report by the Observatory on Organised Crime.

Its “eccentric aesthetic taste” sees Romany traditions given a Camorra-inspired twist, while its members share a passion for Neapolitan crime songs and trap music, it said.

Women play significant roles, particularly in drug dealing and loan collection, but are not allowed to work outside the home. Daughters are removed from school once they get their first period.

READ ALSO: Italy’s ‘Godmother’ mafia boss arrested at Rome airport

Romantic relationships with non-Sinti women are seen as dangerous and barely tolerated, the report said.

Cerreoni was one such woman. The ex-wife of Massimiliano Casamonica, who turned state witness after years in which she said she was controlled, belittled and threatened by the family.

“They ruined my life… I hadn’t just married Massimiliano, but the whole clan,” she told the court last year.

When she tried to break free, “They kidnapped me. They threatened to dissolve me in acid.”

She eventually manage to flee, along with her children.

Her testimony has been key for investigators long hampered by difficulties in understanding the Casamonica, who speak in a mix of Sinti, the regional dialect of Abbruzzo, and Roman slang.

“How big a blow this verdict is to the clan is yet to be seen, but one thing is clear: it certainly no longer has the great cockiness, the impunity, it once enjoyed,” Chiesa said.

By AFP’s Ella Ide

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Italy marks 30-year anniversary of anti-mafia judge murder

Thirty years ago, the Sicilian mafia killed judge Giovanni Falcone with a bomb so powerful it was registered by experts monitoring volcanic tremors from Etna on the other side of the island.

Italy marks 30-year anniversary of anti-mafia judge murder

The explosion, which ripped through a stretch of motorway near Palermo at 5.56 pm on May 23rd 1992, sent shockwaves across Italy, but also signalled the start of the mafia’s decline.

Anti-mafia prosecuting magistrate Falcone, his wife, and three members of his police escort were killed.

The mob used a skateboard to place a 500-kilogram (1,100-pound) charge of TNT and ammonium nitrate in a tunnel under the motorway which linked the airport to the centre of Palermo.

Falcone, driving a white Fiat Croma, was returning from Rome for the weekend.

At a look-out point on the hill above, a mobster nicknamed “The Pig” pressed the remote control button as the judge’s three-car convoy passed.

The blast ripped through the asphalt, shredding bodies and metal, and flinging the lead car several hundred metres.

The three policemen on board were killed instantly.

READ ALSO: Could body found on Italy’s Mount Etna help solve long-standing mafia mystery?

Falcone, whose wife was sitting beside him, had slowed seconds before the explosion and the car slammed into a concrete guard rail.

His chauffeur, who was sitting in the back, survived, as did the three agents in the convoy’s rear.

A “garden of memory” now stands on the site of the attack. Oil from olive trees that grow there is used by Sicilian churches for anointing children during baptisms and confirmations.

‘Mafia massacre’

Falcone posed a real threat to the Cosa Nostra, an organised crime group made famous by “The Godfather” trilogy and which boasted access to the highest levels of Italian power.

It was he who gathered evidence from the first mafia informants for a groundbreaking trial in which hundreds of mobsters were convicted in 1987.

And at the time of the attack, he headed the justice ministry’s criminal affairs department in Rome and was working on a package of anti-mafia laws.

His murder woke the nation up. The Repubblica daily attacked the “mafia massacre” in its headline the next day, with a photo of the famous moustachioed magistrate, while thousands of people in Palermo protested in the streets.

All eyes turned to fellow anti-mafia magistrate Paolo Borsellino, Falcone’s close friend and colleague, who gave an interview at the start of July saying the “extreme danger” he was in would not stop him doing his job.

On July 19th, just 57 days after his friend, Borsellino was also killed in a car bomb attack, along with five members of his escort. Only his driver survived.

Amid national outrage, the state threw everything it had at hunting down Cosa Nostra boss Salvatore (Toto) Riina, who was involved in dozens of murders during a reign of terror lasting over 20 years.

Riina was arrested on January 15th, 1993, in a car in Palermo.

The truth?

The murders of Falcone and Borsellino “in the long term turned out to be a very bad business for Cosa Nostra, whose management team was decapitated by arrests and informants’ confessions”, Vincenzo Ceruso, author of several books on the mafia, told AFP.

Dozens of people have been convicted for their roles in the assassinations.

But Roberto di Bella, now an anti-mafia judge at the Catania juvenile court in Sicily, said that while “the majority of the perpetrators have been tried and convicted”, there remained “a part that is still not clear”.

Survivors insist there are still bits of the puzzle missing and point to Falcone’s belief there could be “possible points of convergence between the leaders of Cosa Nostra and the shadowy centres of power”.

“We still don’t have the truth about who really ordered the murder of Giovanni Falcone, because I don’t believe that ignorant people like Toto Riina could have organised an attack as sophisticated as that in Capaci,” Angelo Corbo, one of the surviving bodyguards, said in a documentary.

He said he was not alone in believing there were “men in suits and ties” among the mobsters.

However, an investigation into possible “hidden orchestrators” of the Capaci attack was thrown out in 2013.

“There is no evidence of the existence of external backers. There is no doubt that these are mafia acts,” author Ceruso said.