Much of the international attention and appearances in popular culture of Italian mafia groups tends to focus on the Sicilian mafia. Perhaps it’s because of the familial links to the United States that that’s the situation, but thee are other, older organisations on the Italian mainland and the Comorra is one of them.
We can reliably date the first use of the word ‘Comorra’ back to 1735 when it was mentioned in a royal decree regarding gambling in Naples. It’s a combination of the words ‘Capo’ (boss) and ‘Morra’ (a gambling game). Some historians argue that secret societies have been in existence in the region since the 16th century and that the Camorra may be a descendent of these groups.
Either way, the first official mention of the word ‘Camorra’ dates from 1820, when police reports describe a meeting and written rules (frieno) which clearly show a hierarchical organisational structure. Working backwards, it’s easy to see that the Camorra must have been in existence for some time prior to this date to have evolved such a sophisticated model. Other documents from the time indicate that the Camorra was also known as the Società dell ‘Umirtà, Onorata Società and the Bella Società Riformata.
Italy in the 19th century was not a unified state; it was a collection of states and some of the Northern ones were ruled by the Austrian Empire. An 1848 revolution checked the power of the Austrians and during the upheaval which followed the Camorra began to cement their power. Significantly they were in a position to mobilise popular support in favour of the liberal opposition (for which they were paid), a testament to how locally powerful they had become.
In fact this involvement in local politics became the main reason why the Camorra’s power grew so impressively. They acted increasingly as middle men between the political hierarchy and the local community, ensuring that the politicians retained support on one side and local businesses and organisations were sheltered from the authorities on the other. Over the decades, as the sophistication of the Camorra increased and local and national politics became ever more connected, the organisation’s reach extended beyond the local area to involvement in national politics.
One of the reasons the Camorra has been so hard for the authorities to infiltrate and combat is the horizontal and distributed nature of it’s hierarchy. Where the Sicilian Mafia has a recognised command structure and a method of controlling the entire organisation through the Commission, the Camorra’s various groups are more loosely connected. One might liken the structure to that of the IRA (Irish Republican Army) with each cell working independently to lessen the impact if one such cell should be compromised. That’s pretty much where the similarity ends though; each Comorran clan runs it’s own area and that clan will almost certainly consist of family connections. When clan’s territories overlap, violent confrontation is unusual and this has regularly led to situations where agreements have been established between competing clans.
Part Two follows…