Deep in the foothills of southern Italy, a vicious new mafia gang is wreaking havoc on the local population by executing enemies in broad daylight and bombing businesses.
Behind the welcoming veneer of the villages of Foggia, Puglia, hides a dark and sinister network of gangsters who kill their victims with a sawed-off shotgun blast in the face.
Descended from the bloody Neapolitan La Nuova Camorra gang, the Gargano clan is unleashing a wave of brutal violence at a pace not seen in Italy for decades.
The gang – which is one of four main mafias operating in the once sleepy farming region – is renowned for its ‘ritual of death’ which involves blasting a victim’s face at close range with a sawed-off shotgun. .
The violence has escalated in recent years as the clans clash over a slice of Foggia’s billion-pound-a-year narcotics trade, which sees the drugs shipped into the port of Gargano and then dispersed across the Western Europe.
“They want to express a measure of hatred that goes beyond the very idea of killing,” Italian prosecutor Giuseppe Gatti, the man in charge of putting the thugs behind bars, told Sun Online.
“The killing ritual can be seen as an attempt to physically eliminate someone.
“But here they’re not just trying to eliminate someone; they’re really trying to erase all of that person’s memories.
“To shoot someone in the face is to erase their memory and not to give those close to them the chance to see their face one last time. It is an act of extreme savagery.
Federica Bianchi, who heads the local Libera, an anti-Mafia organization, said the Gargano group was “one of the most cruel” and forced residents to observe a code of silence, known as the Omertà.
She said her organization was constantly harassed by locals who wanted them to leave.
“When he tried to tell locals they had a Mafia problem…we were often told that we were too obsessed with the Mafia, as if we deliberately wanted to spot them.
“There were even times when we were told that we knew Foggia’s reputation and that we were scaring tourists and traders.
“We were told it was better to keep quiet.”
And it’s hard not to see why – the Gargano clan and the groups that make up the Foggian Society (La Società Foggiana) – partially led by Rocco “The Pig” Moretti, Vincenzo “Capantica” Pellegrino and Vito Bruno “The Hare” Lanza – are among the deadliest in Italy.
The men ran the infamous Moretti-Pellegrino-Lanza cell that extorted hundreds of businesses and was one of many clans that were created by godfather Raffaele “The Prince” Cutolo.
Pellegrino has been credited for his involvement in the brutal murder of anti-Mafia activist and philanthropist Giovanni Panunzio who was shot while celebrating his wedding anniversary.
Moretti, on the other hand, spearheaded a resurgence of the Foggian Society when he strengthened the ties between the clans.
Lanza, who was notorious for bribing witnesses with prostitutes, is now spending 14 years behind bars.
The trigger-happy thugs killed 300 people in more than four decades, according to the Times, and committed a murder every week and a robbery once a day between 2017 and 2018, according to the Guardian.
In the port town of Gargano alone, 80% of murders have gone unsolved and mob bosses have reportedly killed 360 people since the 1970s, the publication reported.
And then there’s the Cerignola clan, whose boss Vincenzo “The Professor” La Piccirella was jailed for drug trafficking in 2013, who are renowned for their ruthless carjacking and cocaine smuggling operations.
“They don’t want anything left of that person,” Federica told us.
“It is a strong signal that they will not leave any dignity to the deceased… The Gargano clan uses an unprecedented form of violence”.
Ruthless thugs are also known to hide the bodies of their victims in a style of execution known as “Lupara Bianca”.
A HEARTING STORY
ITALIAN prosecutor Giuseppe Gatti knows firsthand how the Foggian gangs operate.
His years of service with the Italian anti-mafia body DNA exposed him to heartbreaking stories of fear and loss among locals.
But it wasn’t until Mr. Gatti interviewed an extorted business owner that he began to understand the main appeal of gangs.
Mr Gatti told Sun Online that the victim had agreed to confess to being extorted after hours of questioning, which the Italian prosecutor said would make the man feel “liberated”.
But those emotions quickly turned to despair as the man “started crying and was filled with terror”.
“I asked him, ‘What’s wrong, are you still afraid of the mafia?’ And he said to me: ‘No, doctor, I’m not afraid of them anymore’ and then he said something to me that has stuck with me ever since, he said: ‘My problem is that , dear doctor, when tomorrow comes and I return to my village, people will know what I did here with you today and then no one will come to my bar for a coffee anymore. For me, my business is dead.
“And that’s when I understood the power of this gang,” Mr. Gatti told us.
“Their power was not within the mafia, but outside of it. Their power lies in us – good people who are not able to ask the community for help, to stick together, but rather to be alone in solitude.
“Forcing people into solitude is the real strength of the mafia”.
Mr Gatti said educating locals about how the mafia works and working with organizations to oppose it was the only way to stifle their influence.
In 2011, cops discovered a makeshift grave hidden deep in the Gargano caves filled with victims of “Lupara Bianca” who had been dumped there “in plastic bags like garbage”, Mr Gatti said.
“They created an atmosphere of fear, terror and that brought total Omerta – a code of silence. It’s absolute and because of this extortion is happening ‘under the rug’,” explained Mr Gatti, a magistrate of the Italian anti-mafia directorate, the DNA.
Gatti says when the gangs aren’t busy extorting nearly 90% of Foggian’s business owners, they’re smuggling drugs through his territories or fighting other clans in bloody gunfights.
In January alone, Italy’s Interior Ministry set up a task force to tackle growing violence against local business owners after two more bombs exploded outside a hairdresser, according to local media.
This brings the total number of bomb attacks in Foggia to six since the start of 2022, according to Ansa.
At one point, the cash-strapped gang even charged funeral homes £45 (€50) to bury their dead, The Guardian reported in 2020.
Much like Clan Gargano, it is the Foggian Society’s taste for violence and its fluid structure that sets it apart from the rest.
Mr Gatti said the group had abandoned initiation ceremonies which in the past involved drawing blood from a hot candle while taking an oath to their “family” and Catholic saints.
Instead, the ruthless team operates in “batteries,” or cells, and coalesces to sell drugs and, as Mr. Gatti points out, real estate.
“Don’t think of this mafia as primitive, ferocious, violent, closed and limited to a patchwork of areas in Foggia,” he told us.
“No, this is a mafia that has channeled its ‘military’ prowess to allow them to accumulate more money which today enables them to enter the legal economy.
“And once the Mafia has infiltrated the legal economy, it enters this gray area.”
He said the members were part of a “backward society” where “bloody violence, harassment, blood feuds, domination and subjugation” went hand in hand with a “burning thirst for money and power, where Omerta is king and the rule of every thought and every action.”
“They live their lives by alternative rules that are different from those of a free and democratic society.”
He said the gangs had started selling tomatoes and other agricultural products at rock bottom prices to launder their money, bankrupting legitimate businesses.
“This is an organization that is constantly changing, evolving, and constantly updating and refining its illegal networks.
“When the military wing of the Mafia merges with the business wing, they build a much stronger and much more efficient organization.
“At the end of the day, all the Mafia wants is to gain power and make money.”
WHO ARE THE FOGGIAN SOCIETY?
LA Societa Foggiana was created by Neapolitan pivot Raffaele ‘The Professor’ Cutolo on January 5, 1979.
At the time, Cutolo led the notorious Nuova Camorra Organizzata (the new Camorra organization) and sought to expand his criminal empire into neighboring Puglia.
Since then, the gang has morphed into four competing splinter groups (the Gargano Clan, the San Severo Clan and the Cerignola Clan, and the Foggian Company) all vying for a share of the multi-billion pound narcotics trade of the region.
The clans have become so powerful that Italy’s anti-Mafia leadership, DNA, has been forced to declare a ‘national emergency’ in Puglia and set up a task force following a series of bombings in the bomb and the broad daylight executions that shook the region.
At one time, the gangs carried out one bombing a week and one robbery a day and shamelessly charged funeral homes £45 per coffin to bury their dead.
On August 9, 2017, two innocent farmers were killed when a hit on a rival mob boss went awry.
Known as the Marco San Lamis Massacre, the men were shot after they saw mob boss Mario Luciano Romito and his brother-in-law killed outside their property and were shot in the back as they fled.
In 2020, the Foggian Society detonated bombs outside the home of a key witness and shot dead a 50-year-old man in his car, according to the Guardian.
Violence erupted again in 2021 when five people, including a British couple and their baby, were shot dead during Euro 2020 celebrations.
And in early January 2022, two bombs exploded outside a neighborhood hair salon and fireworks store, bringing the total number of attacks since the start of the year to six.