OSTIA, Italy—Whispers and sideways glances are as common as fried calamari in this beachfront community, about 20 miles southwest of Rome. People here don’t like to talk about the blatant criminality that permeates this suburb of about a quarter-million people. They don’t want their names in the press or attached to anything that looks like testimony, lest they become a target of an almost certain revenge.
Journalists aren’t welcome here either. In mid-November, Daniele Piervincenzi of state broadcaster RAI was violently head-butted and kicked as the camera rolled when he tried to interview Roberto Spada, a boss within the crime family that lords over the resort town, outside his boxing gym. The journalist’s nose and several facial bones were broken and Spada was arrested and jailed for the appalling aggression.
That arrest and the temporarily removal of Spada from circulation may well be what has led to a terrifying spike in violence as the Falciani rival crime family, whose ancestors were Sinti nomads, vies for control of the various rackets, from gambling to prostitution, that feed off the city’s underbelly.
Last Friday night around 10 p.m., a man parked his scooter outside of the popular Giro Disco Pizzeria several blocks from the beachfront promenade and, still wearing his helmet, walked in waving a pistol before kneecapping—a popular form of revenge among the Ostia gangs—the owner’s father and the pizza maker.
In October, seven members of the Spada family were convicted and sentenced to more than 50 years in prison for criminal activity, including running prostitution, drug, and housing rackets and for using kneecapping—literally shooting someone in the kneecap—as a method to assert authority. Police have not yet made any arrests for the pizzeria incident, despite the restaurant being full of witnesses. No one, apparently, saw anything.
A day after the kneecapping, someone shot multiple rounds into the residential door of one of the Spada family’s cousins—one who may be filling the gap while the headbutting mobster is in jail. A few hours later, another Spada family member’s door was kicked in, possibly as a threat for a vendetta for the pizzeria attack or possibly for other sinister reasons.
Rome Mayor Virginia Raggi beefed up law enforcement in the municipality after the violent weekend, and says she will not hesitate to dispatch any army regiment to protect the citizens if necessary—a move that has been utilized in Mafia-ridden cities like Naples and Palermo in the past.
On Tuesday morning, The Daily Beast witnessed dozens of masked police officers carrying out door-to-door raids on homes and businesses in Ostia tied to both crime families. The search produced guns and grenades that were collected in a large basket, seemingly as much for show as for purpose. “We are protecting the citizens,” a police officer said. “These weapons would have been used in gangland war.” Onlookers mused that it would certainly be easy for either crime family to resupply, noting that the small number of weapons collected was hardly representative of the entire arsenal.
No one believes the recent incidents represent a climax or end to the trouble, which has been brewing for years. In 2015, Ostia’s town council was dissolved due to widespread Mafia infiltration, one of more than 450 city councils across Italy that have been removed over the last 20 years under similar circumstances.
Last week, the anti-establishment Five Star Movement’s candidate won in a final round of municipal elections and has vowed to bring back order to the town. Interior Minister Marco Minniti, whose center-left party failed to advance in the Ostia elections, which instead saw 9 percent of the vote go to the openly fascist Casa Pound Party, has said Ostia has become symbolic of greater problems across the country.
“We cannot allow the coast of the capital of our country to be affected by the Mafia,” he said during the election campaign. “Ostia’s liberation from the Mafia will be inevitable, and it will play a role in the sovereignty of our country. It is in the most difficult challenges we see the strength of the state. What is happening in Ostia is not tolerable in a democracy.”
The growing lawlessness in the Roman municipality inspired the plotline for the Netflix series Suburra, which is based on a movie and book of the same name written by journalists Giancarlo De Cataldo and Carlo Bonini. “The state isn’t present in Ostia,” Bonini told a popular crime show over the weekend. “The population has simply been left to devise its own set of rules.”
Most local residents don’t believe the police can do much to stop what will almost inevitably be a bloody battle for power between the rival crime families sometime soon. Annamaria, a 72-year-old woman who doesn’t want her last name to be used because her own son is involved in the Spada criminal clan’s activities (as what she describes as a “helper”), says the town has simply been left to fend for itself. “Everyone has blood on their hands,” she says. “The kids don’t have a choice but to enter into crime. They recruit them at school and on the soccer pitch. There are initiations and rites that keep them loyal. And there are no alternatives. All jobs are tied to the crime gangs. That’s the only way to make a living here.”