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Italian Mob Threatens Soccer Team Over Easter Procession

In Calabria, on the southern heel of the Italian boot, the ‘Ndrangheta crime syndicate may be more powerful than the Church, or even soccer. And on Easter, they all want to hold Santa Maria.

Giuseppe Salvaggiulo

SANT'ONOFRIO - Last year, in this small Italian village in the southern region of Calabria, someone fired a warning shot through the front door of the local priest of the Congregation of the Holy Rosary parish. Why was the clergyman singled out? He had the audacity to ban mobsters from Sant'Onofrio's annual Easter procession in honor of St. Mary.

But leading up to this year's Holy Week, the threats have only multiplied – and found a new target: members of a local soccer team, who had been assigned the honor by Bishop Luigi Renzo of carrying the statues of Saint Mary, Jesus, and Saint John during the Easter procession on Sunday.

The members of the "Ndrangheta, the increasingly powerful Calabrian organized crime network, regard their role in the religious parade as a public statement of their power. This kind of pagan-based tradition is tied to this organization's liturgy. For example, the group baptizes every new member, requiring him to take an oath while holding a burning portrait of the Archangel Michael.

In every village in Calabria, the religious parades are part of the same criminal ritual. Though now banned, there used to be an open auction for the role of who would carry the statues, but no one dared to outbid the mobsters. Inevitably, every year, the picciotti mob members paraded carrying the statues on their shoulder. The local boss used to lead the parade, walking backwards to be able to look at the faces of the saints. Recently, in a small mountain town close to the city of Reggio Calabria, the procession was diverted to pass in front of the home of the local boss, who was under house arrest.

In Saint'Onfrio the procession was the "Ndrangheta's privilege, until the bishop banned the group. The mobsters regarded the decision as an insult to their honor, turning their attention to the members of the soccer team, who had been appointed to the role. It began with nasty looks in the streets, jokes at the bar, and covert messages to the young soccer players. Then the serious threats came. The president of the team received an anonymous phone call suggesting that he stay away from the parade. On the morning of a match, the team's coach discovered that the tires of his car had been slashed during the night.

The right to not be a hero

The managers of the terrorized team -- alongside the players' desperate mothers – begged Bishop Renzo to reverse his decision. The party the team held to celebrate the last match of the season was a nightmare. Everyone kept asking about the parade. There were even TV crews. Slowly, all the club's players – who are students, bricklayers, and clerks in their 20s – gave up. "Please, we are scared," they finally confessed out loud.

The bishop was speechless, and the parish priest was left abandoned, as a sole local challenger of the mob. Ten days before Easter, no one wanted to risk his or her life for a parade. "We are against the ‘Ndrangheta, but we have the right not to be heroes," one villager said.

The hand of God finally appeared through the hand of the law. Firstly, Luisa Latella, prefect of Vibo Valentia, suggested that policemen and carabinieri officers should lead the parade. But people would not have liked that decision. So, she assembled leaders of the soccer team and the Church. "The mob cannot win," she said, explaining her plan to avoid a postponement of the procession, as happened last year.

The State organized the procession, to help the Church. Local associations were invited to assign a carrier of the statues so no one will be left alone against the ‘Ndrangheta. "If everyone is in, we are in too," said one. In the meantime, the police are patrolling the village and the people who will march in the parade are under police protection.

In Sant'Onofrio, one out of five people have links with organized crime. Two years ago, the elected municipal council was dissolved by national authorities because it was allegedly connected with the mafia. Here, fear is everywhere. Even in the Church, where Father Franco, after the afternoon service, turned pale when asked about the procession. "I'm busy," he said, quickly disappearing into the sacristy. Bishop Renzo is silent too. "I wrote what I wanted to say, now this is not my business anymore," he said.

Franco Petrolo, the 50-year-old president of the soccer team, works as an agent for the town council, but his real passions are painting and sports. In his youth, he studied at the Academy of Arts and played on a local soccer team. Two years ago, he decided to recreate a local team, putting together 20 men, the plumber Luigi Naccari as coach and one of his cousins as director. The members and a few sponsors cobbled together €8,000 for the seasonal budget.

Soccer is a great outlet in areas defined as the "Wild West" -- even by the district attorney Mario Spagnuolo -- where youth unemployment is 27 percent. This is why the bishop and the parish priest asked the soccer players to be involved in the religious parade. They are considered a positive symbol of the town. They happily accepted, without imagining what would happen. On Sunday, they will parade with those statues, but they will be carried on the shoulders of the entire town.

Read the original article in Italian.

Photo - photochopper

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