Organized crime and the rule of fear

For centuries now the Italian Mafia has distorted and impoverished the South Italian economy, extorting shopkeepers and taking a cut on any economic activity. Even today it seems it takes a cut on any big construction project. This is why Rico Cassone, the mayor of Villa San Giovanni who opposed building the Messina Bridge to connect Sicily to the mainland, resigned - he received the classic Mafia threat of five bullets through the post. Organized crime is expected to profit hugely from the bridge's construction. But their tentacles go much further. Building cities is a construction game, so Mafia involvement in Southern Italian city-making will continue ad nauseam.

The yakuza in Japan, like other mobster groups, are far more than gangs of thugs that oversee extortion, gambling, prostitution and other traditional gangster activities. They have bought up real estate and have their tentacles in some 900 construction-related firms. The three largest groups are the Kobe-based Yamaguchi-gumi and the Sumiyoshi-Rengo-kai and Inagawa-kai, both headquartered in Tokyo. The National Police Agency indicated that the Yamaguchi-gumi had 20,826 members and 737 affiliated groups in the late 1990s.63 In 1998 the South China Morning Post reported Japanese police data on mob involvement in the nation's construction industry, showing that Japan's mobsters stood to make about US$9 billion just in the reconstruction needed after the major earthquake hit the port city of Kobe in 1995. The same story is repeated with the Chinese triads in Taiwan, Macau and the wider diaspora. It is evident also in places like Moscow, where older tenants are brutalized out of their cheap communist tenancies in desirable areas to make way for new construction and where listed buildings are burnt down to enable new building at higher plot ratios. And the US mafia's historic involvement in construction is well documented.

Think of Belfast, where a number of the 'freedom fighters' on both sides of the religious divide - Catholic and Protestant - now hold whole communities to ransom as they slide into drug dealing, racketeering and violence under the guise of protecting their communities. Think too of the apartheid on the ground that still continues in spite of efforts towards peace. Like a poison, it leaches into the daily fabric of life. For instance, in the Ardoyne district of Belfast, four out of every five Protestant residents will not use the nearest shops because they are located in Catholic streets, and a similar proportion of Catholics will not swim in their nearest swimming pool, which is located in a Protestant street. Most 18-year-olds in Ardoyne have never in their life had a meaningful conversation, about, say, sport or family, with anybody of their own age across the 'peace line' and religious divide.64 The connection between segregation and deprivation is startling. Virtually all the most deprived areas are highly segregated and have the most significant levels of sectarian violence. The link between economic well-being and prejudice is clear.65

Rio conjures up a particularly powerful resonance: carnival, dance, gyrating, big-busted girls, Copacabana beach and the Sugarloaf. But any party atmosphere is severely compromised by the threat of gangs. Drug organizations like Red Command control most of the city's 26 sprawling shanty towns or favelas, whose population exceeds a couple of million people. The leader of the Red Command drug organization, Luiz Fernando da Costa, better known as Fernandinho Beira Mar, has been in a top-security prison since 2001, but he still exerts power. He is reputed to have negotiated arms deals on his mobile phone there. In 2002 he managed to torture, murder and burn four of his enemies. To murder his opponents he needed the connivance of prison staff to be able to move through six sets of iron gates. Prison staff are threatened if they do not accept bribes. The repercussions reached Rio. Armed supporters of one of Mar's victims, Ernaldo Pinto de Medeiros, moved slowly from street to street ordering shops to close and schools to send their children home as a mark of respect. Rio, normally chaotic, fell silent.

Rio's largest favela, Rocinha, prone to landslides as it clings to the hillside above high-class beachside areas which provide easy access employment for residents, is often held up as an example of a greatly improved area of squatter housing. However, pitched battles between the police and drug lords have drawn attention to its underlying social problems and the challenges that still lie ahead for city planners. The sheer size, topographical complexity and social structures of Rio's favelas mean that police are reluctant to intervene unless serious violence or drug-trafficking has been detected. Rocinha is in fact the largest favela in South America, with some 127,000 residents. Despite a more violent past, it is now relatively peaceful - thousands of tourists even visit each year, often on organized tours. Yet Rio is a major transit point for Colombian cocaine on its way to Europe and represents a big market itself for the drug. Higher up the hill, in a community that is both socially and spatially segmented, lie parts of Rocinha that are largely controlled by drug lords, not the city authorities. But lower down there is a structure of local government and the community has developed services for itself, such as crèches, and three-quarters of residents now have access to electricity. The 2002 film City of God shone a spotlight on favelas, chronicling the cycle of poverty, violence, and despair in a Rio de Janeiro slum.

Overall the murder rate in metro Rio is declining. It is now 50 per 100,000 inhabitants per annum, down from 78 in 1994, although in some favelas like Baixada Fluminense the murder rate is still 76. But it is not only murder that shifts perceptions. 'Gunmen rob British coach party in Rio - Raiders storm airport bus carrying 33 elderly British tourists - cameras and jewellery worth thousands snatched,' read a headline earlier this year.66 The road that links Rio's international airport to the glitzy South Zone has become notorious in recent years for carjackings and shootings. In Rio they speak of the 'parallel power' that traffickers exert while enriching themselves, or even of a 'parallel state'.

Gary, Indiana, with a population of 120,000, has a murder rate of 79 per 100,000, the highest in the US. Dominated by drug gangs fighting for turf, it is a hollowed out, desolated place and has been so for a couple of decades. The drug dealing is seductive - you can triple your money turning cocaine into crack and if you are very lucky move on when you have some money. But most end up dead or in prison. In 1995, when the murder rate was 118, the state governor ordered in the state troopers amid great fanfare. On national TV he ordered them to go to war on Gary's gangs. The troopers set up roadblocks in the most dangerous neighbourhoods. During their three-month stay the murder rate went down by 40 per cent only to go back up again when they left. Once a racially mixed steel town, a dozen years after the mills began to shrink from employing 30,000 workers in the 1970s, it became a wretched black ghetto. Today employment hovers at around 5000.

The story of Gary's descent into violence is an extreme version of one played out in many American cities where 'white flight' is followed by 'urban blight'. But murder rates are only one indication of urban distress. Behind these murders lie untold stories of violence, unpleasantness, paranoia and fear. One may note that the average murder rate in the US is 5.6 per 100,000 people, with New Orleans on 53.3, Washington on 45.8 and New York, with its dramatic reduction in crime, on 7.3. Contrast this with two of the most multicultural cities in the world, Toronto on 1.80 and Vancouver on 3.45.

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