NAPLES, Italy -- Titti Beneduce was saying how the mob wars ricocheting through this city were because of a power struggle that erupted after boss Gennaro "The Monkey" Licciardi died in prison.
"Eighty-eight people have been gunned down since January," said Beneduce, a tall woman in a silk dress who chronicles crime for Il Mezzogiorno newspaper.
Her desk phone rang.
"Hot, hot," she said into the receiver.
"You want to see No. 89?"
Antonio Del Buono, "a little fish," lay a few blocks away, still straddling his blue scooter, one pistol slug in the back of his head, another in his temple. An orange-and-white sheet covered all but his brown shoes. Children climbed a rusty fence to get a better glimpse. A woman shimmied through the crowd. The sheet was peeled back. Everyone went up on tiptoes. Blood streaked Del Buono's bleached hair as the woman screamed. Police searched for witnesses. Nobody saw a thing.
Mob killings are not uncommon here. But since the beginning of the year, violence has grown more grisly as the 30 clans of the Camorra -- the mob -- have battled over everything from prostitution to drugs to hundreds of millions of dollars in construction contracts. The army marched in last month to restore order, but gunshots still streak the hazy air smothering this Mediterranean port.
People living in the Spanish Quarter and other poor neighborhoods are wondering what is happening to the Camorra, a World War II-era syndicate that is now caught up in chaos as thugs and cheap gangsters fill its ranks. The Camorra still conjures up fear, but it is losing its panache, and with it the people's respect.
"Before all this, the Camorra was an honorary society with a code of principles," says Vittorio Fardella, who sat with a sweater pulled around his shoulders in the cool dim of the San Francesco Basilica. "But these people now have no honor. They shoot women and children. There are no rules anymore. They have 'mala vita,' the bad life."
The "mala vita" is connected to several sins of Neapolitan culture. The poor economy -- the region's unemployment rate ranges from 15 percent to 30 percent -- readily makes bagmen out of desperate and drug-addicted youths. In recent years police have netted a number of Camorra bosses, leaving their lieutenants scurrying to become the new emperors.
The fragility of the Camorra's world since a government crackdown in the early 1990s has triggered more violence. In 1995, there were 149 mob-related killings in Naples. There were 141 in 1996 and 89 so far this year. The army sent in 500 soldiers July 17 after several bystanders -- including a woman walking her child home -- were killed in cross-fire.
Many in the Spanish Quarter said the army was having little effect because it mainly guards monuments and public places and does not patrol the most dangerous neighborhoods. The military, they say, was most likely summoned to protect tourists and prop up the image of Naples, which despite the mob wars has undergone a cultural renaissance.
Gen. Nocola Vozza, commander of Italy's 28,000-member southern military force, sounded like Gen. Colin L. Powell in his honing of euphemisms. "Naples is the same as Europe and American cities," says Vozza. "I don't think we have an emergency here. Naples is a city of beautiful things like Rome and Florence. But it does have its contradictions."
The narrow alleys of the Spanish Quarter are the mob's maze. Laundry hangs in heaps off balconies. Scooters buzz past jTC shoemakers, carpenters, jewelers and tailors, all of whom pay monthly protection money to the Camorra.
"Here is where the Camorra rule," says Vincenzo, a stooped gray-haired man who would not give his last name. "They collect from everybody. You can't refuse. The bosses come by dressed so nice and smartly. They say, 'Come have a coffee,' and they treat you nice. But if you make them angry, they cut your legs off. We have a saying in Naples: 'If you step on my foot, I will chop your foot off.' "
Farther up the alley, near a painting of St. Anne decorated with wilting pink roses, Pasquale Valese stood before his carpenter's shop. He said he is weary of doing "favors" for the Camorra.
"I built a bed for them once," he says. "It had a backboard and folded up. I even threw in a mattress and some sheets. I charged them 500,000 lira [$292]. I didn't see any of it. But what can you do? If you complain, they burn you down."
People here are trapped between two layers of the mob. The first is a collection of the "little fish" who scour poor neighborhoods and run prostitution, drugs, cigarettes, protection money and the numbers racket. The second consists of "clans," which are the heart of the Camorra and control big money: the port of Naples, shipbuilding, construction and banks.