The Deadly Mafia Party Bombs of Naples

Ever been to Naples? It’s a feral circus-town. An open-air asylum with Spritz instead of blood and 200 angry mopeds desperate to get past you on every street you have the gall to walk down. It’s one of the greatest places on Earth, and one of its favourite pastimes is blowing up colossal fireworks that – sadface 🙁 – sometimes maim and kill people.

Fireworks are a hugely important part of daily life in Naples. When the Italian economy emerged from two decades of never-ending crisis in the 1980s, fireworks became a newly affordable symbol of revelry to everyday citizens. The Mafia stepped in to supply booming demand, taking over from the more expensive Chinese imports industry, and all hell broke loose.

Photo by Claudio Menna for VICE.

Today, kids deployed as scouts in working-class areas of Naples shoot them into the night sky to relay information to gangland bosses. Perhaps to celebrate the arrival of a new shipment of drugs into the local neighborhood. Or to warn of incoming police. Or to signify the return of a hated rival hoodlum from prison.

Teens set off illegal fireworks in Naples. Photo by Claudio Menna for VICE.

But it’s around Christmas – and especially on New Year’s Eve – when the whole town rolls up its sleeves to join in. Gangs from rival areas spend thousands of euros competing to create the biggest bang. Yet the next day, the streets are invariably littered with unexploded shells. When kids pick them up to relight the fuses, they often blow up in their hands, leading to catastrophic wounds and even death. In 2008, things got so bad that Neapolitan women instituted what became known in the media as a ‘sex ban’ to stop boyfriends and husbands relentlessly exploding things.

Recently, a longtime friend of VICE – the photographer Claudio Menna – risked death by fireball, cop and/or gangland henchman to speak to two so-called fuochisti (‘stokers’, in English) who spend their time sitting in the dark, manufacturing these fatal explosives for the Neapolitan mafia.

A woman manufactures illegal fireworks in her Naples home. Photo by Claudio Menna for VICE.

They kindly opened up on the work they carry out in the abandoned basement of their apartment block – using Chinese gunpowder to create infernal monstrosities named after Kim Jong-un and local messiah, Diego Maradona, in spite of the police squads who come sniffing round most days of the week.

The illegal fireworks market in Naples is totally in the hands of the local underworld, so 65-year-old ‘Antonio’ and his 16-year-old nephew ‘Fabio’ weren’t keen on having their real names or faces splashed across the internet.

VICE: Where does the DIY firework industry come from?
Antonio, 65-year-old illegal firework maker: All Neapolitans take part in this tradition but mainly those from working-class areas. Each year, neighborhoods compete to create the biggest explosion. There is very little interest in aesthetics. What people care about are the ones that are basically as powerful as real bombs.
Fabio, 16-year-old illegal firework maker: I grew up in a family of fuochisti: my uncles and my grandfather have always made fireworks. As a child, I was afraid that the police would arrest my relatives. When the party used to start at midnight on New Year’s Eve, I hid under the bed, terrified.

How do you make the fireworks? Where do you get the materials?
Antonio: The market and the production of illegal fireworks is totally in the hands of the local underworld. The materials and gunpowder come from Chinese people who live here in Naples. For every 10, 20, 30, 40 firebombs made, I earn a set amount. They’re then sold on the blackmarket – if you want them, you have to go to the old buildings, to the basements of the most popular neighborhoods. Some stores also sell them under the counter. 
Fabio: The powder is given to us in shoe boxes sealed with duct tape.

A close-up of the illegal fireworks being produced in Naples. Photo by Claudio Menna for VICE.

Do you work for yourselves, or as part of a larger organisation?
Fabio: I know very well that we are working for the “system” [this is the name used to indicate the “criminal system”, which in Neapolitan is called ‘O SISTEMA. They are Camorra organizations, old families that still dominate the business of drugs, illegal fireworks, extortion and much more].
Antonio: My nephew and I aren’t part of any criminal organization; we just work for them. Our earnings are much lower than the street price they’re sold for: it’s not a job that makes us rich.

Have you had any trouble from the law?
Antonio: We always work in hidden places: in secret backrooms of factories that produce other things – textiles, for example. When the risk of a search is higher, we work in our apartments. But my wife doesn’t want these materials in our home – she is really scared we could blow up and die!
Fabio: If you get caught, there’s definitely an arrest. Many of my relatives are still in prison. This year I did it just for economic reasons; I have to buy a ring for my girlfriend.
Antonio: From 1987, I spent 10 years in prison as I was caught driving a truck full of contraband cigarettes. There was also a large amount of drugs on the truck. Not that I knew that at the time.

Photo by Claudio Menna for VICE.

How do you come up with the infamous names for the bombs?
Antonio: There is the ‘Maradona bomb’: it’s the size and shape of a football and filled with an incredible amount of gunpowder. Today, it costs several hundred euros and when it explodes, the windows of the cars and buildings shake in their frames.
Fabio: Its explosion can destroy a car. When it detonates, it leaves a crater in the ground.
Antonio: Another famous one is named ‘Kim’, after Kim Jong-un.

Have you ever been injured by the explosives?
Antonio: These are real devices, like those used in war. So there’s always the risk, especially because we work in very dark places. I know many people who’ve lost entire hands and arms due to defects in the barrels: my cousin lost three fingers when he was a kid. Often, the fuse is shoddily made so the bomb just explodes in your hands. Traditionally, a huge number of accidents happen like this on New Year’s Day, when kids pick up unexploded shells from the street.
Fabio: When I was ten years old, my friends and I bought some powerful fireworks called “tracchi”. A friend of mine, Patrizio, dawdled after lighting the fuse: he couldn’t escape in time and his hand exploded. I remember a lot of blood and his hand literally hanging open. He was lucky, in the hospital they managed to sew up his two fingers that I saw hanging off, almost completely detached.

More delicious fireworks. Photo by Claudio Menna for VICE.

Do you hope this is a tradition that survives?
Antonio:  The new generation have not learned the trade so well. They create dangerous products. Luckily, I’ve been teaching my nephew how to make bombs for several years.
Fabio: My mom always worries when New Year’s Eve comes around because she knows it’s risky at work and with friends who enjoy detonating these absurd bombs. I’m a bit afraid that the house will explode with all the gunpowder residue.
Antonio: I hope Fabio completes his studies and finds a real, safe job, away from the dangers of the street and the underworld. But he’s very passionate and likes earning money.
Fabio: I’m not fascinated by these competitions that take place every year. It’s a shitty habit that doesn’t make sense to me. 

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