NAPLES - In the gangster-ridden streets of Naples, any word against the Camorra mafia syndicate is dangerous. The rebellion by a group of shopkeepers against extortion is unprecedented.
"The fear is huge because they threaten you, your shop, your family," said Raffaele Ferrara, a grocer in the city centre who lives in fear after he and around 300 others decided to say no this year after decades of oppression.
"Every time someone with a suspicious face walks in, you think 'this is it', even if it is just someone buying a sandwich," Ferrara told AFP.
Around a busy cobbled square, local businesses including butchers, bakeries and grocers have banded together in an anti-racketeering initiative that organisers hope will dent the Camorra's stranglehold on the city.
"We decided we couldn't go on," said Salvatore Russo, another grocer.
"They would come by two or three times a year and demand money. Those who didn't pay up were shot in the legs, or beaten up, or stolen from," he said.
The bag men demanded up to 1,500 euros (S$2516) three times a year - a major cost for small businesses struggling through a deep economic crisis.
The Camorra makes billions of euros a year from drug trafficking, construction contracts and arms smuggling - a vast operation described by investigative journalist Roberto Saviano in his award-winning book "Gomorrah". But extortion is the ultimate face of the mafia's power on a local level.
"They can't do without it," said Tano Grasso, a former member of parliament and leader of a national anti-mafia association that has encouraged businesses in Naples to denounce their persecutors for the first time.
"The great thing about the anti-racket is it's not just one person speaking out, it's a whole group. And in a group the risk is gone," he said.