In late April, Italian anti-mafia police arrested 21 members of the so-called “Sibillo gang”. The rising Camorra clan has been asserting its control over a number of central districts in Naples over the last decade, dealing drugs, racketeering, extorting money from shop owners and punishing those who don’t submit.
The clan is called “Paranza dei bambini” (“fishing trawler of children,” which refers to a criminal group led by youngsters), or Piranhas. It was founded by “baby boss” Emanuele Sibillo, who died in an ambush by rival gangs in 2015, aged 19.
After his death, Sibillo became a saint-like figure throughout Naples, and tributes were made in several neighbourhoods. During the police operation in April, an altar with his ashes was found in the courtyard of his family’s home in the Forcella district of Naples.
The plasterboard bust portrayed Sibillo in his signature look – footballer haircut, long beard and dark framed glasses – which helped to popularise him among Gen Z Camorra mobsters. According to witnesses, his clan even forced local shop owners to kneel in front of the bust after paying the “pizzo” (protection money), as a sign of submission and respect.
Although very young, Sibillo’s rise through the ranks of Neapolitan organised crime was rapid. In 2011, at 15 years old he was arrested for the first time on charges of illegal possession of a firearm. He was sent to a juvenile detention centre, where he joined a journalism course and developed a passion for video reporting.
When he was released in 2012, he immediately started to recruit youngsters like him to form a new cartel. His plan was unprecedented and ambitious: rebelling against the old Camorra clans to take over the city. In just a few years they unleashed a “trade war” and managed to wrestle control of the centre of Naples.
Sibillo and his affiliates were notorious for their aggressive drug dealing, their public displays of violence, their “stese” (Neapolitan slang for random shootouts, performed while racing through the alleyways of Naples on scooters) and their intimidating visual style, partially inspired by ISIS jihadists.
“Sibillo did not grow his beard that way because he wanted to join ISIS,” says Marcello Ravveduto, professor at Salerno University and scholar of Camorra’s history, “but because that look inspired awe and incited violence. Sibillo knew that every community, even Camorra clans, needs an identity – something that can form around the figure of a leader.”
The myth of Sibillo was born out of his lust for power and his rebellious stance. “He is considered an innovator – someone who had the guts to go against the ‘big ones’,” says Ravveduto.
Between 2013 and 2015, his tag, “ES17” – “ES” for Sibillo’s initials, “17” for “S”, the 17th letter of the Italian alphabet – could be seen all over the walls of Naples’ centre. The graffiti was not only a celebration of the young mafia leader and his clan, but a way to claim the territory as their own.
While Sibillo was a rising star in the Neapolitan crime scene, he was also still just a teenager. In the 2018 documentary ES17, made by journalist Conchita Sannino and screenwriter Diana Ligorio, Mariarca Savarese – Sibillo’s partner and the mother of his two children – says, “[Emanuele] came back home at around six in the morning and went to bed. He woke up at three or four in the afternoon and then had some milk and biscuits. Once a week we also saw Gomorrah together, and then we hit the clubs.”
The acclaimed TV series, based on author Roberto Saviano’s non-fiction book by the same name, has been the subject of a heated debate in Italy for some time. The mayor of Naples, for example, accused the series of “corroding the brains, souls and hearts of hundreds of very young people”. Others argue that the crude, gritty depiction of the Camorra mafia simply portrays a reality experienced by many.
In a previous interview with VICE Italy, Ligorio said that while writing and shooting the documentary, “We found out that reality goes even further than Gomorrah. I indeed had the impression that the ‘paranza’ mobsters embraced Gomorrah’s moral code and took it even further.”
According to Ligorio, Sibillo was among the first young mafiosi to use social media as a powerful propaganda tool. He and his associates boasted of their lavish lifestyle on Facebook, posting pictures of expensive clothes, cars and exclusive restaurants.
This cultivated a larger-than-life public persona, which was crucial in sustaining Sibillo’s power, within and outside his criminal circle. Sibillo and his “paranza” were able to arrange “a network of contacts where everyone performed the same actions, strengthening their group identity and building a sense of cultural hegemony”, according to Ravveduto. By “showing all the privileges of being a Camorra mobster”, they became mafia influencers and “role models” for younger generations of mafiosi.
Eventually, rival clans grew tired of Sibillo and decided to take him out. A mafia war broke out in the centre of Naples, resulting in more than 40 deaths, including Sibillo’s. In July of 2015 he joined a botched raid against the Buonerba clan; trapped in the narrow Oronzio Costa street – known as “Baghdad” or “Street of Death” – he was shot in the back multiple times. He was taken to a local hospital but died a couple of hours later.
Until his death, Sibillo was at the forefront of a paradigm shift in the Camorra, whose structure now more closely resembles South American gangs, rather than the traditional family-based Italian mob. The bond between affiliates no longer originates from family ties – like the Sicilian Cosa Nostra or the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta – but from “the street” or the neighbourhood. It is horizontal, rather than hierarchical.
“It is no coincidence that these people basically never leave their neighbourhood,” says Ravveduto. “Their life revolves around the neighbourhood. They also use Neapolitan dialect as the main language, to affirm – once again – their shared identity.”
As a young boss abruptly killed in his prime, Sibillo achieved a form of divinity. “He is the patron of his neighbourhood,” says Ravveduto. “The very act of making people kneel before his bust is a sign that, even today, this clan needs something to identify with. Sibillo’s bust is a call to unity, in a world where violent confrontations between battling factions happen almost daily.”