POLISTENA, Italy (Reuters) - Benedetto Zoccola wore a wiretap to put a mob boss in jail. To pay him back, the mafia planted a small bomb on the window sill of his office last year.
He was less than a meter (3.3 feet) away when it exploded, permanently damaging his hearing.
Zoccola, deputy mayor of the small town of Mondragone north of Naples, has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and says he often feels depressed and isolated.
“I can count my friends on one hand,” the 34-year-old told Reuters. “Sometimes I’m so down I don’t feel like living.”
To help people like him, a network has been established to bring together state officials who openly oppose the mafia. The group, called Avviso Pubblico or Public Warning, offers mostly moral support to administrators who fight organized crime in their towns.
Last year Italian mafia groups threatened a public official every 18 hours on average, and the mob has murdered 132 local administrators over the past four decades.
Arson attacks, dead animals and bullets through the post were among the methods used to deliver 479 threats to public officials in 2015, a third more than the previous year, according to Avviso Pubblico.
Zoccola himself has received numerous death threats, the latest within the past month, and has spent the past three years under 24-hour armed guard.
Sicily’s Cosa Nostra, Calabria’s ‘Ndrangheta and Campania’s Camorra dominate the economies in their regions, often with the help of corrupt or complacent administrators, and in the 21st century they have spread their tentacles to northern Italy.
Since 1991, 212 town councils have been dissolved for mafia infiltration. Last month, Italy’s central government sacked the local administration of Corleone in Sicily, the fictional hometown of Mario Puzo’s “Godfather” and the real birthplace of two of Cosa Nostra’s most feared bosses.
Italy’s Senate approved a bill in June that would give police and magistrates more tools to crack down on threats, but the legislation has yet to be passed by the lower house.
In June, some 200 local administrators who belong to Avviso Pubblico were joined by residents and state officials in a march in Polistena, Calabria, the heartland of the ‘Ndrangheta, to show solidarity for those menaced by the mob.
The ‘Ndrangheta, which investigators say is the biggest cocaine broker in Europe, has racked up the most threats to public officials so far this year.
Polistena’s Mayor Michele Tripodi received a bullet in the mail in March. The ‘Ndrangheta burned the car of Rosario Rocca, mayor of Benestare, who said of his town: “The state is absent”.
Northern mayors have also increasingly come under threat. Roberto Monta, mayor of Grugliasco outside the northwestern city of Turin, found five bullets carefully placed on the windscreen wipers of his car.
In Polistena, Zoccola met up for the first time with others who had taken the same dangerous stand. Many have also received death threats.
“Since I’ve met them, they haven’t let me feel alone,” he said.
Editing by Mark Trevelyan