Honors for an Italian mafioso’s thesis in which he confesses to three unknown murders: ‘What follows is my criminal history’

The justice system is investigating the sociology paper that Catello Romano wrote in prison on the ‘allure of crime’

Catello Romano
Catello Romano, escorted by policemen, in October 2009 in Naples, in a photo from his thesis.

“My name is Catello Romano. I am 33 years old, and I have been in prison for almost half my life, 14 consecutive years. I have committed horrendous crimes and have been convicted of several Camorra murders. What follows is my criminal history.” Thus begins the unprecedented university thesis written by a Neapolitan Mafia hitman to earn his degree in sociology from prison; it received honors. In the paper, Romano confessed to three murders, for which he had never been brought to justice. The Prosecutor’s Office now has the document and is scrutinizing it to reopen the cases; the prisoner has been transferred to a maximum-security prison in Padua.

“It is also my aim to contribute to understanding the criminal phenomenon and, therefore, to its possible prevention. I am convinced that words are important and this autoethnographic text aims to change the world around us,” Romano writes in his thesis, to which EL PAÍS had access. The prisoner spent six years in the 41-bis penitentiary regime, through which mafiosos are incarcerated in extremely harsh and isolated conditions. He wrote his thesis while being held in the Calabrian prison of Catanzaro; Romano’s 170-page study focuses on the sociology of survival and reflects on “the allure of crime.”

The thesis reads like an autobiographical novel in which dramatic episodes that actually happened alternate with chilling descriptions of the criminal environment, as well as reflections on and examples of family, education, childhood and adolescence, divorce, abandonment, drugs, violence and mafia history.

“I have intimately known misery, and the negative influence it can have, since my childhood… I have developed a certain willingness to reflect and the ability to not make facile and hasty moralistic judgments about people, [an ability that is] unfortunately not very common,” the author writes.

Among other crimes, Catello Romano is serving a sentence for the murder of the Democratic Party of Castellammare di Stabia, a municipality south of Naples, councilman Luigi Tommasino. The councilman was shot dead in February 2009 while he was driving with his son because the Camorra mafia believed he was “meddling in too many things that did not concern him.”

In his thesis, Romano offers a detailed description of the idiosyncrasies of juvenile delinquency and its heterogeneous possible causes. He argues that crime has a strong allure for young people and adolescents who belong to marginalized and stigmatized sectors. “It is their way of trying to emancipate themselves and gain more respect and social recognition. In this context, violence becomes a language and a way of claiming respect and social recognition,” Romano observes. He further contends that mafia clans serve to replace the family of origin and become “a total institution.”

Catello comes from a humble family without ties to organized crime. In fact, as a child, he wanted to become a policeman. His thesis recounts the pain caused by his parents’ divorce, the gender-based violence he witnessed, his conflictive relationship with his father and how he filled that “void” by replacing his family of origin with “a new family in which he could deeply and totally experience” his “new criminal identity” with role models in the world of crime. “With them, I built my new alternative identity as a tough guy, as a mask with which to hide my inability to accept my fragility as a teenager and as a way of surviving in a violent and extreme world,” he writes in the thesis.

In the text, Romano details the first two murders he committed. He is aware that justice had never prosecuted him for those crimes and knows the consequences that this confession could have. “Through this work, at least to some extent, I am carrying out a work of truth and reparation — I would not dare say justice — toward those who have been directly affected by my misguided actions,” he says.

Catello Romano's parents, in July 1981, in a photo from his thesis.
Catello Romano's parents, in July 1981, in a photo from his thesis.

“A very difficult process”

Catanzaro University professor and sociologist Charlie Barnao, who has been teaching Sociology of Survival at the prison for five years and served as Romano’s thesis advisor, explains to this newspaper that the student went “through a very difficult process.” “He has recounted in detail circumstances that will have consequences; he was very determined to expose that in his thesis. He has put his life in order once and for all and organized the episodes of his life to analyze them through a sociological research method, which has also had a kind of therapeutic function,” the professor says. He describes Catello Romano as “a brilliant student, who has gotten very good grades throughout his course of study.”

In the thesis, Romano recounts his criminal career. He recalls the first time he wielded a gun, to protect a mobster on parole from possible reprisals from rival clans. He describes the “hole” in his “soul” left by the first two murders, in 2008, the year he came of age: the killings of Carmine D’Antuono — a rival with too much power and his interlocutor at the time of the crime — and Federico Donnarumma; the two men were gunned down within seconds of each other. Donnarumma died just because he had been talking to D’Antuono; Romano describes him as “guilty only of meeting the wrong person at the wrong time.” In addition, Catello writes about the two weeks of preparation for “the most violent, traumatic and irreparable event” of his life.

Romano concedes his “recklessness,” noting that “foolishly, [I had a] mad desire to be somebody, to be seen and to be part of something bigger and more important, proving myself worthy through the cruelty and coldness of suppressing my fellow man.” He even recalls how he dressed for the occasion: “I liked to dress well, and I appreciated my clothes, which I had acquired through so many sacrifices in past years [by] doing more humble, hard and honest jobs. So, when I committed my first murder and had to throw away everything I was wearing at the time of the shooting as a precaution to avoid the detection of traces of gunpowder, I suffered a lot and complained for a long time, forcing whoever was giving me orders to promise me that at least he would buy me clothes, something he never did,” Romano says.

After councilman Tommasino’s murder, Catello Romano began a short-lived collaboration with the justice system, which he interrupted shortly thereafter with a spectacular but brief escape. In his thesis, Romano confesses to another crime hitherto unknown to justice: the 2008 murder of Nunzio Mascolo, a member of a rival clan. “Although I cannot prove it, I am sure that he did nothing wrong to deserve death,” the confessed murderer writes. He explains that “in the infamous logic of the Camorra and of the underworld in general, it works like this; it is not even necessary for the victim to have done something. I have learned on the ground that in that world one can die for the envy of someone who, unfortunately for the victim, has some influence to order a death sentence.” He also clarifies that his role was to pull the trigger and not to ask questions.

Making amends

In his thesis, Romano quotes Aldo Moro, the prime minister of Italy who was assassinated by Red Brigade terrorists, and writes that “when one speaks the truth, one should not regret having said it.” He extols the liberating power of the truth, noting that “it is always enlightening,” and “it helps us to be courageous.” He adds that “I have told the above in the hope that I have done something reparative for those I have wronged and for myself.”

Professor Barnao defends the need to guarantee access to study for inmates and laments that this type of learning experience is not common but “a mirage” in Italian prisons. He believes that inmates, especially those in maximum security prisons, are “great experts at surviving in extreme conditions.”

Barnao also praises the method of sociological research through autoethnography, which is used to describe and analyze personal experience to understand the cultural, social and political environment. He points out that several prisoners have employed this approach to try to draw lessons from their criminal histories. For example, while serving his life sentence in prison, Sicilian Mafia boss Salvatore Curatolo wrote his thesis on his survival strategies in prison and graduated with a degree in sociology. Similarly, Camorra godfather Sergio Ferraro, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison, wrote his thesis on socialization within the mafia clans.

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