War doesn't look all that different from the police operation that hit Naples last week. Helicopters thundered overhead as more than 1,000 Italian cops, many in combat gear, cut through barricades and stormed into the port city's down-and-out housing projects. Explosives experts and bomb-sniffing dogs accompanied the Interior Ministry's SWAT teams as they fanned out looking for a certain Italian breed of terrorist whose activities in Italy date back centuries: "la Camorra," the Neapolitan brand of what most of us know as the mafia. For months, bloody gang wars have raged through the city, and now, at last, the government was making a move. By the end of the shock-and-awe crackdown, 51 of the 65 most-wanted leaders of the Camorra had been rounded up, according to Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu. He called it "a serious blow" to the group, and claimed he would eradicate the Camorra from the city and the region.

But wait a minute. Haven't we heard this before? Italy's crime bosses were supposed to be dinosaurs on their way to extinction, not wolves on the prowl. Successive Italian governments have sworn everything was under control. With an eye toward Italy's place in the European Union, the country declared victory over its major organized-crime syndicates more than a decade ago, after years of hard-fought campaigns that cost the lives of judges, prosecutors and police. No one claimed the different mafias had been eliminated, exactly, but they were supposed to have been reduced from the status of public enemy No. 1 to more of a public nuisance.

Yet the Naples raids give the lie to that rosy assessment. Adding to the embarrassment were judgments handed down last week in the trials of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and one of his closest associates from the years when he was building his billion-dollar fortune. Berlusconi finally managed to win acquittal. But Sen. Marcello Dell'Utri, who helped found Berlusconi's Forza Italia political party, was sentenced by a court in Sicily to nine years in prison on charges that he acted as a liaison between the Mob and Italy's business and political elites. More than 40 former mafia members testified against him. (Dell'Utri has several appeals to go before he'll see the inside of any prison.) What all this suggests is that the Camorra and other crime organizations may have been quiet because they'd worked out a modus vivendi with the law and with each other, not because they were hiding in fear. "It isn't true that Italy overcame the mafia," says sociologist Amato Lamberti of the University of Naples. The press and public tend to look at the number of gang-related murders as an indicator of the crime problem. When the figure goes down, law and order seem to be on the rise. But as Lamberti points out, those numbers "only show whether there are internal clashes."

The Camorra is a network of clans that run protection rackets, prostitution rings and, more recently, the drug trade in Naples and the region around it. Many Neapolitans take for granted that it dominates their economy far more than any official would dare admit. In the last half decade, the Camorra exploited the vast port of Naples to become Italy's pre-eminent drug player, with a trade that brought in $500,000 a day to boss Paolo Di Lauro, known as "Ciruzzo the Millionaire." He went into hiding in 2002, eventually installing his 25-year-old son, Cosimo, to run the family business.

But older members of the "extended family" didn't like the new leadership or its brash style, which they thought violated traditional Camorra codes. So they mounted a challenge. The young Di Lauro responded with violence; his challengers hit back. The result: homicide rates spiked 60 percent over 2004 and reached an eight-year peak. More disturbing to locals, the killings--which have traditionally been done in private--grew more public and more savage than anyone could remember.

By early December, 23 people had been murdered in the previous month alone: nearly one per day. Italian newsstands presented a grim collage of bullet-riddled corpses covered with sheets, slumped in alleys, sprawled on streets. On Nov. 12, a man eating dinner in a crowded restaurant took a round in the back of his head and died face-down in his pizza. Nor were the hits limited to the usual suspects. Gelsomina Verde, a 22-year-old woman, was tortured, shot and burned in her car last month because she was believed to be the lover of a Camorra man the killers sought. In late November, six people were killed in just 48 hours, spurring Pisanu to send in 325 special officers to bolster local forces in what was already the most heavily policed city in Italy. That didn't deter the killers of reformed Camorra member Enrico Mazzarrella, who ran a pizzeria in the pleasant seaside suburb of Bacoli. Four men entered his place and pumped eight bullets into his head during the lunch rush on Dec. 5. Finally, last week, Rome launched its blitzkrieg.

There have been other Camorra wars, and worse ones. Europol analyst Antonio Saccone says that because it has a more flexible structure than the Sicilian mafia, which puts a greater emphasis on blood ties, the Camorra is bound to have more internecine struggles. But for the same reason, the organization has proved more flexible and resilient. Most of its foot soldiers come from parts of Naples that seem immune to progress, grim warrens of rotting housing projects like Scampia and Secondigliano that locals call "the Third World." Unemployment in Naples is twice the national average, and in these neighborhoods it's 58 percent. The Camorra's tentacles now reach into Turkey, the Balkans, South America and Eastern Europe. "Naples has become the Mediterranean's main drug-trafficking junction," says Lamberti.

A crime machine like that doesn't just go away, even if sometimes it turns against itself. The deputy police chief of the Naples homicide unit, Pietro Morelli, acknowledges that authorities can occupy the city's toughest slums, but they can't hold them. They can't even prevent the Camorra from setting up its own checkpoints just down the street from those of the authorities. "When police come to get them, they melt away," says Morelli. Only a few local people will speak against the organization, and out of bitterness, not expectation of change. If peace returns to the streets, it's as likely to be the result of truces reached within the organization, as of order imposed by Rome. "When a new balance is established, there will be no more shooting," says Lamberti, who has studied the Camorra for two decades.

Maybe the problem is just too big for Italy, too deeply ingrained in its society and politics. Even as the Interior minister was declaring an initial victory, others in the coalition government were asking for help from abroad. Mauro Borghezio, an Italian member of the European Parliament and a member of the far-right nationalist Lega Nord, begged Brussels for help. "Is Naples a part of Europe?" he asked. If so, why does it "seem so very far from the freedom, safety and justice" promised to EU citizens? Between mafia wars in the streets, and the mafia taint on some of his associates, that's a question Silvio Berlusconi is finding ever harder to answer.

With Jacopo Barigazzi in Rome and Milan, and Tracy McNicoll in Paris