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Citizens of a southern Italian province were on Friday still reeling from a recent quadruple murder in plain daylight that drew attention back to the bloody rivalry between forgotten mafia clans struggling for supremacy in the area.

On Wednesday, an alleged mafia boss and his brother-in-law were driving in a black Volkswagen Beetle along a shadeless road in the province of Foggia _ located near Italy's Adriatic coast, some 320 kilometers (199 miles) to the southeast of Rome _ when they were ambushed and massacred in a hail of gunfire.

Mario Luciano Romito, considered the head of the Manfredonia clan, had survived a 2009 car bomb attack and a shooting in 2010, but this time, he ran out of luck: the last thing he and his brother-in-law, Matteo de Palma, saw before being mowed down by AK-47 rifles and 12-caliber shotguns was a van blocking the road from which unidentified figures emerged.

Romito and De Palma died instantly.

After the gruesome execution, the killers noticed another vehicle nearby.

As they approached it, the car sped off, so the armed gangsters chased them in the van, eventually overtaking the car's two middle-aged male occupants.

One of them sprang out of the car and ran for his life. He was shot multiple times in the back, while his companion was sprayed with bullets inside the vehicle.

The two men had no known connection to the regional mafia wars: Luigi and Aurelio Luciani, aged 47 and 43, respectively, were simple farmers; brothers whose fatal mistake was being unwitting eyewitnesses to the gunmen's violent crime.

The slaughter has sparked intense outcry throughout Italy due to its cruelty, its exposure, the involvement of innocents and because it has shed light on the brutal methods employed by the different clans vying for control of the province and the neighboring Gargano National Park, in the region of Apulia.

The Foggian mob has long been underestimated, said Italy's national anti-mafia prosecutor, Franco Roberti, in an interview with Radio Rai following the slaying.

"For too long, Foggian criminals have been considered part of a 'B-list' mafia," Roberti lamented.

However, he explained that official figures contradicted this common stereotype: in the past three decades, internecine fighting between clans in Foggia has resulted in 300 murders, 80 percent of which have been met with impunity.

Roberti told daily "La Stampa" that the Foggian mob was "particularly ruthless and impenetrable," adding that it could even be more violent and aggressive than their better-known counterparts, Italy's "big three" criminal organizations: Sicily's Cosa Nostra, Naples' Camorra and Calabria's 'Ndrangheta.

In its report for the second semester of 2016, the Anti-Mafia Investigation Directorate (DIA) warned that the criminal landscape in the Foggia province was complex and unstable, marked by the notable fragmentation of its rival gangs.

It listed 18 clans which _ as opposed to other mafias _ lacked a shared decision-making organ and a unitary action.

The DIA added that this fact could be the reason for the fragile balances inside the groups, which are marked by an unusual degree of violence.

The conflict's focal point seems to be the stunningly-beautiful Gargano area _ the "spur" of the figurative cowboy boot that is the Italian Peninsula's geography _ where at least 10 clans compete for hegemony.

Daniela Marcone, vice president of the anti-mafia association Libera, told EFE that it was "evident that there is an ongoing war" in Gargano and said the clans were "very aggressive and active, and they make shows of force by also killing innocents."

Marcone, a Foggia native, underscored that the groups were completely autonomous from the Sacra Corona Unita ("United Sacred Crown"), a sizeable mafia which has traditionally ruled over Apulia.

Her belief, shared by the authorities, is that the clans enrich themselves mainly through drug trafficking, distributing narcotics supplied by Albanian partners along the Adriatic coast.

One of Libera's priorities is to raise awareness among the local population about the existence and dangers of the mafiosi scourge.

"The citizens of Foggia already know about it and there's been an increase in awareness, but I don't think it's a very reactive community," Marcone said. "There's still much work left to do to make them react, the community has yet to completely open its eyes."

Italy's interior minister, Marco Minniti, on Thursday visited the province's homonymous capital and vowed that the State's response would be "very tough," as well as announcing the reinforcement of security in the region by deploying an additional 192 military and police forces.

by Gonzalo Sánchez