When Banda della MaglianaTerrorized Rome

It is 1978, and a gang of young, violent, second-rate hoodlums decides to try to play big and bring to Rome the methods and organization of their more successful counterparts in Sicily or Calabria. 

It is a time when terrorism is on the rise in Western Europe and it looks as if it could be the turning point of the Cold War.

Soviet-sponsored Red Brigades are rampant in Italy and the USSR has started its deadly involvement in Afghanistan, a war that will eventually help drain the Soviets' economy and morale and bring about the end of their empire. But in 1978, that demise is still far away and Afghanistan seems a new Soviet offensive that can be as fortunate as the others ... and Italy is the battleground of the most ferocious conflict being fought in a Western developed country during the Cold War. The destabilization of Italy could be the prize for Moscow to leapfrog non-aligned Yugoslavia and possibly thus even rip apart the European front of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, as terrorism is making inroads in France and Germany as well. Aldo Moro, the most powerful politician in Italy, is kidnapped and then killed. It is possibly the most serious political assassination of the Cold War, and it looks like a moment of reckoning for Italy. And it was not a solitary act, as two years later a bomb will be planted in the Bologna train station. Its blast will kill more than 80 people, making it the worst bombing of the Cold War, and this time there will be neo-fascist terrorists behind it. 

Against this backdrop the gang is blazing new trails in the Roman underworld organizing a tightly knit network of drug trafficking. The gang is the notorious Banda della Magliana (Magliana Gang) that terrorized Rome for about half a decade, a time still riddled with many mysteries harking back to the very nature of the Cold War, but also to the Byzantine plotting of Italian politics. 

No one has ever before delved into this arcane and complicated story, but now Italian writer Giancarlo De Cataldo has produced a novel that has just come out in Italy, Romanzo Criminale ("Crime Story"). De Cataldo, a senior judge in Rome, changes all the names, but the plot and the details are just too easy to recognize, as they are based on painstaking research of the events and police investigations of those years. And for the first time Italy tries to come to grips with one of the darkest moments of its recent history. 

In the book, the gang is first asked to find where Moro has been hidden after his kidnapping, but when the gang actually succeeds, some politicians prefer to ignore the information. Then the same gang is used to kill a reporter who has acquired a dossier on Moro's detention and has possibly been trying to blackmail another powerful politician. All in all it appears clear that the government is so busy fighting terrorism that it has forgotten about rising crime. Organized crime uses the moment to expand its activities and some politicians find it useful to ally themselves with criminals to fight red terrorists. 

This pattern is not in the forefront, as De Cataldo doesn't aim to draw a new conspiracy theory. In fact the writer seems more inclined to believe that many alliances and connections between politics and crime were rather casual, not planned - both parties tried to use the moment and each other for their own advantage. There are too many actors in the scene, each with his own conflicting agenda and each trying to use the prevailing wind and flow of currents to sail his boat toward his own destination. The Magliana Gang, thanks to the lucidity and intuition of some of its leaders, is able to use the moment and grow beyond the traditional scope of criminals in the city of Rome. They realize that "the street", the space outside the palaces of power, could be instrumental for ruling the city. They try to make a leap from gang to real economic power where legitimate and illegitimate businesses are run in parallel, reinforcing each other. It is a web that could well engulf and swallow up the whole city, if a policeman and a prosecutor were not to pull their attention away from political terrorism and direct it toward the gang. 

These two characters, no doubt also drawn from reality, are the main drive against the gang. But the gang is also not disciplined like a Mafia family. It is torn by rivalry, clashing ambitions and the inability to control violence, including against its members. One after the other they die, killed in acts of revenge, or they are sentenced to long prison terms. But in the meantime a river of blood has flooded Italian roads, the state structures are shaken, as crime appears to be as destabilizing as red terrorism, if not more so. And in the end the gang disintegrates from internecine violence rather than because of the crackdown of the state. 

The novel, written in Italian, reads as smoothly as a Hollywood movie - the characters are violent, but also full of doubts, strange passions, piety, friendship. No one, no judge or policeman, comes out of the 600-page novel crystal-clean - it is a murky moment in history when eventually Italy manages to win the double fight against terrorism and organized crime. 

There seems to be a very strong moral for the present, when the West is waging a new war against a new terrorism. Organized crime and terrorism are connected. In more than one way terrorism can't survive without organized crime, and it is not simply the issue of beating countries sponsoring terrorism. Perhaps is an issue for soul-searching: what accomplices can terrorists and criminal gain in the state? It is clear that no Mafia-like organization can survive without support from some sectors of the state. Then what is the complicity of terrorists in the Western states? Are the accomplices attracted just by the money or also by political goals? Were the Western states, for so many years home of terrorists, aware of the danger but ignored it while pursuing convoluted political goals, or they did misunderstand the risks? Was it only tolerance and liberty that allowed the terrorists to live, plan and organize their acts in the United States, or did someone turn a blind eye, perhaps thinking these people would not be so dangerous or could be useful in the future? Et cetera. 

While we are about to go and bomb Saddam Hussein in Iraq, many of these questions have not been asked. They linger in some dark recess of our soul, the heart of the Cold War, where today's enemies, al-Qaeda, were trained and used by the West against the Soviets, and they financed themselves by organizing possibly the largest drug-trafficking network in the world. 

Was it right to do so? Possibly yes, as the USSR was worse than al-Qaeda, and wars are possibly a necessary price for state security. But it is also clear that unless international organized crime is fought, tomorrow's terrorists can use criminal networks to finance themselves and their goals ... as occurred in Italy 20 years ago. 

Romanzo Criminale by Giancarlo De Cataldo, Einaudi. ISBN: 88-06 16096-6. Price 14.50 euros, 628 pages. Currently available in Italian only.