A .38-Caliber Rosary The Dangerous New Face of Salvini's Italy
Shots fired at foreigners, assaults on minorities, neo-fascist marches: Italy's extreme right wing feels emboldened by the country's new leadership. Many are pointing fingers at Interior Minister Matteo Salvini. But is he to blame?
He has hardly got off the airplane before the stream of invective begins. Refugees, says Matteo Salvini at the end of a trip to Africa, "who rape, steal and deal" will be stopped by the new security decree. Italy, he fumes, has had enough of migrants "who aren't fleeing from war but who are bringing war to our country."
Not a day goes by without an incitement from Salvini. In office as interior minister since June 1, the head of the right-wing party Lega has become the voice of the government led by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. Salvini's motto is simple: "Italians first." His tone is combative. And the consequences can be seen everywhere.
In Macareta, black pedestrians were shot at in broad daylight. In Aprilia, a Moroccan man was beaten to death. In Caserta, youth opened fire on men from Mali. The steady stream of incidents in the summer and fall of 2018 has triggered disgust in Italy and beyond. At least 70 racist occurrences were registered in the country between June and October.
Italian President Sergio Mattarella has warned against vigilantism and a "Wild West mentality." In July, the refugee aid agency UNHCR registered its "deep concern over the growing number of attacks in latest months against migrants, asylum-seekers, refugees and Italian citizens of foreign origins." The Italian Bishops Conference noted a "climate of distrust, contempt and anger."
It seems as though neo-fascists and right-wing radicals around the country feel invigorated, as though xenophobia has become acceptable. Gad Lerner, the writer of a television series about racism, even speaks of a "fascist maelstrom to which our country is succumbing." But someone like Salvini isn't too concerned about criticism. Sitting at his desk in the Interior Ministry, beneath a painting of the Baby Jesus between Mother Mary and Saint Anne, he poses as a strongman who refuses to be cowed.
He has closed the country's ports to refugee boats, cut the number of new arrivals to a fifth of their previous total and pushed through a new law that allows for accelerated asylum proceedings and deportations.
Open-Air, Trash Incineration Facility
Racism? It is "complete nonsense" to lay the blame at his feet when some Roma girl is "injured" somewhere, Salvini says not long after a 13-month-old baby was shot in the spine by an air rifle. The child was from one of the shantytowns that Salvini visited prior to becoming interior minister -- and which he promised to flatten with a "bulldozer."
The address of the settlement on the eastern edge of the Italian capital is Via Salone 323.
GUARDED BY POLICE around the clock, the path into the "nomad camp," as many Romans refer to it, can be found behind a two-meter tall concrete wall. It is home to 614 people, half of them children, living in makeshift containers and mobile homes. The sewage system is faulty and the entire area is flooded after heavy rain. Garbage is piled high on the outskirts of the camp and it smells of excrement. The slum, cut off from the outside world and primarily occupied by Roma from southeastern Europe, is reminiscent of poverty-stricken quarters in Mumbai or Nairobi. But it is located just 15 kilometers from the Trevi Fountain.
Every seventh Roma or Sinti in Italy lives in such ethnically segregated settlements. Not least because of such treatment of Roma and Sinti, the European Commission has been investigating the country since 2012 for violations of anti-discrimination and race equality legislation. Salvini's plan now calls for such camps to be cleared. Before doing so, however, he wants to register all their residents.
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The interior minister can count on the support of most of the settlements' neighbors, including those living near Via Salone. That support isn't just the product of two Bosnian Roma having handcuffed two local girls and raping them. Rather, it is primarily a reaction to the fact that for a time, the Roma settlement resembled an open-air trash incineration facility.
Italians looking to get rid of their trash cheaply and illegally with the help of the Roma would dump truckloads of garbage and plastic refuse here. Black columns of smoke in the night bear witness to the fact that the business model is still going strong. In the middle-class neighborhood of Case Rosse next door, air pollution levels have been measured that are the equivalent of those found at hazardous waste dumps.
"It is impossible to find out who is burning the stuff," a Roma camp spokesperson says innocently. "It always happens at night." Next to the entrance, camp neighbors have put up a poster reading: "Stop burning! Do you want war? We are ready."
But firing at a small Roma girl being carried in the arms of her unsuspecting mother at a playground? Who could be that vile? It turned out that the gunman was the retired employee of the Italian Senate who fired at the child from his seventh-floor balcony using a high-powered pellet gun. The toddler was taken to hospital and initially it was thought that she would be permanently paralyzed.
Massive racism against Roma and Sinti -- often referred to pejoratively as "zingari" -- hasn't just emerged since the new government took office. But Salvini and his comrades-in-arms are responsible for the increasing violence, says Najo Adzovic. "This government has given the people a license to hate. The atmosphere is explosive."
Wearing a white hat, open shirt and a gold bracelet, Adzovic acts as an emissary between the two worlds in Rome. He mediates between government officials and his own people, seeks to resolve disputes between rival clans and doesn't deny "that petty crime is a problem in our camps." But he is concerned about the volatile mood in the country.
Recently, he aired his worries in an open letter, warning about a "silent Holocaust" and giving notice to Italy's right-wing agitators that they would resist. "This time, we won't allow you to transport us to the death camps."
"THERE IS NO QUESTION that racism has increased in Italy," says Luigi Manconi. "And that it is dangerous, and that it can even get worse. But you have to look at the numbers. At the beginning of the 1990s, there were 800,000 foreigners in the country. Now it is almost 6 million."
Manconi has been a state secretary and a Senator and has also made a name for himself as a human rights activist and author. These days, the white-haired gentleman heads up the National Office of Racial Anti-Discrimination. Ironically, the institute is part of the Interior Ministry portfolio under Salvini's control.
The taboo against racism was upheld in Italy longer than in other European countries, with the possible exception of Germany, Manconi says. Can Salvini be blamed for the rise in xenophobia? "What is new," he says, "is that the country is being led with a mixture of gut instinct and resentment, meaning that what used to be a tendency now appears to be official government policy."
What Manconi doesn't say, but what he knows from his own days in the Senate: Institutional racism is nothing new in Italy. Roberto Calderoli, who is still vice president of the upper house today, once said that the country's first black cabinet minister "resembled an orangutan."
Unsanctioned racist comments have long been a feature of Italian politics, and not just on the right-wing fringe. One state prosecutor, once celebrated for his tough stance against the mafia, later entered the leftist cabinet of Prime Minister Romano Prodi, where he said that if Italy didn't get a handle on immigration, it would soon look like "Europe's pissoir."
The fact that right-wing radical ideas have once again become acceptable in the country 80 years after the race laws passed by dictator Benito Mussolini is likely also a function of the rather conciliatory view of the country's history harbored by many Italians. Despite more than 20 years of fascist rule, no tribunal was ever held in Italy that even distantly resembled the Nuremberg Trials in Germany, during which the nation's crimes were publicly examined.
Mussolini and his accomplices were responsible for around 2 million deaths, but it is rarely mentioned. Silvio Berlusconi once joked: "Mussolini never killed anybody. He merely sent people in internal exile."
IF YOU´RE INTERESTED IN MEETING neo-fascists, you could do worse than jumping onto the subway at San Giovanni, just next to the cathedral that is the pope's official seat, and heading east. Marco Continisio is waiting at the Santa Maria del Soccorso station, a 28-year-old bearded man who is the local representative of CasaPound, the party of self-proclaimed "fascists of the third millennium."
The movement, named for the American poet and Mussolini admirer Ezra Pound, was founded in 2003 and now has more than 100 offices around the country with more than 20,000 members. In Rome, particularly in the city's east, the neo-fascists have become a significant power -- in part because they offer daily assistance to those in need in addition to getting involved and showing a presence in places where the state has long since given up.
Marco Continisio climbs into his Hyundai and begins patrolling his beat, a huge area of shabby apartment blocks, abandoned factories and decaying warehouses. Initially, the city tried to shelter refugees in the industrial wasteland and empty buildings. But the activists from CasaPound have become increasingly successful in blocking the effort.
Continisio points to a former Red Cross migrant shelter in Via Frantoio, in front of which he and his friends protested until it was shut down. He also drives out to the trash heaps surrounding the Via Salone Roma camp, where CasaPound supports the neighbors' protests. Continisio says: "The Roma are animals, without culture and without the intention to integrate."
Following a clear strategy, the neo-fascists have burrowed in to the social lining of the capital city. They have taken over control of urban district committees that were once dominated by the left, they distribute food to the needy and patrol unsafe areas at night. And as soon as illegally squatting Italians are in danger of being evicted to make way for law-abiding foreign renters, they show up in formation.
Open to Cooperation
CasaPound is challenging the state's monopoly on force -- often with state acquiescence. "We are prepared to do anything to defend the interests of disadvantaged Italians," Continisio says. "We are a radical movement." Do the neo-fascists feel that Salvini has been good for the cause? "With regards to content, we are very close to each other. His motto 'Italians first' is one we have stood for over the last 15 years. Organizationally, we have been closer in the past, but we remain open to cooperation."
To the degree his supermarket job allows, Continisio is happy to do whatever CasaPound needs from him. The group expects its members to play active roles in all areas of life -- whether in street militance or in the martial arts studio, whether in the party-oriented book shop or serving drinks.
Party leaders can be found in the evenings at Cutty Sark, a pub in the Monti quarter of Rome where the "fascists of the third millennium" are essentially the only guests. To the left of the bar hangs a portrait of Syrian President Bashar Assad next to scarves bearing the words: "To the Arms, We Are Fascists."
CasaPound leader Gianluca Iannone is also here, a huge man in knee-length cargo shorts with a Mussolini slogan tattooed across his neck. Sentenced in the first instance to four years behind bars for assaulting a policeman, Iannone says of the Mussolini years that it was "the best experience in the history of Italy."
He and his neo-fascists are tightly organized, networked internationally and well-represented on Facebook. The whole thing is controlled from party headquarters on Via Napoleone III, in the heart of the capital. CasaPound activists occupied the building illegally in 2003 and they have been there ever since -- several thousand square meters of rent-free space in a prime location.
Interior Minister Salvini declares he has more pressing issues than having the palazzo on Via Napoleone III cleared. Until 2015, his Lega party was allied with CasaPound via the joint political platform "Sovereignty."
March separately, strike together: Such is the motto that Italy's extreme right is following to gain political ground. All right-wing parties, as Umberto Eco once wrote, know how to awaken the people's need to fabricate enemies and to unite behind a strong leader -- from Salvini's Lega to the post-fascist Fratelli d'Italia to the neo-fascists of CasaPound.
IS LILIANA SEGRE RIGHT when she says that in Italy, things sometimes "sound the way the used to sound again?" The 88-year-old Jewish Auschwitz survivor, who is a Senator for life, reminded the upper house in June of the Italian fascists' complicity in the crimes of the Nazis and warned that "vigilance" was necessary.
Complicity? "Come on. Mussolini's race laws were a concession to Adolf Hitler," says Ernesto Moroni in his office decorated with steel helmets, daggers and portraits of Il Duce. Moroni is head of the organization Azione Frontale in Rome and says of the Jews: "They were Hitler's financiers and thus brought about their own calamity with their eyes open." A people that essentially voluntarily exterminated itself? "Why not? Abraham was ready to sacrifice his own son."
A bald-headed mountain of muscle with piercing blue eyes, a charming family father who has been successful in business, Moroni made a name for himself in Jewish communities around the world in 2014 as the man who sent pig heads to a synagogue in Rome and to the Israeli Embassy. Together with his comrades in Azione Frontale, he fights for "the pure form of fascism that unites all social classes and doesn't neglect the weakest." The group distributes free food twice a week. On those days, the needy gather amidst the Mussolini mementos to secure an aluminum bowl of pasta.
Once darkness falls, Moroni and the others make their "ronde" -- unarmed but in groups of six to eight men -- making their presence felt in a quarter that has the reputation for being crime-ridden. On the way, they slap stickers on the lampposts or post messages on the butcher shops and hairdressers that are run by foreigners, saying things like: "Support shops run by Italians." Moroni insists that such acts of resistance are necessary against "the invasion that we are exposed to."
A .38-Caliber Rosary
What does he think of Salvini? "He is not the savior of the Fatherland for us fascists," Moroni says. And then he sets off with other fascists to spend a bit of time in and around Predappio, Mussolini's birthplace, a town where the mayor works out of a room that was once the dictator's childhood bedroom. Some neo-fascists head to Predappio three times a year: for Mussolini's birthday, for the day of his death and for the anniversary of his march on Rome. In the town, pilgrims can buy souvenir truncheons for just five euros emblazoned with Mussolini's motto: "Believe -- Obey -- Fight." The inner circle then moves on to the religious service held in the garden of Villa Carpena, where Il Duce once lived.
The comrades greet each other there by saying "a noi" ("to us") and grasping each other's forearm. A descendent of one of Italy's oldest royal families introduces himself by saying: "I'm not an anti-Semite, but the Jews killed the son of God. Unfortunately, there's no getting around that."
Then "Padre" Giulio Tam, an excommunicated priest, pulls out communion wine and a chalice from his Opel Vivaro van and the service in honor of Mussolini can begin.
With his five-kilogram rosary from which dangle several crosses made of empty .38-caliber shells (a gift from friends), the "padre" preaches: If you want to fight back the "Islamic invasion," you have to wake up. "You have to know the enemy you wish to defeat."
Hours later, during the midday meal of tortelli stuffed with bacon, Ernesto Moroni passes out photocopied lyrics and the comrades break into song: "Giovinezza," the hymn of fascist Italy. Every time the name Mussolini is mentioned, Giulio Tam -- in his black robe with his right arm outstretched -- gives the signal for the fascist greeting. After that, and before dessert, comes a passionate rendition of the Nazi song "SS Marches into Enemy Territory" -- translated into Italian.
WHEN THE NEO-FASCISTS lose their patience, they head out to march, protesting in front of the building where the poorest of the poor are housed, those people who live in the asbestos-contaminated cement skeleton located on Via Tiburtina. The former penicillin factory serves as a hostel for the most wretched of the migrants to Italy. It has no windows, is drafty and the floor is covered with pharmaceuticals that have been left behind along with plastic trash.
Toothless old women, mothers with infants and, especially, young men from West Africa populate the ruin. More than 600 people have found shelter in the structure, and they are trapped in a vicious cycle from which they cannot escape: Without a permanent address, they are not eligible for a residence permit nor do they have access to the social system.
It would be impossible for an outsider to find his way into the ruins without the help of Mustapha Drammeh, a 25-year-old from a family of 12 children from Gambia. He's a clever young man with Rasta braids -- and has his own odyssey behind him: One that took him through the desert to Libya, by boat across the Mediterranean to Lampedusa and then to Rome via Calabria.
His belly is covered with scars from abuse suffered in Libya and he is blind in his right eye -- the result, he says, of a beating he received at the hands of Italian police during a raid. And yet, Mustafa has been luckier than others: Aid workers from Doctors Without Borders plucked him out of a camp in part because he can speak five African languages. Now, he helps out as an interpreter, including during the weekly visits to the penicillin factory by teams of white-clad doctors.
Inside, a notice hangs on a fence noting that the police have determined the structure to be "uninhabitable." Recently, Matteo Salvini himself addressed the penicillin factory, saying that he saw it as a symbol of what must change in the treatment of foreigners. "Drugs, alcohol and squalor" are standard for them, Salvini announced.
But not for much longer: "It will soon be cleared. Enough chaos. We will reestablish order and quiet."
On Monday morning, he kept his word. The building was raided by police.