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Feature Articles


April 2017
The Italian Carabinieri

      By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus


Mike La Sorte is a professor emeritus (SUNY) and writes extensively on a variety of subjects.

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Given that my paternal grandfather, Francesco (1837-1920), did a tour of duty with the Carabinieri, as did my two Italian cousins during the post-Second World War era, it should come as no surprise that, Il Corpo, the Italian national police/military force, has been of fascination for some time. Since its founding in the early 1800s, well before the formation of the Italian nation state in the early 1860s, the Corpo has had its dual role as both a police and armed force, with a military structure and bearing. The very word in English, carabineer, referred originally to a soldier saddled or on foot, who shouldered a carbine—short rifle—formerly a musket. Recruitment was for the few; according to my cousins, basic training was harsh, unforgiving, U.S. Marine boot camp style, of which I am familiar.

What I have been able to document about Francesco’s service in the Carabinieri Corpo is sketchy at best. He was discharged from the Corpo after 8 years of service on 5 January 1870, 33 years old, at which time his duty station was in the northern city of Florence where he was attached to the Corpo Carabinieri Reali—Legione di Firenze. At discharge, his papers noted that he could read and write, not a given in those days.

It all began on 13 July 1814 when the King of Sardinia by Royal warrant instituted for national defense the ancient Corps of the Royal Carabinieri, granting it special policing powers and prerogatives, with two divisions, the mounted troops and infantry. Carabinieri units were permanently placed in every village and town. The Force took on many responsibilities, among them military and policing operations, security, civilian protection and disaster services.

From the beginning the units were devoted to law and order, fighting crime and brigandage, often troublesome in the countryside. The troops showed their colors on many occasions. On 23 April 1815, nine months after the Force’s Constitution, there were sporadic disturbances in the Northern provinces. Between 1860 and 1870, a troubling decade as the peninsula struggled to become a united nation, clashes were common. In the southern provinces bandits roamed often at will spreading terror and killings, with the result that 361 Carabinieri were killed in combat and 516 wounded. Between the two World Wars, during the reign of the dictator Benito Mussolini, the Sicilian mafia was taken on and reduced to the point of extinction. After the War the mafia was reborn and remained a thorn in the side of the Carabinieri. In recent decades much change has occurred from the historic inability of the Italians to respond quickly and efficiently to disasters, such as earthquakes, duties now handled well due to the Force. That pride in service so central to the policing culture can be seen at its best at the Carabinieri Museum in Rome.

Generally speaking, mafia-type organized crime, in one form or another, is now found throughout the Italian state. Illegal operations include drug and human trafficking, murder, extortion, loan sharking. Criminals look for the weak spots and exploit them. It is the same old story: sophisticated racketeering schemes, infiltration of markets and commercial interests, and especially politics. Any business can be both legal and illegal. Each arrest brings more information about the underworld. As one example there was Domenico Oppedisano, a ‘Ndrina capo. One finds corruption in many places. One such case involved the criminal penetration of the Force itself: four Carabinieri officers were accused of complicity in a mafia-style criminal association. In recent years Italian criminal legislation has become more sophisticated and harsher. Investigations continue to find the finger prints of the ‘Ndrangheta in many pizza pies and at center stage, eclipsing the storied Sicilian mafias (todays Cosa Nostra) widening its influence well beyond its base. From Carabinieri wire taps, and other sources, ‘Ndrina gangs are organized in pyramidal structures following the Sicilian model; a boss at the top commanding a “mandamento” (a district) and local bosses. We have the so-called peripheral ‘Ndrangheta with established bases outside of Calabria, in Italy as well as abroad: Canada and Australia. Can such a complexity, if true, hold together? Questionable. Let us take the case of Carmelo Novella. Murdered in 2008, Novella presumed to go it alone. The Calabrian central committee thought otherwise so he was whacked while sipping a cappuccino in a local bar. To take a page from one of the many myths regarding the American mafia: The Calabrians are bigger than General Motors.


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