For the first time in Italian history, the public prosecutor has seized an entire police department in Piacenza, in the northern Italian Lombardy region. More specifically, the officers are part of the Carabinieri, a branch of the Italian army that carries out domestic policing duties. Ten Carabinieri stand accused of crimes including drug dealing, extortion, handling stolen goods, abuse of office, illegal arrest, coercion and even torture. The crimes were committed over the course of three years, but prosecutors say the activities picked up during lockdown.
Operation Odysseus, coordinated by public prosecutor Grazia Pradella, is investigating a total of 22 people. Five Carabinieri are currently in jail, while their chief is under house arrest and four others are under restricted movement awaiting trial. Only one officer at that department has not been implicated in the investigation.
According to the public prosecutor, the Carabinieri department had control over drug supplying and stockpiling and they also coordinated with local dealers. Sometimes they sold drugs they had previously confiscated. “Man, you have to get rid of it as soon as possible,” said a Carabiniere in a wiretapped conversation. “I found a kilo and a half on him, I confiscated the rest and kept the good stuff. I struck gold.”
During the investigation, the department was bugged. The wiretapped conversations paint a picture that can only be compared to some sort of Italian remake of The Shield. “You and I are on top, OK?” said one of the officers, describing the pyramid-shaped hierarchy of the operation. “We’re untouchable, OK?”
The investigation also uncovered a series of brutal beatings of foreigners and alleged dealers inside of the precinct. In March, they arrested a drug dealer from Nigeria and beat him to a pulp, leaving behind a pool of blood on the ground. “When I saw the blood,” a Carabiniere said, “I thought we killed him.”
In another case, the recording device picked up audio of the beating of an Egyptian man. The man kept repeating he didn’t have drugs on him, but with each sentence, he got a punch. “Look at how much of our time you’re wasting,” said one of the officers. The Egyptian man pleaded for mercy, sobbed and emitted sounds that, according to the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, “could be caused by a technique similar to waterboarding.” This is the audio that the investigative judge assigned to the case used to indict the officers of torture.
The documents also show the Carabinieri helped out their trusted dealers on multiple occasions. One of the officers went to a car dealership in Treviso, about 300 kilometres northeast of Piacenza, to intimidate employees into selling him an Audi A4 destined to an accomplice for a bargain price. Armed with weapons, the man beat up and threatened the employees to the point that one “peed on himself” out of fear. In a wiretapped conversation, another Carabiniere under investigation said: “you know Gomorra? [an Italian book, film and crime series about the mafia in Naples] It was exactly the same. You should have seen how he slapped them.”
Particularly suspicious was also the lifestyle the officers led, which was simply disproportionate to their salaries. One of them owned a villa with a swimming pool where he threw parties during lockdown, in total disregard of the restrictive measures adopted by the government.
On Easter Sunday, for instance, one of his neighbours called 112 [the European emergency number] to report a gathering in his garden. When the Carabinieri arrived, they realised it was their colleague’s home and left. The 112 operator later forwarded the call to the Carabiniere who owned the villa, who said he “wanted to hear the voice to know if it was my neighbour, just out of curiosity.”
“All of the most serious crimes were committed under lockdown,” said the Public Prosecutor Prandella. During one of the toughest periods of the first wave, a Carabiniere “signed a permit allowing the dealer to go to Lombardy [the hardest-hit region by the pandemic] to get drugs,” she explained. Meanwhile, ordinary Italians were under very restrictive lockdown measures and many received fines for going on walks too far from their homes. “I have a hard time calling these people ‘carabinieri’ because their behaviour is purely criminal,” Prosecutor Prandella added.
Politicians were quick to condemn the department, but did not call into question the integrity of the Carabinieri as a whole. The head of the far-right Lega party, Matteo Salvini, said it was a “potential mistake made by a few” but not “an excuse to defile the reputation of all women and men in uniform.”
Italy, however, has a long history of police departments abusing their power. In 2009, a 31-year-old man from Rome with a history of drug use was beaten to death in jail in a harrowing case of police brutality that shocked the country. Two were eventually convicted of involuntary manslaughter in 2019. Also in Rome, in 2013, four policemen were arrested for buying and selling drugs together with a gang of drug dealers. In 2017, 27 Carabinieri from the Toscana region were investigated and indicted for a total of 130 charges describing “systematic and methodic” abuses against Italian and foreign citizens, often racially-motivated.
In another famous 2017 case, two Carabinieri from Florence were accused and later convicted of raping two American students. Another 2015 investigation found that three Carabinieri from Rome stole confiscated drugs and sold them to dealers. In 2011, two Carabinieri from Rome were stopped while selling cocaine. That same year, another department near Padova, in northern Italy, was found to habitually throw “pestering” migrants into a river to “refresh their ideas.” One of them died.
Even though Piacenza’s case is extreme, it is not isolated.