This article originally appeared on VICE Italy
Ten years ago, Gianfranco Franciosi was just a talented mechanic working in his small town's shipyard in northern Italy. All that changed one morning in 2005, when Spanish kingpin Elías Piñeiro Fernandez made his way through the shipyard. Piñeiro Fernandez at the time was a mobster working closely with the Di Lauro clan (one of the most powerful Camorra clans in Italy) and largely operating as the intermediary between Colombian narcos and the European market.
It turned out that Piñeiro Fernandez needed Franciosi to build boats that would move Colombian cocaine around Europe. Instead of taking the money and starting a career within the drug cartel, Franciosi decided to report the whole thing to the Italian police, becoming in this way the first ever civilian to work undercover for the Italian anti-narcotics forces. He spent the next six years infiltrating the drug cartels, traveling through South America, getting arrested in France, and taking part in risky operations on the high seas.
In 2011, Piñeiro Fernandez got arrested and Franciosi, along with his family, were granted a witness protection scheme. But the program was so badly operated that Franciosi ended up pressing charges against the Italian Ministry of Internal Affairs.
Franciosi's story was first told by Italian journalist Federico Ruffo on the Italian TV show Presadiretta in early 2014.
A few months ago, Ruffo and Franciosi turned it all into a book called Gli orologi del Diavolo [The Devil's Watches]. The title refers to the Rolex watches the Spanish kingpin used to give to his racketeers as presents. Franciosi's watch had come with a threat: "I'm going to give you another one on the day that I'll kill you," Piñeiro Fernandez had told him. I called Franciosi to talk about this episode and many others.
VICE: Hi, Gianfranco. Can you tell me how it all started?
Gianfranco Franciosi: Back in 2002, I met a man who I later found out was part of the Magliana Gang [a crime syndicate based in Rome, particularly active throughout the late 1970s until the early 1990s]. I'd been building him dinghies for two years—he pretended they were for diving but apparently he used them for drug trafficking. One day, I turned on the TV and he was on the news. He had been killed in Rome by a local mafia gang.
As soon as I got over the initial shock, I called a good friend of mine who was a police officer. He told me to calm down. I had done nothing illegal myself and everything seemed to have been settled anyway. One morning, a couple of years later, I got to my shipyard and found two men waiting for me. As it turned out they were Elías Piñeiro Fernandez and Raffaele—a Di Lauro affiliate who is now a fugitive.
This time around, they told me what they needed my boats for straight away. What's more, they asked me to build special compartments in the boats to hide drugs and bigger fuel tanks for longer journeys. I went straight to the anti-narcotics bureau and reported everything: they told me to pretend everything was cool and to build the dinghy, so that's what I did.
Is that when you started working undercover?
Not exactly. At that point I was not an infiltrator, but an informer. What I had to do then was to build this boat and let the police place the tools to control the boat's movements. My first job was simply to deliver the boat, take the money, and try to collect information. That should have been all, nobody had asked me to be an infiltrator at that point.
What happened next?
In 2007, I delivered the first boat, in which the police had placed their bugs and GPS trackers. Six months later, the Italian police and the Spanish police made their first big drug seizure. Since the dinghies kept being intercepted, Elias decided to replace the Spanish pilots: he blamed them, not the boats. He came to me asking to teach another pilot how to control the boat. I went to the police again, and they told me to go for it.
So you started teaching to the Spanish pilots, and in that way the police managed to collect names. Have you ever been asked to transport a load of drugs?
I taught these smugglers how to control the dinghies, and a while later they asked me to transport the drugs myself because their trips were always unsuccessful. It was then that I became an infiltrator—unofficially. And it was due to this lack of formality that I ended up in prison in France.
That was when Elías Piñeiro asked you to deliver a boat to him in person and the French police stopped you offshore in Marseille. You had to spend nearly eight months in prison in Toulon-la-Farlède to avoid compromising all the work the police had done.
These were terrible months. I lost everything: my family, my faith. I became a bad person; I just wanted to take revenge both on the Italian government and on the traffickers—I didn't even know which side to take. Fortunately, I can look after myself, otherwise I would have probably starved.
That experience changed my life completely. Today I can't go to France, because I would get arrested if I did. I have been banished forever from the country, even after my real identity was made official.
Once you were released from prison, you started working undercover properly. In 2008, you played a major role in the Albatross operation, which led to the discovery of the "mothership" used by the traffickers and the seizure of a huge amount of cocaine.
I remember having a strong sense of freedom and satisfaction for what I had done, at least initially. The same night, I was told that Elías had not been on board and was therefore still at large. I felt like dying: I expected that he would have me killed, because at that point it was clear I had been collaborating with the police forces the whole time.
But the Spanish police, alongside with the Italian police, staged my escape. They reported that a dinghy flying the Italian flag had managed to escape the ambush. That's what saved me.
Can you describe the mobsters you worked with? People tend to think about them as over-the-top Scarface types.
It's kind of the opposite, at least publicly. It's not like you're going to see them drinking champagne in front of everyone. But when they're somewhere safe, where no one can see them, then they start to act like your typical Tony Montana. But Elias did not tolerate drug use: If he ever caught one of his men snorting cocaine, he'd immediately kick them out.
In the book, you say that the mobsters used to visit you at the shipyard quite often.
That's true. One day Elias' brother, Jose Maria Fernandez Pinero, came to the shipyard together with some Spanish guy; the Spaniard said something that upset Nero—that was his nickname—so he stabbed him in the hand.
Another thing you mention in the book is that, after the first trip to South America, you started to "feel sympathy, perhaps even affection" toward these guys.
When Elias got arrested I was in a safe place and I have to admit I felt almost sorry for him. I mean, there have been times that it felt like I was talking to a friend—sometimes when he needed to vent he'd even tell me about some problem he'd had with his wife. If you spend so much time with someone, it is normal to build a connection.
Let's talk about the witness protection program. When did you start to realize that it wasn't working?
Not long after we were put under protection. My bank account was frozen and overnight I found myself broke. I had to make ends meet with just 500 euros [$570]—500 euros for the whole family. We had to pay bills and buy new clothes, because we were left with nothing. It took four days just to get the forms to apply for the money we needed to buy clothes.
A week later, in the house the police had put us into, I slipped on the balcony and dislocated my ankle. I needed to go to the hospital but I was told we couldn't get out. Ten days later, they explained that our social security numbers had been canceled and that the new ones weren't working. If we had gone to the hospital, our identity would have been exposed and me and my family would have needed to be transferred again. To make it short, it did not take much to figure out that the program was filled with problems.
Things only got worse from then on, right?
Yes, I gradually came to understand that it wasn't just a matter of laws and their enforcement. Our family made a joint decision to quit the program, because our children were so burdened by the whole thing they were developing psychological issues.
Obviously there are many other things that led us to abandon the program and run away, including the fact that traffickers had already found us. What I want to know is what condition I'm in at the moment. If I am out of danger, I want it to be put into writing so I can decide what to do with my life. Am I safe now? Unfortunately, nobody has been able to answer that question yet.
Since you decided to go public with your story, you've gained a certain amount of media exposure. Does that translate into some form of "protection"?
It was my salvation. Going back to my hometown, after my story came out, I at least got a sense of who is behind me. But every day that goes by, my life is more and more at risk. My friends gave me a gravestone, as a joke, because I always say that I'm a dead man walking and I won't even be able to afford one, since I get no money from the state.
If you were asked to do it all over again, would you?
When people invite me to speak at schools or universities, I don't want to go because I feel that I'm sending the wrong message. I think I would do it all over again but the truth is that I wouldn't recommend the same to a young person. If it were my son, I wouldn't let him do what I did. I'd tell him to say a big "fuck off" to the police and the government and go on his way because that kind of life will get you in deep, deep shit.
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