This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.
When you think of Milan, you probably imagine imposing boulevards lined with high fashion stores and opulent window displays. The city is now known as the economic centre of Italy, but it’s also lived through much darker times – the 70s and 80s, in particular.
Back then, robberies, kidnappings and murders happened almost every day. After the region went through an economic boom in the 60s, criminals saw their chance to sneak off with a piece of the pie. The city was divided between different gangs of mobsters, who often pitched no-holds-barred battles over territory. Over a decade, Milan recorded an average of 150 murders per year. By comparison, only seven murders were committed in the city in 2021.
This all happened in the not-too-distant past, but these events have been basically erased from the city's collective memory. Like many others, I was born after these years and I knew little or nothing about them, so I decided to speak with Chiara Battistini and Paolo Bernardelli, the co-directors of La Mala. Banditi a Milano (“The Mob: Bandits in Milan”), a recent documentary series about Milan’s criminal past.
The inspiration for the series struck after the pair leafed through a book compiling articles from the archives of La Notte, a now-discontinued local newspaper. “From there, we started looking for pictures and survivors who could give us first-hand accounts," Battisti tells VICE.
The challenge for the two directors was understanding “what was real and what was mythological about that era, since the two things often blended together, sometimes aggressively”, Bernardelli adds.
The documentary draws on archive material and unpublished interviews, focusing on three bandits - Angelo Epaminonda, Francis “Angel Face” Turatello and Renato Vallanzasca, also known as “the beautiful René”.
Vallanzasca, who is currently serving four life sentences, is inarguably the star of the series. The mobster’s life was so unbelievable that had he lived in the US, Bernardelli says, Hollywood would have already made countless movies about him.
Born and raised in Milan, Vallanzasca’s criminal career began when he was a teenager. After a couple of stints in juvenile prison for petty crimes, he was arrested in 1972 at the age of 22 for robbing a supermarket with a few accomplices. In 1976, he pulled off his first jailbreak, escaping from a hospital he’d been admitted to after faking a viral hepatitis infection.
As a fugitive, he began to assemble his gang by breaking into other jails and freeing prisoners. "I went to pick up convicts to take them out of prison,” Vallanzasca recounts in the documentary, “because if I wanted to build a clan, [...] they had to be unstoppable." In a short span of time, his new team of recruits pulled off a daring series of robberies, leaving a long trail of blood behind them.
Vallanzasca's criminal status immediately became legendary. His heists were huge successful, and he carefully cultivated the image of a romantic and handsome mobster and took every opportunity to show off his luxurious possessions.
In reality, Vallanzasca was capable of enormous brutality. In 1981, he instigated a revolt in the prison of Novara that ended with the death of multiple informants, including Massimo Loi, who was barely 20 at the time. “They cut off his head, played ball with it in the courtyard, and then put it in the toilet,” police officer Achille Serra said in the documentary.
The myth surrounding Vallanzasca was cemented by his penchant for provocative stunts; while on the run, he once called into a famous Italian radio station to give an interview. He also tried to break out of prison over and over again, and managed to escape four times. In 1987, he famously fled through the porthole of a ferry stationed at the port of Genoa while he was being transferred to a prison in Sardinia. After disappearing into the crowd at the docks, he made his way to Milan, where he was arrested 20 days later.
Besides Vallanzasca and his gang, the most important mobsters in the city were Francis Turatello and Angelo Epaminonda. But their stories, too, mingle fact and fiction in ways that are difficult to detangle.
According to testimonies from the era, Turatello was rumoured to be the biological son of Italo-American Mafia boss Frank Coppola, also known as Frank Three Fingers. Turatello quickly clambered up Milan’s criminal hierarchies and grabbed control of a large portion of the city’s clandestine gambling dens and sex work rings in the 70s. By 1981, he was dead, stabbed in prison under unexplained circumstances.
Epaminonda was born in Sicily but moved to the outskirts of Milan when he was just a child. He took his first steps in the city’s criminal underworld inside Turatello's group. After making a name for himself in drug trafficking, he became an increasingly powerful figure affiliated with Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian mafia, especially after Turatello’s death.
His gang was mostly made up of criminals from his native city of Catania and was arguably the most bloody of the lot. The mobsters, who liked to call themselves “The Indians”, killed around 60 people in just a few years, according to archives recovered by the La Mala documentary makers. Following his arrest in 1984, Epaminonda confessed to 17 murders and helped investigators solve another 44 cases after becoming an informant.
The gang’s most famous shooting took place at the La Strega restaurant on the south side of the city. On the 3rd of November, 1979, at 1AM, “The Indians” entered the establishment to execute an Apulian mafia boss, Antonio Prudente, who had links to Turatello. But the assassination quickly turned into a massacre – eight people were killed, including the cook.
Besides his confessions of shocking and gratuitous acts of violence, Epaminonda also said that he colluded with the state itself to further his criminal plans. At one point, he claimed to have bribed none other than former Italian prime minister and socialist leader Bettino Craxi, who was later convicted in a separate corruption scandal, to secure political backing for a casino he wanted to open. Epaminonda even claimed to have given him a pretty extravagant gift of a lion cub for his daughter, Stefania.
The tale might sound totally unbelievable, but the events did actually take place. It was later confirmed in the documentary by Lello Liguori, the owner of many nightclubs frequented by members of Milan’s underworld. Actually, Liguori says, Epaminonda showed up at one of his seaside clubs - the Covo di Nord Est - with the cub and asked him to pass the animal on to Craxi.
His daughter Stefania eventually picked up the lion and took it to the family’s apartment in central Milan. A week went by, and Craxi called Liguori to ask him to take the cub back "because it had ruined the whole house," Liguori claims in the documentary. Years later, the Italian police found a lioness donated by Stefania Craxi at a safari park in southern Italy.
The darkest page in this chapter of the city’s history is what became known as the “kidnapping season”, when over 160 people were abducted from Milan and surroundings between 1973 and 1984. At its peak in 1977, 34 people were kidnapped in the city alone.
The targets were rich entrepreneurs and their family members – people that criminals could extract huge sums of money from in exchange for their loved ones. The kidnappings only served to spread more terror in an area already ravaged by countless robberies and murders. Many local businessmen bought guns to protect themselves at home, and sent their children to study abroad so they wouldn’t be taken. Judge Giuliano Turone, who later uncovered a Freemason secret society made up of various political and business elites, admitted in the series he was so scared of being blackmailed he avoided having children altogether.
During those years, kidnappings were an actual revenue stream not only for small gangs, but for the mafia, in particular the ‘Ndrangheta from Calabria. The group is estimated to have made millions through ransom payments in this period, which they reinvested in the cocaine trade, climbing up the ranks of organised crime. They then laundered the money into legal activities, and subsequently took root in northern Italy.
Today, the ‘Ndrangheta is thought to be the most powerful mafia in the country and one of the richest in the world, raking in €55 billion a year, or two and a half times the yearly revenue of McDonald’s.
The final act in Milan’s epic saga of crime was just as dramatic as you’d expect. In 1987, Vallanzasca had just been arrested for what would be his final time, and a huge trial was about to begin based on Epaminonda’s confessions to the police. The trial was held inside a special bunker room and included 122 defendants. People knew they were about to be put away for life, and some thought this was their last opportunity to settle the score with their adversaries.
On the 5th of October, while public prosecutor Francesco Di Maggio was presenting his indictment of the mobster Nuccio Milano, who was accused of 17 murders, the defendant pulled out a gun and fired seven shots from behind bars. The targets were his arch-nemeses Antonino Faro and Antonino Marano, both also on trial. Both were unharmed; two police officers were hurt in the shooting but survived.
“What was happening was so surreal, we didn’t even immediately realise it was a shooting,” journalist Marinella Rossi recounts in La Mala. She was also in the bunker, covering the trial for the daily newspaper Il Giorno. Investigators never did find out how Milano managed to smuggled a gun into the courtroom.
This bloody and brutal chapter of Milan’s criminal history ended with the trial that year, but the gangs didn’t disappear – they simply became better organised. “Criminal organisations are now an underground part of the city's economic machine,” co-director Battistini tells VICE. “They no longer shoot and are not visible, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there."