Page last updated at 08:40 GMT, Tuesday, 6 October 2009 09:40 UK

Citizen patrols hit Italy streets

Duncan Kennedy
BBC News, Rome


'We are the new right wing'

The first, legal, citizens' patrols have appeared on the streets of Italy.

Supporters say the patrols will enable ordinary people to help police carry out their role of protecting neighbourhoods.

But opponents have argued the groups are no more than vigilantes, many of which are being set up in areas with high immigrant populations.

National Guard citizen patrol
National Guard citizens' patrols walk the streets

The city of Messina is one place where they are thriving.

It is a landing point for the island of Sicily and starting point for the most controversial versions of these citizens' patrols.

Here they are called the National Guard.

Others have different names.

The National Guard claims to have around 2,500 members across Italy.

Like the others, it does not have powers of arrest but the Guard does have a uniform, which is as striking as the group itself.

It consists of khaki shirts, black caps featuring an eagle insignia and an armband with a black sun wheel as a logo.

'Under investigation'

It is the clothing that has earned them comparisons with Mussolini's infamous black shirt volunteer militia, which terrorised opponents in the 1930s, and helped the fascist dictator maintain power.

The new group's uniforms are so provocative that at least one authority - in Milan - has placed them under investigation.

But the inquiry into whether their uniforms contravene Italy's laws banning Nazi and fascist insignia, has not stopped them beginning their patrols.

Maria Antonietta Cannizzaro
Maria Antonietta Cannizzaro sees herself as a foot soldier in heels

Maria Antonietta Cannizzaro is the Guard's leader in Sicily.

With her fellow members, she marches around central Messina, eliciting from passers-by a flurry of looks that range from bemused indifference, to mild alarm.

During a break, Miss Cannizzaro volunteered her stark assessment of who is behind Italy's crime wave.

"It's immigrants," she said. "The majority of immigrants are drug dealers or prostitutes.

"It would be better for them to be in their country and helped there. It's useless for them to come here."

The foot soldier in heels said: "The streets in Italy are not safe, especially in big cities like Rome where people going home are getting attacked and raped".

Her views on black and Jewish people would be actionable, if printed here.

Reassuring or alarming?

The Italian government insists these patrol groups are under control.

It says they cannot act on their own: they must call in the police if they see trouble.

Mobile phones, not jackboots, are supposed to be their weapon of choice.

Gaetano Saya
Head of the National Guard Gaetano Saya denies being a fascist

One female shopper said: "I find them reassuring, I'm more secure with them."

But another woman said: "I prefer the police to maintain law and order."

The National Guard is headed by Gaetano Saya, who, having promised to meet us in Messina, failed to show up.

The closest we came to him was his video posted on YouTube.

Wearing the now-familiar militia-style shirt, but this time adorned with a photo of the Italian hero Garibaldi pinned to his chest, he addresses the camera for several animated minutes.

It is, by turns, a combination of rage, finger pointing and calm, if simplistic, political and sociological analysis of life in Italy.

It amounts to an exaltation of Italy as a place fit only for Italians. He is a patriot not a fascist, he insists.

Nazi-style salute

But in another video we saw, a more sinister side to this group is revealed.

Man makes Nazi-style salute
A man at a National Guard meeting makes a Nazi-style salute on camera

It is a shaky, handheld recording of a meeting of the Guard. Towards the end a man stands up.

Inexplicably, the camera turns sideways but there's no mistaking what happens.

The man makes a Nazi-style salute. His gesture is greeted with wild applause.

Opponents say entrusting security to citizens' patrols like the National Guard is a direct challenge to the rule of law.

They include Jean Leonard Touadi, born in the Democratic Republic of Congo and now a member of Italy's parliament who serves on its Justice committee.

"These patrols are an abdication of the responsibility of government," he said.

"You cannot privatise security... that is a dangerous path which could destroy democracy."

People patrol

Italy's new citizens' patrols do not all look like the National Guard.

Another branch, calling themselves Veneto Sicuro wear fluorescent jackets, for visibility, not effect, we're told.

They see themselves as true "ronde", a more benign Italian word for "patrol".

Veneto Sicuro patrollers
The Veneto Sicuro wear very different outfits to the National Guard

The group look and feel unthreatening, a reassuring sight, even, in a country where crime levels genuinely worry many Italians.

Unlike some of the groups, this one doesn't maintain official ties with some of Italy's right-wing political parties, the kind that hold the most muscular views on immigration, like the Northern League.

The League is a vital coalition partner helping sustain Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in office, a role never more important than now, following Mr Berlusconi's troubled summer of alleged sex scandals that have threatened to undermine his hold on power.

Some here believe Mr Berlusconi's acquiescence in the citizens patrol legislation was a price he had to pay for continued League support.

Now he and Italy have got their citizens' patrols.

And they are being viewed in one of two ways: either as an understandable reaction from a responsive government keen to do the publics bidding as it clamours for action on crime.

Or, as a more cynical search for popularity, even though the groups may play into the hands of some who are anti-assimilation bigots, energised by the corrosive allure of intolerance, rather than the progressive forces of integration.

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