The Vigilante

Italy’s Northern League party exploits a brutal crime for a dubious law.

The Italian city of Oderzo isn’t particularly known for its crime. Located a little more than an hour north of Venice on the wine-growing flats between the Alps and the Adriatic Sea, it has a small urban center with clean cobbled streets flanked by well-lit arcades. On its immaculate walls, a tagger’s scrawl stands out like a scar.

So it’s a strange place to find a new program of citizen anti-crime patrols in action, the result of a controversial initiative by the xenophobic Northern League party.

Daniele Pelliciardi, the man who leads Oderzo’s patrols, hunches his shoulders against the last bite of winter. It’s just before sundown as he walks me through his beat. “Our work is to observe,” he says. “Everything strange that we’ll see will get recorded—from the Moroccan selling counterfeit bags to somebody purse-snatching an old lady.”

We haven’t walked more than a few blocks before I realize that the city’s initiative has less to do with anything about Oderzo itself than with the man who’s showing me the streets. The last major crime in the area was a brutal one. And it happened to Pelliciardi’s parents.

In August 2007, at least two men broke into the house east of town where the couple, both in their 60s, lived as the caretakers of an adjacent villa. According to the coroner’s report, the intruders held down the husband while they tortured the wife. Police suspect that the men, drunk and high on cocaine, wanted the couple to give them the keys to the villa, which they didn’t have. The ordeal went on for at least an hour before a blow caved in the woman’s skull. Pelliciardi’s father was also stabbed and beaten. He survived his wife by at least 15 minutes, until the intruders snapped his neck. The police charged two Albanians and a Romanian with the crime. One of the men committed suicide in jail; the other two were convicted in 2008.

“To my parents, I had always been a source of support, a pillar,” Pelliciardi says. “They always trusted in me, in my ability to do something, no? But that night, I wasn’t able to do anything for them.” We’ve arrived at the city’s central piazza, a stone-paved expanse dominated by a squat brick bell tower. “I’ve always said that I don’t want them to have died for nothing,” he says. “This thing I’m doing allows me to make up a little bit for what I could have done.”

The murder of Pelliciardi’s parents slipped easily into the narrative of the Northern League, which has fanned fears about the country’s rapidly rising foreign population into electoral success. Although Italians fret somewhat less than their European neighbors about immigration, recent surveys suggest that when it comes to crime, they’re panicked. “My parents, let’s say they died also because they were letting any old person into this country,” Pelliciardi tells me. “Even people like these, [who] were born in war and grew up in war. They aren’t afraid of anything. They don’t have respect for the lives of others.” Municipalities where the Northern League held power began organizing volunteers to patrol the streets. And last summer, party-sponsored legislation made the patrols official.

We pass a tall, pink building, and Pelliciardi stops to show me a remnant of the ancient Roman road preserved underneath. He leads me into a broad piazza squared by a modern apartment complex. “This zone will be a bit more closely monitored than the others,” he says. “That bar there, it’s a meeting place for Albanians and Romanians. There are some nights when it’s calm and others when there’s trouble.”

Pelliciardi and I walk down the road toward the entrance to the public park. He crosses on the stripes. After his parents died, he stayed home for three months before returning to his job as a security guard. “My head was full of questions,” he says. “The first nights, I kept hearing my mother calling me. Obviously she would have called, but I wasn’t able to hear. And so I kept hearing her voice.”

The sun sets as we cross the river and walk away from the city center, then swing back along a short stretch of highway. In the rest of the country, the official patrols have been slow to catch on. Police unions oppose the diversion of attention and resources; towns and cities are balking at new regulations; even the Northern League, after its big showing in March’s elections, seems to be moving on. Oderzo may well be one of the few places to implement the law at all.

We’re close to Pelliciardi’s apartment when I ask him if he feels his parents’ murder has been used for political gain. “So many politicians have used this story,” he says. “Politicians from the Northern League used it to reach their goals.” I ask if that bothers him. “If using my misfortune obtains something for the future, then it’s okay,” he says. “But we’ll need to see the results.”