God’s banker: The CIA, Operation Gladio and the death of Roberto Calvi
In 1982, fugitive Italian banker Roberto Calvi was found hanging by his neck from London’s Blackfriars Bridge, in what was initially ruled to have been a suicide. However, subsequent investigations found that Calvi had been murdered, and although the crime remains unsolved, it was likely related to his formerly prominent role in a murky world which included the Sicilian Mafia, neo-fascists and the Catholic Church, as well as America’s Central Intelligence Agency.
As the head of the Banco Ambrosiano, Calvi had overseen immense wealth, much of it belonging to the Vatican. He had also been close to financier Licio Gelli as a member of the clandestine Propaganda Due society, a far-right Masonic lodge which had allegedly plotted to overthrow the Italian Republic in 1970, a year before Calvi had become general manager of the Banco Ambrosiano. Named for its figurehead, fascist war hero Junio Borghese, the coup was called off at the last second, likely due to its failure to secure support from the CIA.
Part One: 1945–1972
Although the CIA was unwilling to back a total restoration of fascism in Italy, they were still willing to work with Gelli and other P2 members to further its overall goals. This arrangement dated back to the early years of the Cold War, when the CIA had set up Operation Gladio, a clandestine network of figures who could be counted on to oppose the influence of leftist politics. Similar entities were created across Europe, establishing an international right-wing alliance which would operate secretly for decades.
Although Gladio members included figures ranging from conservative monarchists to industrialists motivated more by greed than ideology, the network’s purpose naturally attracted far-right figures such as Gelli, who had been a staunch supporter of Benito Mussolini’s Fascist regime. After his abortive coup attempt, Gelli fled to Argentina, where he was given shelter by P2 members in the government of Juan Peron. Back in Italy, the following period would become known as the “Years of Lead” for the political violence between radicals on the left and right, along with the resulting heavy hand of the state, which implemented semi-authoritarian emergency measures on a populace rattled by the conflict.
In nearby Portugal, still ruled by the Salazar regime, a supposed media group named Aginter Press was set up three years after Gelli entered P2. Despite its cover, the company was actually a front for Portuguese intelligence, allegedly serving as the country’s Gladio equivalent. As it happened, a leading Italian correspondent with Aginter Press was Stefano Delle Chiaie, also a member of the P2 lodge. In 1960, Delle Chiaie had formed the militant Avanguardia Nazionale (“National Vanguard”) group. Rejecting parliamentary participation, he advocated for direct action, particularly violent confrontations with the left.
According to a document found after the downfall of Salazar in 1974, their efforts included the infiltration of leftist movements, a task made easier by the wider developments taking place in the politics of the 1960s. Across the world, various countries saw the rise of the “New Left” movement, which existed as a rejection of “Old Left” ideas more influenced by materialist Marxist thought. In amongst this ferment was the emergence of an overlap between New Left activists and the Italian far-right, which was later labelled as “Nazi-Maoism” by scholars. During the chaotic year of 1968, the left and right worked to organise student protests across Italy’s universities, until tensions boiled over in demonstrations at Rome’s Sapienza University.
Confronted by the pressure from left, right and the state, the Old Left was unable to do much, despite a general discontent with corrupt status quo. It would later be alleged that the Gladio network had masterminded the eruption of violence to do exactly that. Described as a strategy of tension, the effect was a constant state of fear and uncertainty amongst the populace, which allowed for authoritarian measures and increasingly divided the left opposition.
Part Two: 1972–1993
While there was chaos in the streets, in the halls of power, members of Propaganda Due would continue to hold immense influence. These included financier Michele Sindona, who served as a ley link between Gelli’s cabal and organised crime, particularly the Sicilian Mafia, handling the immense profits they made as part of the CIA-protected French Connection heroin syndicate. Sindona’s task was facilitated by a network of financial institutions, including the Banco Ambrosiano, as well as the American-based Franklin National Bank, which he had bought in 1972 with the alleged support of the Nixon administration.
Two years later, the Franklin National Bank would be declared insolvent, causing the unravelling of Sindona’s financial empire. Amongst the wreckage was the Banca Privata Finanziaria, which saw Giorgio Ambrosoli appointed to liquidate it. In 1979, Ambrosoli was shot dead, having raised concerns about the links to Roberto Calvi and the Vatican. A key suspect in the resulting investigation was William Arico, a member of New York’s Lucchese crime family and associate of informant Henry Hill. Having allegedly told investigators that a powerful Italian politician Giulio Andreotti was involved in Ambrosoli’s murder, Arico would soon die in what was ruled a failed prison escape.
Sindona would also suffer a similar fate, poisoned by unknown parties in 1986, as questions about the Calvi death continued to swirl. To date however, there has been little official inquiry into the matter. The same year that Ambrosoli had been murdered, the magistrate in charge of the wider Banco Ambrosiano investigation, Emilio Alessandrini, was also gunned down in an ambush. In his case however, the killing was claimed by far-left organisation, Prima Linea (“Front Line”), which continued to operate years after the peak of political violence in the previous decades.
A key member of the Prima Linea group, who is alleged to have taken part in the Alessandrini murder, was Marco Donat-Cattin. The son of another major Christian Democrat, Carlo Donat-Cattin, Marco fled to France, allegedly helped by his father. Although he was extradited back to Italy, a series of deals with the authorities saw him released, only to be killed himself, in an apparent hit and run which remains unsolved.
Alessandrini’s murder has parallels with the death of Prime Minister Aldo Moro, a leading figure in the left wing of the country’s leading political party, the Christian Democrats. A broad spectrum of various factions grouped together into an uneasy coalition, the party had formed every Italian government since the end of the Second World War. By the 1970s however, their grip was waning. Already, Moro had shocked more conservative members by doing deals with various socialist parties. At the time of his demise, he had gone even further, relying on support from the Italian Communist Party.
This “Historic Compromise” fell apart soon after Moro’s kidnapping by the Brigate Rosse (“Red Brigades”), a small band of militants which had emerged out of the student movement. Having been rejected by the more mainstream left groups, the Brigate Rosse became close to Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, a publisher from a wealthy family in the North of Italy. During the 19th century, the Feltrinelli’s had founded a powerful bank, which passed into Giangiacomo’s hands upon his father’s death in 1947. A minority shareholder was the Banco Ambrosiano, with Michele Sindona buying Feltrinelli’s shares in 1968. By that point, he had founded a publishing company, which he had used to become a powerful figure in Italy’s left-wing scene.
With the profits from the sale, Feltrinelli went underground. Along with some of his student followers, he founded the Gruppi di Azione Partigiana (“Partisan Action Groups”) with some students. Four years later, he resurfaced, having supposedly blown himself up while attempting to bomb an electric pylon. After his apparent death, claims that his death had not accidental had circulated, and were stridently rejected by his step-father, Luigi Barzini Jr, who had supported Mussolini in the 1930s and remained a staunch anti-Communist.
After Feltrinelli’s death, GAP appears to have merged with the Brigate Rosse. Helping this process was a GAP partisan codenamed Gunther, who is believed to have been fascist operative Berardino Andreola. Interestingly, one of the founders of the BR, Renato Curcio, had been part of the Nazi-Maoist scene in the 1960s, before apparently gravitating to the left. Although he was in prison at the time of the Moro kidnapping, members of the cell which carried out the action also had suspiciously similar backgrounds.
These included the cell’s leader, Mario Moretti, who claimed to have come from a Communist background. In reality, his family is believed to have been Mussolini supporters by investigators. During the late 1960s, Moretti had gained entrance to a Catholic university with the support of Anna Casati Stampa, the wife of a Milanese noblemen Camillo Casati II. In a bizarre twist, Anna and her alleged lover Massimo Minorenti were shot dead in 1970, allegedly by her husband, who is then believed to have taken his own life. In the resulting scandal, it emerged that the Stampas had hired young men such as Minorenti to engage in sexual acts with Anna, while Camillo watched.
Whether or not Moretti had a similar relationship with the couple, it is known that a year later, when the BR was founded, he was an early member. After his close associate Renato Curcio was arrested in 1974, Moretti effectively took over the organisation, pushing for more violent attacks on the state, as well as rivals on the left. It is also believed that Moretti took a leading role in the kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro, with his team including Alessio Casimirri, the son of a Vatican public relations officer who had worked for three popes. The only member of the cell who escaped capture, Casimirri fled to Nicaragua after Moro’s death, where he seems to have escaped reprisals from the Italian state.
Along with the background’s of the cell members, various inconsistencies in the official narrative around the case led to allegations that state authorities had been complicit in Moro’s demise. Most prominently, veteran journalist Carmine Pecorelli, who had shrewdly navigated Italian politics since his involvement in Borghese’s fascist militia during the Second World War. A member of Propaganda Due, Pecorelli had made a career out of balancing between transparency and secrecy, giving out just enough information to satisfy the public without angering his contacts inside the halls of power.
In 1979 however, his luck ran out. Pecorelli was gunned down in his car, with the bullets later traced to the Banda della Magliana (“Magliana gang”), a far-right criminal organisation based in Rome. Having emerged around the time of the Moro assasination, the gang was linked to various other incidents in the Years of Lead. Alleged member Ernesto Diotallevi was also later linked to the death of Roberto Calvi, which took place soon after the Banco Ambrosiano’s collapse in June 1982. Having fled Italy on a false passport, Calvi disappeared for around a week, until his body was discovered in London.
During the 1990s, reacting to a public outraged by revelations about government corruption and clandestine operations, Italy would see a nationwide investigation into corruption which marked its society. However, the main result of this was to reduce the role of the government in the economy, in favour of private entities. A major figure in this new Italy would be Silvio Berlusconi, a business magnate with extensive interests in the media, who had also joined Propaganda Due back in the 1970s. In his time as Prime Minister, and as a private citizen, Berlusconi would rely on the influence he gained through P2 in order to amass immense influence and power, providing a continuation of Gelli’s vision for the country.