Italy's Red Brigades sing to the court to save their skins

The Italian newspapers have dubbed them singing canaries. The court refers to them as ''pentiti'' or repentant ones. Italian police say they could not have cracked the case of kidnapped United States Brig. Gen. James L. Dozier without them.

In fact, they are captured Red Brigades terrorists - now more committed to saving their skins than their armed struggle. They are eagerly trading information in return for shorter sentences.

The ''canary'' who has sung longest and loudest of them all since his capture in the hideout where General Dozier was held in January is 27-year-old Antonio Savasta, charged with the murders of 17 Italian officials and policemen and sentenced to 16 years for his part in the kidnapping of General Dozier.

One of 63 Red Brigades currently on trial for the 1978 kidnapping and murder of former Prime Minister Aldo Moro, Savasta has been holding a courtroom in Rome spellbound as he recounts detail after detail of the internal workings of the mysterious organization that terrorized Italy for the last seven years.

In many ways, Savasta has painted a picture of an organization whose reputation was far grander than its abilities. According to Savasta, the Red Brigades were not as invincible as the police were inefficient.

But other elements of Savasta's testimony have reinforced the image of a well-oiled terrorist machine. At its height, the group had approximately 20,000 to 25,000 ''regulars,'' Savasta claimed.

Each was paid $300 a month, and discipline was tight. Battle names were always used. ''When one of us had a crisis, we locked him in an apartment under surveillance, so as not to allow him to have contact with anyone and to make him reflect. In the meantime, we changed all the network and the references he knew about.''

When an operation was carried out, be it a knee-capping or killing, it was a professional job. There were always four components - the first gun, the second gun in case the first jams, the covering rifle, and the driver. The victims were stalked for days on end until the moment was ripe for the strike.

It took the Red Brigades 1 1/2 months to gun down Antonio Varisco, a lieutenant colonel carbinieri, because he kept varying his route and time schedule, and frequently traveled with a motorcycle guard.

''To get at the Red Brigades, it was necessary to start in the city neighborhoods, to try to understand the internal workings of the Red Brigades,'' said Savasta. ''I was well-known in my neighborhood. If the state had realized a Red Brigade time bomb existed in my neighborhood, they would have found me, and trailing me, would have found Moro's 'prison.' ''

Almost half the terrorists in the Moro trial attended Centocelle High School in Savasta's neighborhood, a working-class community on the outskirts of Rome whose young people had become politically radicalized in the 1970s.

The young man, whose gold-rimmed glasses, cowboy boots, and neatly cropped hair and mustache make him look more like a student than the dangerous terrorist he has been for the last five years, still seemed bewildered that the police were so unprepared to meet the Red Brigades challenge. ''There was never a Red Brigades act that wasn't announced well beforehand,'' he said.

Savasta boasted how he had easily moved about unimpeded by road blocks in the stolen red Renault that was later used to transport Moro's dead body. Savasta said he was stopped only once, as he and friends were leaving Rome in a ''laundered'' stolen car. He was not identified and the police let him go.

The Moro killing deeply divided the Red Brigades, according to Savasta, because many felt his death would not serve their political motives. Moro's kidnapping was clearly a ''military triumph for the Red Brigades, but at the same time cost the terrorists the support of the masses,'' said Savasta. (It was also the impetus for the Italian state to form a specially trained antiterrorist police unit.)

The Moro affair also convinced the terrorists that the government would not negotiate with them, and they turned their attention to robberies, said Savasta. He said the extremist left organization made $3 million from the proceeds of two kidnappings and various robberies.

The income was used to pay the regulars, bribe prison guards, rent hideout apartments, and buy plastic for false license plates, books, and other daily necessities.

Savasta denied the organization had received help from Libya, Angola, or Israeli secret services, or any other country. Only the Palestine Liberation Organization provided them with arms. The democratic structure of the Red Brigades precluded outside manipulation, he said.

As described by Savasta, the Red Brigades was organized in a pyramid. At the top was the strategic directorate that set the political line. The directorate appointed the executive committee, which gave final approval to all undertakings.

Beneath the executive were the national front (the logistical arm that procured arms, falsified documents, and taught techniques for underground urban guerrillas, and the counterrevolutionary front - the think tank that analyzed the state, police, and judges). On the last rung were the columns, which executed the operations.

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