On Sept. 21, four years after his escape from a Geneva prison, Italy’s most wanted – and arguably most powerful – man, Licio Gelli, turned himself in to the Swiss police. Sixty-eight years old and bearing doctor’s orders for coronary bypass surgery, the silver-haired former mattress manufacturer was an unlikely candidate for outstanding charges that include blackmail, extortion, drug and arms smuggling, conspiracy, illegal possession of state secrets and complicity in bombings, including the 1980 demolition of Bologna’s railway station that claimed 85 lives.
As the charges suggest, Gelli pulled the strings in many of the scandals that punctuate postwar Italian history. Books have been written about him. He plays leading roles in English-language accounts of the sensational careers and untimely deaths of two advisers to the Vatican bank, Michele Sindona and Roberto Calvi.
Gelli, more than anyone, personifies the shadowy flipside of Italian terrorism – the neofascist right. In many ways, it has been a much more dangerous movement than the kidnappers and murders of the extreme left. Far more deaths can be attributed to right-wing terrorists’ acts. More significantly, the neofascists have enjoyed the protection and support of Italian intelligence agencies and, according to a 1976 congressional report, the CIA.
With such official support, the fascists have pursued a “strategy of tension” through their own terrorists acts and those of leftist groups they penetrated. They have cultivated a climate of fear to undermine support for the West’s most popular communist party and justify an authoritarian takeover of the Italian government.
But Gelli went beyond the strategy of tension. Through his own spurious Masonic lodge, he took effective control of a broad segment of the Italian government.
Since World War II, in which he was a Nazi collaborator, Gelli has divided his time between Europe and South America. In January 1981, he was an invited guest at the inauguration of President Ronald Reagan. In Argentina, to which Gelli fled in the late ‘40s from charges that he tortured members of the Italian resistance, he became the confidant of President Juan Domingo Peron. Later, he supported the military junta that, from 1976 to 1983, waged the “dirty war” on subversion during which at least 9,000 Argentines “disappeared.” Peron made Gelli honorary consul in Rome.
Masonic Lodge scandal
It was to South America that Gelli is believed to have fled in March 1981 when the Italian authorities, searching his villa in the Tuscan city of Arezzo, made the discovery that brought down Italy’s then-ruling Christian Democratic regime.
The police seized a list of some 953 members of the secret Masonic lodge “Propaganda Due” – or P-2 – that Gelli had organized in 1971. On the list were the names of 43 Italian generals, eight admirals, the heads of the three principal intelligence agencies, the police chiefs of Italy’s four largest cities, the editor of Italy’s most influential newspaper and 36 members of the Italian Parliament. Gelli has created, in the words of a later parliamentary report, a “state within a state.”
Press exposure of the P-2 membership roll triggered Italy’s greatest postwar political scandal. The government of Prime Minister Arnaldo Forlani resigned. The commanders of the three intelligence services were forced to resign.
But what was the true purpose of Gelli’s lodge? The Report of the Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry on the Masonic Lodge, issued in July 1984, found that the lodge had penetrated the highest ranks of the Italian treasury, and the ministries of foreign affairs and foreign trade.
Gelli, according to the report, “played a direct role in promotions in the military service … The penetration of P-2 into circles at the top of the military hierarchy ended in creating a sort of obligatory passage … to higher levels of responsibility.”
The intelligence agencies – the report continues – were “involved with subversive groups and organizations, inciting and aiding them in their criminal projects.” Intelligence agents have since been indicted, along with Gelli and neo-fascist terrorist kingpin Stefano Delle Chiaie, for planning the gruesome August 1980 Bologna train station bombing. Delle Chiaie, who was finally captured last spring in Caracas, also awaits trial for the July 1976 murder of Vittorio Occorsio, an Italian judge who had been investigating the link between the terrorists and P-2.
The full extent of Gelli’s diabolical designs may never be known. What is clear is that they extended beyond the immediate political sphere into the world of high finance, particularly the empires of Michele Sindona and Roberto Calvi, the Milan-based bankers who, in the 1970s, were successive chief advisers to the Vatican Bank.
When Italian police officers conducted their 1981 search of Gelli’s villa, they were looking for a list of 500 wealthy Italians believed to have used Sindona’s banks to smuggle money to tax havens abroad. Sindona was already serving a 25-year sentence in New York – the stiffest for white-collar crime in American history. He had been convicted in 1980 for misappropriating $45 million and thereby triggering the bankruptcy of Long Island’s Franklin National Bank, which he controlled. Italian authorities eventually persuaded Washington to extradite Sindona to face the charge that, in 1974, he also ruined Milan’s Banca Privata Italiana by misappropriating $225 million of its holdings. The Vatican Bank, which Sindona had advised since 1971, lost $30 million when Banca Privata collapsed.
Sindona was extradited to Italy in 1984. He got 12 years for the Milan bank case. Shortly thereafter, he was sentenced to life in prison for ordering the 1979 murder of Giorgio Ambrosoli, the state-appointed liquidator of his Italian financial empire. In March 1986, while confined to a closely-guarded isolation cell, he was fatally poisoned by cyanide that laced his morning coffee. Officially, it was a suicide.
When Sindona’s troubles surfaced in 1974 he was succeeded as adviser to the Vatican Bank by another right-wing financier with a penchant for misplacing millions, Roberto Calvi, president of Milan’s Banco Ambrosiano.
In 1981, Calvi was sentenced to four years in prison for illegal currency dealings. His appeals were still pending, and he was desperately seeking $1.4 billion to balance Banco Ambrosiano’s books, when, on June 17, 1982, Calvi was found hanging from a bridge in London, another official suicide. Banco Ambrosiano, whose assets had once totaled $19 billion, collapsed, taking with it $250 million from the Vatican.
Archbishop Paul Marcinkus of Cicero, Ill., the director of the Vatican Bank, had signed an official endorsement of Calvi after Calvi’s 1981 conviction. Marcinkus was indicted earlier this year for complicity in the Ambrosiano failure. An Italian court later overruled the indictment, citing the absence of jurisdiction over the Vatican City.
‘I’ve got it all figured out’
Three months after Calvi’s 1982 hanging, Gelli attempted to withdraw $55 million from a numbered Geneva bank account that Calvi had previously controlled. He was arrested on the spot. On Aug. 10 1983, nine days before his scheduled extradition to Italy, Gelli reportedly paid off a single guard in Geneva’s maximum-security Champ-Dollon prison. He escaped once again to South America, where he is believed to have remained until his sudden reappearance two weeks ago.
However, it is Gelli who may have the last laugh. According to the Swiss-Italian extradition pact, he may only be tried for crimes recognized by the Swiss, and the Swiss do not recognize the “political” charges – bombings, espionage, conspiracy to overthrow the government. Moreover, an Italian statute minimizes sentences for the elderly, so Gelli may suffer no greater indignity than house arrest.
It remains to be seen whether Gelli will even stand trial. As he once told his French instructor in the Swiss prison: “These Italian politicians don’t know how much I have on them. As soon as I get out of here, I’ll take care of them. I’ve got it all figured out.”