“The Black Carlos”: The story of Italian right-wing terrorist Stefano Delle Chiaie (Part III: The Autumn of the “Black Carlos”)

The Man Hunt

While Stefano Delle Chiaie was busy in South America, Italy’s law enforcement apparatus—particularly after the reform of the Italian secret service in 1977—intensified attempts to find and arrest the presumed mastermind behind the global right-wing terrorist network. However, despite the information they received and several national and international arrest warrants for the bombings at the Piazza Fontana (1969) and the Bologna train station (1980), many attempts to arrest Delle Chiaie in Italy and France failed. One reason why it was so difficult to track him down was that he regularly employed false identities. According to an Italian secret service report from 1982, Delle Chiaie used at least nine different pseudonyms, among them ‘Jean Marco’ and ‘Vincenzo (Alfredo) Modugno’.

While Italy’s police force was unable to arrest him, Delle Chiaie seemed to mock his pursuers by continuously giving interviews to Italian journalists, thereby enforcing his mythical aura of invulnerability. However, beginning in the spring of 1981, his luck slowly began to change. Due to the Bolivian regime’s involvement in drug trafficking, the US government and the CIA ended their co-operation with the Bolivian junta, including their support of the “black international.” In an effort to fight the so-called ‘drug epidemic’ spreading at the time through the USA, the Reagan administration committed to persecuting every individual involved with the junta cartel, including Delle Chiaie.

In 1981 and 1982, the US secret service sent several reports about Delle Chiaie to their Italian counterparts. According to these reports, Delle Chiaie lived at the Sheraton Hotel in La Paz under the name, ‘Alfredo Modugno’. The CIA suggested arresting Delle Chiaie and his confidant Pierluigi Piagli in a covert operation and bringing them to Italy afterwards. Although the Italians agreed to the plan, after further deliberation the Americans suggested waiting. They had information that the end of the military junta was near, and it would be easier and safer to arrest Delle Chiaie with a new, democratic government in power.

The US information proved correct: On 10 October 1982, Guido Vildoso Calderón, the last leader of the military junta, stepped aside and made way for the election of the new president, Hernán Siles Zuazo. While the new government offered the opportunity for unprecedented co-operation between Italian and Bolivian law enforcement agencies, the CIA now feared that Delle Chiaie might leave the country and consequently stepped up its surveillance of the Italian right-wing terrorist.

On 28 October 1982, Italian and Bolivian counter-terrorist units were able to catch Pagliai after a shoot-out in Santa Cruz. Pagliai was severely injured and would die in November of his wounds without ever regaining a state that allowed for a proper interrogation. Yet, there was no sign of Delle Chiaie, even though he was supposed to accompany Pagliai on that day. Once again, the “Black Carlos” was able to miraculously escape police arrest.

Wild rumors about Delle Chiaie’s escape circulated. Was he still protected by his former American patrons? Had he learned about the ambush and sacrificed Pagliai to safe himself? According to Delle Chiaie’s statement in 1987, the truth was more mundane. In August 1982, Bolivian Minister of the Interior Colonel Rocas warned him that the US and Italy were planning to arrest him. However, Delle Chiaie was apparently not very good at remembering names: In August 1982 the Bolivian Minister of the Interior was Colonel Mario Roncal Antezana who had succeeded Romulo Mercado Garnica. Nevertheless, as more and more signs pointed to a regime change in Bolivia, Delle Chiaie decided to leave the country in early October 1982, correctly fearing that a new government would hand him over to the Italian authorities in order to end the country’s international isolation and stop the further decline of Bolivia’s already terrible economy.

After a brief stopover in Venezuela, Delle Chiaie eventually moved to Argentina, where he again met up with Klaus Barbie. Both lived there for some time under the protection of Colonel Luis (Arce) Gomez, military attaché in the Bolivian Embassy in Buenos Aires and former Minister of the Interior of the military junta in Bolivia under General Meza. However, the noose tightened further after the military dictatorship in Argentina also came to an end in 1983. Delle Chiaie fled the country and was on the run for several years, before he was finally arrested in Caracas, Venezuela on 27 March 1987 and extradited to Italy.

The Judge and the Historian

Stefano Delle Chiaie in court during the pre-trial for the massacre in Piazza Fontana in Catanzaro on October 26, 1987 (ANSA / FRANCO ARENA)

In Italy, Delle Chiaie stood trial for his involvement in the right-wing terrorist attacks that shocked Italy to its core in the 1970s and 1980s. Persecutors accused him of having committed several serious crimes, including participating in the Borghese Coup in 1970, founding the terrorist organization, National Vanguard (AN), orchestrating the right-wing terrorist “strategy of tension,” accusations of defamation, and ordering the Bologna massacre in 1980.

Delle Chiaie, who also testified in front of the various parliamentary commissions charged with investigating the kidnapping and murder of former Prime Minister Aldo Moro in 1978 by the left-wing terrorist group, the Red Brigades, as well as the massacres and terrorist acts that occurred in Italy in the 1970s and 1980s, denied all charges. After years of trials and appeals, Delle Chiaie was ultimately acquitted of all charges in 1991. According to the latest ruling, the evidence provided was insufficient to prove the charges beyond any reasonable doubt.

But, how was this possible? How did Delle Chiaie escape justice after the police were finally able to get a hold of him? Was he perhaps truly innocent, all the talk about him being the mastermind of Italy’s far-right, of the global far-right just rumors? While we can dismiss the latter, some commentators blamed the Italian judicial system for being too lenient with right-wing terrorists while they ruthlessly persecuted and sentenced their leftist counterparts. While there might be some truth in this accusation, the problems in Delle Chiaie’s case go further back.

Aftermath of Bologna Train Station Bombing, 1980

One problem was that one of the leading witnesses for the prosecution was Vincenzo Vinciguerra, a former member of Delle Chiaie’s group the National Vanguard, who had argued with his mentor after murdered three Carabinieri in Peteano in 1972. During his interrogations, Vinciguerra claimed Delle Chiaie had orchestrated at least the Piazza Fontana and the Bologna bombings. Yet, despite Vinciguerra’s insider knowledge doubts about the veracity of his testimony remained. Was he just trying to receive a sentence reduction for his own crimes? In the end, it was his word against Delle Chiaie’s as clear material evidence seemed to be rare.

This leads us to the other, more insidious issue: The majority of evidence the prosecutors possessed was either based on ambiguous testimonies or circumstantial by nature, even though they had collected many documents over the years and were able to seize even more when they arrested Delle Chiaie. However, this lack of clear evidence should come as no surprise and was not the prosecutors’ fault. Incriminating evidence had been destroyed and false leads planted since the early 1970s, often with the help and support of members of Italy’s security service. Thus, the charges against Delle Chiaie remind us of what Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg—in different circumstances—once wrote about the difference between judges and historians: While historians can contextualize the evidence they have within the political structure and culture of the time, judges should only use the evidence they have in front of them to prove someone’s guilt beyond reasonable doubt.

Dr Tobias Hof is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Privatdozent for Modern and Contemporary History at Ludwig-Maximilians-University München. See his profile here.

© Tobias Hof.  Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).