ROME — If an alien spaceship dropped you into the area around Piazza Vittorio in central Rome, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were anywhere but the Italian capital. Street signs are written in Chinese and there are few Italians anywhere to be seen. Even the vegetable markets carry produce no Italian would dare put in a pasta sauce.
The scene repeats itself in pockets of Milan and suburban Florence. Of course there is nothing wrong with multiculturalism, but Italian police have always been wary of the way the Chinese community operates, essentially completely outside the Italian system.
All of that may soon change.
In early May, Chinese police officers in their national uniforms started patrolling streets in Milan and Rome alongside Italian cops. The plan was described as a way to help the increasing number of Chinese tourists flocking to Italy, and to calm fears after the terror attacks in Paris and Brussels.
In fact, the street cop program is the first phase in a multi-tiered effort to combat a surge in gang violence among rival Chinese communities in Rome, Milan, and Prato, which is near Florence.
“The agreement is a unique approach to a growing concern for travelers’ safety,” Rome’s deputy police chief, Giovanni Battista Scali, told The Daily Beast. “But it also allows Italian law enforcement to learn more about the dark side of the Chinese community.”
The project was proposed last year amid revelations that Rome was under the influence of the so-called Mafia Capitale, made up of 45 criminal gangs, several of which were tied to Chinese gangs.
The presence of Chinese cops on the street won’t stop the criminal gang activities, but Italy’s Corriere Della Sera newspaper says the street cops are just a cover for an underground operation being conducted by Chinese and Italian authorities across the country. There are around 260,000 Chinese residents living legally in Italy, and police estimate that many thousands more are living clandestinely and working in the black market.
According to investigative documents, the Chinese gangs have been working alongside Italy’s traditional organized crime syndicates in everything from extortion and money laundering to prostitution. A nationwide sting operation given the unfortunate name “Yellow Dragon,” carried out last month, netted a dozen pimps who reportedly were running sex shops in massage parlors across the country. Many of the young women were underage or being held against their will.
Police also have closed a number of sweatshops in the Prato area near Florence where slave labor was used to produce counterfeit goods after it was discovered that Chinese workers were being trafficked into Italy to work in ghastly conditions. A fire at a factory in Prato in 2014 exposed a network of tunnels and underground housing that hid hundreds of workers from plain view. Many were repatriated back to China, but a large number escaped and continue to feed the black market.
“Chinese communities are very closed and difficult to penetrate,” Franco Roberti, Italy’s chief anti-mafia prosecutor told The Daily Beast. “Finding a way into those communities is crucial to break up the rings.”
Whether Chinese cops patrolling the Duomo in Milan and the Coliseum in Rome will have any trickle-down effect on the criminal gangs is hard to measure, but authorities believe that the plan might work.
“If even one Chinese resident alerts a police officer they trust about criminal activity, it could make a huge difference in public safety,” Scali says. “The right tip could really open a Pandora’s box.”