Almost three decades have elapsed since the period of the major activities of “Prima Linea”, and it might be useful to delineate a short profile, above all, for the advantage of those who, for reasons of age, were not aware of that violent and bloody turmoil which stained the aspirations of change, albeit legitimate, of a whole generation. With respect to other movements or terrorist groups, “Prima Linea” had a remarkably minor ideological push, less cultured and less defined, so that it stood halfway between the group of nostalgics of the 1968’s and the organization of aspiring red terrorists, who were always looking out for a model to imitate. This sort of organizational and ideological “immaturity” became, in its brief existence, one of the most violent and revengeful organizations, but at the same time, was the cause of its own demise.
Among the terrorist groups of the Marxist matrix which have marked the history of our Country in the 1970’s and 80’s, the Front Line, second only to the Red Brigades for operational capacity and number of members, embodies a rich course of aspects peculiar to, and in certain respects, antithetical to that of the Red Brigade.
The group originates in a strong expansion phase of the armed party in the second half of the 1970’s and finishes its parabola in a few years, less than a decade.
The area of provenance is the extra-parliamentary extreme Left, sectors of the Autonomia in which exiles of the Potere Operaio (Workers Power) and particularly, Lotta Continua (Continuing Struggle) are combined, together with workers’ groups, especially from the Milan industrial belt (Magneti Marelli). A further essential element is the experience of the magazine “Senza Tregua” (“No Truce”); this publication is rooted in the factory, which is fertile ground for the intervention of the so-called “militant anti-fascism”.
In fact, a meeting of the “No Truce” group is held in SalÚ (BS), at the end of 1976, where the more resolute elements, equivalent to the intermediate cadres, take over the organization, (the so-called “sergeants’ coup”), giving origin to the Prima Linea (Front Line), even though the formal beginning is sanctioned in May ’77, near Florence, with the institution of a “National Command” in which the Milan, Turin and Bergamo groups are combined.
The formation, present in several zones in Italy, will concentrate its activities in Milan, Florence, Naples and, particularly, in Turin.
Its chief exponents are: Roberto Sandalo, Marco Donat Cattin,, Michele Viscardi, Enrico Galmozzi, Fabrizio Giai, Sergio Segio, Susanna Ronconi, Diego Forastieri, Roberto Rosso, Maurice Bignami, Bruno La Ronga, Giulia Borelli, Siviera Russo, all, for various reasons, well known names(1).
The year 1976 is the year of the first actions: the irruption into the executive group of FIAT in Turin (29th of November) is the first officially claimed action of the organization. They are also responsible for the assassination of the MSI provincial councillor, Enrico Pedenovi (Milan, the 29th of April 1976)(2), although it was not officially claimed.
The formation, which presents itself as (3)“aggregation of various guerrilla groups that have, so far, acted under different acronyms” often, does not claim its own actions and uses more than one name(4) so that it is not always possible to establish with certainty, whether it is a matter of this same organization or of different groups.
In the decade between the 70’s and the 80’s, the proliferation of different acronyms contributed to create an image of tumultuous growth in the area of the armed struggle, a real phenomenon of “defused terrorism”, spread throughout a large part of Italy and although still modest from an operative viewpoint, it was nourished by the climate of illegality and violence of those years.
‘Diffused terrorism’ does not have any need for structured organizations or complex theoretical elaborations; it develops according to a multiplying and emulative dynamic, conducted by that “strategic terrorism”, represented by the larger groups (firstly, the Red Brigades).
It has often been a matter of two communicating vessels, where “diffused terrorism”, besides representing a “red herring” for the investigators, has constituted a reservoir of cadres and a precious support area for the more developed organizations.
Presenting itself as a pluralist and horizontal formation, Prima Linea has been able, therefore, to attract and coagulate other subversive entities; it has been less sectarian with respect to the Red Brigades’ policy of delegating decisional power to a few top members (Verticismo) and, in fact, is far from the elite logic of the Leninists.
The organization aspires to keep roots in the social area, to keep close relations with the “masses” (which are not necessarily limited to the workers’ world)(5) , and its prerogative will be just this closeness with the “movement of the ‘77”.
The organization criteria foresees – besides a centralized structure with the National Command at the summit – partially autonomous individual nuclei(6) which, being within the movements, ensure a connection with the referred social strata.
Unlike the “regular” full-time R.B. revolutionary, for whom living in secrecy is an existential choice, the Prima Linea militant resorts to this operative line only in exceptional moments and, obviously, if discovered by the police. More frequently, a semi-clandestine modus vivendi is adopted, keeping ones own identity and camouflaging oneself among the people, often working and carrying out political activities within the movement, so as not to risk isolation and to maintain constant contact with the requirements of the base. Hideouts and military deposits do not exist; archives and weapons are kept in the militant’s house.
Therefore, it is a question of an organizational model which is less closed and compartmentalized compared to the Red brigades. It favours the rapid growth of the group, also thanks to the ease of enrolment. A method of enrolment, however, which proves to be too revealing to the investigative police and will be partially abandoned after the first wave of arrests.
In a competitive logic, Prima Linea wants to emulate and, at the same time, distinguish itself from the Red Brigades; It defines itself(7) as “a theoretical anomaly”, which puts at the centre of its actions not the function or the symbol (as with the R.B), but the concrete articulation of the State and, ‘overturning’ “the ‘state as centre’ formula of other groups” (founded on the class/state contrast), proposes a “social conception of the class clash” as “an historical conjunction between a fighting organization and an armed spontaneity of the classes…..”
Rather than vanguard of the party, Prima Linea aspires to represent the vanguard component which is immediately in contact with the masses.
The very denomination, which derives from the position of the “crowd control services” at the head of processions, brings to mind a semi-militarized force, destined to a clash against adversaries and to defend comrades.
Unlike the political-strategic image of the R.B, as rigorous as it is rigid and closed, in the Prima Linea , confused requirements come together and, in part, are tied to the youth context: a mixture of anarchical rebelliousness, a general refusal of living without programmes and a spontaneity which attributes an immediate value to the armed struggle (and not strategic, as it is for the R.B).
What has been defined an attempt (failed) to transfer into the armed struggle, an ideal of spontaneity and Movement, has as an objective “more than a take-over of power….. a progressive dissolution of power”(8) .
This context of anti-summit power (anti-Verticismo) can, however, be dangerous, insomuch as it takes only a few elements to decide “when to fire”.
The story of Prima Linea, after all, shows a progression of the offensive level(9), a gradual change to militarization, which will finish in driving the group away from the movement, and its getting closer – also due to a sort of accentuated competitiveness after the Moro kidnapping – to the modus operandi of the Red Brigades.
Besides the fighting inside the factories, which marks, above all, the beginning of the formation (raids by the proletarian patrols in the Milan hinterland, to “punish proprietors and blacklegs”), the areas of Prima Linea actions are the so-called ‘repression’ and the jail.
The first political assassination officially claimed by the P.L. is that of professor Alfredo Paolella, teacher of criminal anthropology, consultant at the Pozzuoli jail, carried out in Naples on the 11th of October 1978. The same year, in January, an attempt to help the escape of prisoners from the Murate Florentine jail, resulted in the assassination of Police Agent, Fausto Dionisi. One year later, on the 18th of January, 1979, Giuseppe Lorusso, Custody Agent at the ‘Le Nuove’ jail in Turin, is killed.
Not infrequently, Prima Linea resorts to ‘judgement’’ or ‘reprisal’ type actions. Besides the ”execution” of Pedenovi, with which the group started not to claim its killings, must also be remembered the attack against a gunsmith in Tradate (VA) on the 22nd July, 1977 (where a few days previously in a robbery attempt, the owner had killed a young militant, Romano Tognini, a thirty year-old bank employee.) Also, on the 18th of July, 1979, in Turin, there was the assassination of the barman, Carmine Civitate, owner of the Angel Bar, held responsible for the death of two P.L. militants, due to his alerting the police(10) . Always for reprisal reasons, on the 8th of March, the terrorist group, had attacked a police patrol which had been ambushed in a bar: in the shoot-out a young passer-by, Emanuele Iurilli dies.
The two-year period of 1979 – 80 is crucial for this organization which, in these years, carries out its most notorious actions.
The turning point in the story of this movement is the assassination of Judge Emilio Alessandrini, killed in Milan on the 29th January, 1979, by a commando headed by Marco Donat Cattin.
Alessandrini, protagonist of many investigations on crimes connected with terrorism (among which, the massacre of Piazza Fontana), was investigating the Prima Linea.
Always in Milan, the 19th of March, 1980, Guido Galli is killed, criminologist and, like Alessandrini, engaged in the activities of transforming and innovating the Magistracy.
On the workers’ front, mainly in the Turin area, on the 21st of September, 1979, an executive manager of Fiat, Carlo Ghiglieno, is killed. In December of the same year, always in the capital of Piedmont, an attack is made in the Valletta Company training school.
On this occasion, terrorists herd students and teachers into an auditorium and after reading a proclamation and attempting an absurd discussion, in another classroom, they line-up five students and five teachers and shoot twice at the legs of each person: thus making them invalids for life.
Other shocking actions of Prima Linea bring back to mind those years immersed in an habitual and diffused violence, where the terrorist group feels the ‘protectors’ of the masses and desires to “avenge” them. They exercise the roles of ‘judge’ and ‘executioner’ and also try to intervene in questions related to ‘the quality of life’.
Within the framework of what is defined as “the health campaign”, on the 5th February, 1980 in Monza, Paolo Paoletti is killed, production manager of the company, Icmesa di Seveso, the factory at the doors of Milan, where in July of 1976, a cloud of the lethal gas dioxin had escaped.
The organization expands to Rome in 1980. Here, on the 2nd of May, a commando of four elements shoot the architect, Sergio Lenci, project manager of the new wing at the Rebibbia jail. He is defined as an “anti-guerrilla technician”. Like other victims, Lenci had been marked as a ‘reformer’, who work tended to reduce conflict tensions, diminishing the potentiality of a revolt(11).
Two days later, the “inside” assassination of William Waccher is committed in Milan, on suspicion of collaborating with the police and magistracy.
In fact, the organization is thwart with internal divisions, from the first defections and scissions, to the first ‘reformed terrorist’ (following the 1977 arrests). But it will be, above all, the revelations of Roberto Sandalo, one of the top group leaders, arrested in 1980, followed by the arrest of Marco Donat Cattin and then the confessions of Michele Viscardi which will contribute to the wave of arrests made between the end of 1980 and the beginning of l981. These events, in fact, mark the beginning of the dismantling and the end of the formation.
At Easter, 1981, in Barzio (CO), the conference of the organization is held - corresponding to the Prima Linea summit - which decrees the dissolution of the formation. In the second half of the same year, while the survivors individually flow towards the Red Brigades(12) the remaining top members of Prima Linea manage to organize themselves into two groups: the “Communist Nucleus” (also known as “Fighting Nuclei” or Communist Fighting Nuclei”, headed by Sergio Segio and the COLP (Communists Organized for the Proletarian Liberation), guided by Giulia Borelli.
The activity of both groups is centred on the liberation of political prisoners. On the 3rd of January, 1982, these two groups join for the attack against the Rovigno jail, were Segio, using strong explosives, manages to open a breach in the prison wall and free his companion, Susanna Ronconi, who escapes with three other Prima Linea detainees(13).
On the 21st of the same month, the COLPs, who have robbed a bank in Siena, are caught by the Italian Carabineers, on a bus, which had been stopped for a check near Monteroni d’Arbia (SI): after a shoot- out where two military and one terrorist are hit(14), a gigantic man- haunt is started that will end in the Viterbo area, near Tuscany, with the capture of the fugitive terrorists.
Also the Nuclei, including Segio and the four escapees from Rovigo, will be arrested shortly.
Almost all the Prima Linea militants have dissociated themselves from the armed fight, including the “former indomitable(s)” (Segio, Ronconi, Borelli), protagonists of the last actions of the terrorist group.
The clandestine group which more than others has embodied the spirit of ’68 and, in general, the juvenile rebellion of those years, seems to have wanted to put in practice the well-known expression of Franco Piperno, according to whom, it was necessary “to conjugate the terrible beauty of the 12th of march 1977, with the geometric power of via Fani” (15). In other words, the impetuosity and spontaneity of the “movement”, with the Leninist rigour of the armed vanguards, represented by the Red Brigades.
The story of the Prima Linea, proves, in fact, the impossibility of reconciling the ideal of Movement with Militarism. Both. moreover, have failed. On the one hand, the ideal of the movement which, notwithstanding its vitality, is only able to demolish due to lack of concrete plans; on the other hand, the obstinacy of the Brigades’ orthodoxy, which persists in wanting to realize a programme far from the reality of a modern society.
Two sterile courses, two faces of the same medal where politics, choosing the road of violence, has, in fact, abdicated its function.