The Romantic Era of Smuggling: A Game of Cat and Mouse on Lake Como

the smuggling game

Dominioni Libri publish a ‘Gioco del Contrabbandiero’ in which players follow the routes across the Swiss borders as smugglers (spalloni) seeking to avoid the attention of the border guards (finanzieri)

Throughout most of the twentieth century local communities around the lake told stories of  their rebel heroes conducting an illicit trade in smuggled goods in a constant game of cat and mouse with the authorities. The so-called era of ‘contrabbando romantico’ only came to end in the 1970s when the role of these locals was supplanted by more organised criminal syndicates from afar.  In those days the profits made from the dangerous game of smuggling supported many communities along the Val D’Intelvi from Argegno to Lanzo, and along the lake from Tremezzina  to Dongo or across the water in Lezzeno. The nearby border, which divided two distinct territories with their different currencies and levels of taxation, provided the opportunity to earn extra for those with the strength and courage to face the dangers and discomforts of a rebel life. Smuggling was common along the entire length of Italy’s northern border but particularly prevalent around the lakes so much as to become a key element in local folklore.

Cats and Mice

smuggler

A ‘spallone’ (smuggler) with his ‘bricolla’ (back pack) ltypically loaded with up to 35 or even 40 kg of goods such as cigarettes or coffee.

All family members played their part in the smuggling trade but the major role was taken by the young men who developed the strength and agility to manage the large backpacks loaded with up to 35 to 40 kilogram of goods. These packs were known as ‘bricolle’ and the smugglers as ‘spalloni’ meaning ‘large shoulders’ due to the weight they had to carry. Spalloni were also known as ‘sfusaduu’ in the local dialect. A trip over the border from a town like Colonno, just north of Argegno, would take about three hours following the least-used mountain paths to find gaps in the netting. These trips would invariably be undertaken by night throughout all seasons. They would load the bricolle from stores kept in mountain sheds just over the border from where they would make the three hour trip back home seeking to avoid border guards along the way. Once back at base, the bricolle would be stored safely away to await either onward shipment across the lake to Lezzeno or opened for immediate distribution.

Monte Generoso

The view over Lake Lugano in Switzerland from the border on Monte Generoso, a route taken by many smugglers in the Val D’Intelvi.

The spalloni’s foe were the border guards – the Guardia di Finanza, known as the ‘finanzieri’ or ‘burlanda’ in local dialect. The life of a finanziero on duty in any one of the barracks posted along the border was hard. They earned little and had to undertake long periods of duty in their isolated outposts facing the dangers of patrolling throughout all seasons and in all types of weather. They were recruited primarily from the poor regions in the south attracted in spite of the hardships and severe discipline by the guarantee of a steady if modest salary and by the respect gained back home from donning a state uniform. More than 30,000 southerners were recruited over the century to settle permanently with their families in the Como area. 

Fresco Bar Sport Lella

Illustration in the Bar Sport Lella in Sala Comacino owned by ‘Il Cimino’, a retired smuggler made famous by singer songwriter Davide Van De Sfroos.

Both spalloni and finanzieri were armed but shots were only exceptionally exchanged. If a patrol did manage to intercept the smugglers they would shout the command ‘Molla!’ and be content if the smugglers then abandoned their bricolle and ran off into the darkness. The spalloni for their part tried their best to avoid having to sacrifice their loads and the most legendary were known for their daring break neck descents down steep paths still carrying their massive loads. 

Rifugio Murelli

The Rifugio Murelli on the hiking path Via dei Monti Lariani – one of the line of finanzieri barracks along the mountain border from Cernobbio to Lanzo D’Intelvi.

The local spalloni had the initial advantage of their detailed knowledge of the mountain paths and the various weak points along the border defences. The finanzieri also developed a similar knowledge over time. Both sides used this knowledge during the Nazifascist era after 1943 to help Jews, partisans, allied prisoners of war and antifascists avoid the German and fascist militia to escape over the border. The finanzieri around Como were so prepared to aid this clandestine emigration that Mussolini eventually banned them from patrolling the borders.

In spite of the romantic image of this game of cat and mouse, the dangers of death and injury were real. A number of both spalloni and financieri died from falls, avalanches or gunfire amounting to about 3,000 victims in total over the years.

il gioco del contrabando

Il Gioco del Contrabbando showing the labyrinth of smuggling routes around Lake Como.

The Goods

Dog smugglers

Dogs were used by both smugglers and finanzieri.

The direction and content of the smuggling trade changed throughout time as political and economic circumstances evolved even if the main direction of travel was from Switzerland into Italy. In the Napoleonic period from 1803, a monopoly was applied to the provision of salt, tobacco and gunpowder encouraging their illicit import from the Swiss Federation. Loose tobacco became an even more favourite commodity during  Austrian rule when the Swiss established a tobacco and cigar factory at the Swiss end of Lake Maggiore in 1848 posing a threat to the monopoly factory in Venice. Tobacco smuggling remained a key export from Switzerland until relatively recently. 

group of spalloni

A group of spalloni likely to have been carrying tobacco or coffee from Switzerland.

Wartime in particular saw major changes in the direction and nature of trade. We have already mentioned the smuggling of people during the last war. There was a similar trade in people smuggling in the Great War but the subjects were the host of secret agents and Italian counterspies needing passage over the border to monitor the political manoeuvres and each others’ clandestine negotiations in the spy capital of Europe, neutral Lugano. 

finanzieri

The Guardia di Finanza (finanzieri) in the Province of Lecco display bricolle abandoned by spalloni when intercepted in the mountains.

Peace time brought about a return in the regular flow of tobacco, coffee, chocolate and other luxury items into Italy from Switzerland with another change of direction brought about in the last war. Switzerland suffered major shortages of basic foodstuffs during the conflict caused partly by the allied blockade on ports such as Genoa as well as by the Swiss Federation’s attempts to become self-sufficient in foodstuffs. Strict rationing was applied at below subsistence levels on goods including flour, pasta, rice, cooking oil and flour. The Swiss closed all border posts in 1940 and increased the penalties for smuggling. However the local people took immediate advantage of the porous borders with all family members carrying over chestnuts and flour. Even live animals such as piglets were smuggled over having firstly been drugged with grappa to ensure they remained silent.

Wire fence

A wire fence was erected along the length of the border dividing Lombardy from Switzerland. This has now been mostly dismantled. Here Guards are patrolling in the Province of Varese.

The war time trade became ever more anarchic after the 1943 armistice with even the Nazifascist state engaged in smuggling salt from the Venetian lagoon as well as rice, pasta and flour in exchange for Swiss currency, gold, watches, cloth, coffee, car tyres and shoes. Those involved included the X Mas Naval division based in Porlezza, the German command in Colico, various local fascist Prefects and even Mussolini’s own secretary.  

spalloni

A band of spalloni in the Province of Lecco

With the war over, the Swiss withdrew their hardline border guards and were happy to turn a blind eye to the clandestine export of coffee and tobacco. After all, the more goods were bought in Switzerland, the more duty was collected to fund the federation’s social services. Conversely, the more smuggled goods were sold in Italy, the less duty was gathered to pay for Italy’s social security programmes. The Swiss saw no reason why purchasing products in their country and transporting them into Italy should be deemed illegal. Additionally, the gradual postwar increase in Italian standards of living increased the demand for coffee and for American-style cigarettes.  The continual devaluation of the Italian lira next to the Swiss franc and the imposition in Italy of high levels of duty served to maintain attractive profit margins for the spalloni.  All was set for a golden age of ‘contrabbando romantico’ that would last for a further thirty years – a time when all visitors to Como would return home with a cheap packet of coffee and a carton of cigarettes. 

The Heroes

robin hoodNo romantic era can be without its heroes. Folklore has turned many morally dubious bandits into warriors against oppression fighting for the poor and for a more just distribution of wealth. Such heroes have also emerged from the ranks of the spalloni who operated within the Val D’Intelvi and Lake Como.  They shared that mix of qualities common to peasant leaders from Robin Hood to the present day. They possessed a detailed knowledge of the local  physical environment common to all peasant communities combined with an entrepreneurial flair and the capacity to lead. Their safety was dependent on retaining the respect and support of their local communities who, for whatever reason, retained a greater loyalty to one of their own rather than to the state at large. 

Il Ment – Duke of the Mountains

clemente malacrida

Clemente ‘Il Ment’ Malacrida, born 1900 – the so-called Duke of the Mountains

Our first hero is Clemente Malacrida born in 1900 and brought up in Pellio Intelvi close to Lanzo. He originally applied his knowledge of the mountains and the lesser known paths  across the border to assist the various secret agents wanting to reach Lugano. After the Great War ended he supplemented his income as an intermediary in the sale of cattle by smuggling in tobacco, chocolate and coffee from Switzerland. He soon became recognised as chief of the smugglers earning the title  ‘Il Ducato dei Contrabbandieri’. 

By the 1930’s Ment was constantly on the run from the Guardia di Finanza, the Forestry Police and the Carabinieri. His heroic status was secured when, on the 10th August 1933 while participating in the local celebration of San Lorenzo Day at a big feast at the Rifugio Venini on Monte Galbiga, he helped his lifelong friend ‘Il Gal’ escape from a trap set by the Carabinieri. They made their escape together by descending the Val Perlana down to the Monastery of San Benedetto above Ossuccio. 

San Benedetto

The Monastery of San Benedetto in the Val Perlana above Ossuccio

He gained national renown the following winter when he led a massive convoy of a hundred smugglers bringing coffee across the snow-covered mountains. Bad weather had caused a prolonged halt to the regular crossings since tracks in the snow made detection by the finanzieri easy. The situation had become critical with investors impatient at seeing the build up of goods awaiting collection from the clandestine stores just across the Swiss border. The decision was taken to organise a mass column of spalloni and the only person who could be entrusted to lead it was Il Ment assisted by his friend Il Gal.  However on this occasion Ment was betrayed by one of the spalloni who talked too much. The column was intercepted at the Cima di Bove along the Val Mara leading to Lanzo D’Intelvi. The incident was famously represented on the front page of the ‘Domenica del Corriere’ who under the title ‘2 Against 100’ claimed the column had been halted by a mere couple of finanzieri although in reality they had been intercepted by up to five patrols. Ninety seven of the bricolle full of coffee had to be abandoned to allow for all but one of the spalloni to escape capture. For Ment, the publicity ensured he became a heroic symbol of subversion. Efforts were redoubled to seek his arrest.

Domenica del corriere (1)

The edition of the Domenica del Corriere featuring the exploits of Il Ment and Il Gal leading a band of 100 spalloni carrying coffee from Switzerland

A year and a month later, he and Gal were captured on Epiphany Day, 1935 by Carabinieri from Castiglione D’Intelvi at Blessagno.  They faced trial a month later with both receiving lengthy prison terms. Ment did however manage to escape from prison in the summer of 1936 but was quickly rearrested, beaten up and left to die of his wounds  a few days later when back in prison. Gal served his term and on release from prison in 1943 immediately returned to the mountains as a partisan taking up arms against the nazifascist regime.

Ment could have avoided the life on the run but his determination to avoid arrest during his career was born out of a rebel spirit.  His refusal to compromise with authority seemed to exemplify the independent spirit of the Val D’Intelvi and his example went on to inspire future generations of spallonii.

Val D'Intelvi

The Val D’Intelvi with the Swiss Alps in the distance

Il Cinto – Captain of the Lake

Colonno

The small town of Colonno north of Argegno where the sense of ‘omerta’ kept the spalloni safe from betrayal to the finanzieri.

Our next hero, Il Cinto, was born and lived in Colonno – a small lakeside town north of Argegno where smuggling had for years provided a supplementary income for a male population accustomed to seasonal migration into Switzerland as construction workers. For their part Colonno’s women had developed a specialism in producing local butter adulterated with margarine from Lecco which proved popular in Como, Brianza and Milan for cooking. So strong was this local clandestine tradition that Colonno developed a sense of ‘omerta’ amongst its people as unbreakable as in any mafia-controlled township. 

Il Cinto’s outlaw career started from the moment he was demobilised from the army in September 1943 following the armistice of the Badoglio government and the subsequent Nazi occupation which established the nazifascist regime in Northern Italy. He immediately took to the mountains as a partisan member of the communist-led  52nd Garibaldi Brigade with ‘Novara’ as his nom de guerre. One of his first actions was to seize arms from the Guardia di Finanza barracks in Argegno where many of the finanzieri themselves wished to join the partisans. He also participated in the raid led by the royalist partisan leader Captain Ugo Ricci on the Porlezza barracks of the X Mas Naval Division. His last major action was to provide rearguard cover for the failed attempt (in which Ugo Ricci was killed) to kidnap Guido Buffarini Guidi, the nazifascist Finance Minister who was residing at the time in Lenno. After this he dedicated himself fulltime to smuggling. 

bricolle

Four spalloni make their way back into Italy with their bricolle

The period between 1945 and 1948 was one in which the supply of smuggled goods went both ways over the Swiss border. The arrival of the well provisioned American troops offered a source of goods in desperately short supply in Switzerland. In addition to the shortages in foodstuffs, the spalloni now carried over bicycle and lorry tyres, parachute fabric and even condoms. The risks taken by the spalloni were considerable since the Swiss had supplemented their normal border controls with soldiers recruited from the German speaking cantons who had no hesitation in shooting at anyone ignoring their cry to ‘Alt’. However by 1948 the demand for these goods declined, the Swiss border guards were retired and the  Swiss decriminalised all traffic crossing their territory into Italy. Il Cinto was now ready to take full advantage of this return to normal trading and to welcome in a golden era for local spalloni.

Lake Como from Colonno

Looking south down Lake Como from the mountain path linking Argegno to Colonno

Traditional custom had determined that groups of smugglers travel in a single convoy. Il Cinto however developed his own particularly successful method. He travelled with a trusted band of eight to nine spalloni but divided the group in two with himself taking the lead alongside two of the fastest and strongest members of his gang. He would carry a bricolla loaded with only 15 kilograms of goods. The other five or so members would stay well back from the lead group. If the lead group encountered a patrol of finanzieri, the other members of the group would remain hidden until the patrol had been drawn away in pursuit. The lead group would at worst have to abandon just two of their bricolle to aid their escape. Il Cinto on principle never abandoned his own lighter load. 

Corniga

Corniga, an alpine hamlet above Colonno

Il Cinto also saw the sense in forming allegiances with other smugglers, in particular with the spalloni from Dongo. Those from Dongo did not need much persuading of the advantages of initiating their cross-border incursions from Colonno. A journey from Colonno to the stores held just over the border took about three hours rather than the six needed from Dongo. Il Cinto also teemed up with smugglers based in Lezzeno directly across the lake from Colonno. Onward transport of the cigarettes and coffee from Lezzeno to the major market of Milan was a lot safer from there than from the western shores of the Como leg of the lake. They faced fewer controls by the Guardia di Finanza and had more alternative routes to Milan. 

Cecco Bellosi

Cecco Bellosi, ex leftist militant of the armed struggle and author of books like ‘Con I Piedi Nell’Acqua’ depicting the life of Il Cinto and other local rebels.

With the introduction of his new methods, the ongoing spirit of Colonno omerta and the level of trust he established with all parties, Il Cinto assumed the leadership of a successful criminal enterprise. He became known as the Captain of the Lake. His custom was to preside every Monday evening to settle accounts and plan the following week’s activities at the bar beside Como’s bus station – the Osteria San Donnino. Here all three parties would meet, namely the transporters from Lezzeno, the spalloni from Dongo/Colonno and the store holders from Switzerland. Lezzeno would first pay Colonno for the number of bricolle delivered to them. Colonno would then pay the Swiss for what they had carried away from over the border.

While Ment’s renown was gained from the publicity provided by the Domenica della Corriere, Il Cinto’s fame is more due to local author Cecco Bellosi who has immortalised his exploits in books such as ‘Con I Piedi Nell’Acqua’. 

Il Cimino

Cimino

Sergio Bordoli aka ‘Il Cimino’ made famous as the subject of the ‘Ballata del Cimino’ written and recorded by Davide Van De Sfroos

Our last hero brings us up to our own times. Il Cimino is the subject of a ballad entitled ‘La Ballata del Cimino’ written and recorded by local singer songwriter Davide Van de Sfroos. The ballad recounts one of the exploits of Sergio Bordoli, the joint owner with his wife of the Bar Sport Lella in Sala Comacina.  He was nicknamed Il Cimino after Leonardo Cimino, a criminal from Rome briefly famous towards the end of the 60s for a couple of daring robberies. In his youth, Il Cimino was a smuggler following the routes led by Il Cinto from Switzerland to Colonno and across the lake to Lezzeno. 

You may well wonder how a local singer could have a name which appears to have originated from Holland rather than Tremezzina. In fact Van de Sfroos is the stage name for Davide Bernasconi, born in Monza but brought up on Lake Como in Mezzegra, one of the districts of Tremezzina. His adopted name is taken from  ‘laghee’ dialect for smuggling. The spalloni from Colonno were known as ‘sfrusaduu’ and so Van de Sfroos is dialect for ‘gone to smuggle’.

Van de Sfroos and Sergio Bordoli

Davide Van De Sfroos and Sergio ‘Cimino’ Bordoli in Sala Comacina with Isola Comacina in background

Sergio ‘Il Cimino’ Bordoli was born after the last war into a family of ten. At the age of 14 he asked his mother’s permission to start smuggling –  to ‘van a sfrosare’. She readily agreed seeing how the family desperately needed his additional earnings. On one occasion in the early 60s, he was tasked with uncovering bricolle full of cigarettes that had been hidden close to the lakeside near to Brienno and to load them into a motorboat for the crossing to Lezzeno. Unfortunately an armed  patrol of the Guardia Di Finanza with dogs intercepted him. To avoid capture he threw himself into the lake near to the restaurant Il Crotto dei Platani and swam underwater until he surfaced under the cover of a jutting cliff. There he waited his time until the finanzieri gave up any further search for him. Dripping wet and having lost his Lacoste shirt, trousers and wallet, he climbed up onto the road dressed only in his underpants and wearing his Superga trainers. 

Conclusion

motoscafi

Cigarette smuggling during the era of contrabbando romantico has been replaced by an industrial scale operation run by organised crime using high powered motor boats pursued by the Guardia di Finanza also in boats or helicopters.

By the mid 1970s the era of contrabbando romantico was coming to an end. Cigarette smuggling was passing into the hands of organised crime with the centre of its operation in the Mediteranean.  Il Cimino gave up smuggling when he reached twenty in the early 1970s. After a period working in Switzerland, he came back to Sala Comacina to set up the bar with his wife Lella. By the mid 1970’s the Guardia di Finanza had abandoned their string of barracks along the crest of the mountains from Cernobbio to Lanzo allowing them now to be turned into mountain refuges offering food and accommodation for hikers. The wire netting of the border was left to fall into disrepair. Now we can all cross the border in the mountains as often as we like – unless we are one of the illegal immigrants trying to make our way into Northern Europe via Switzerland. For them another type of smuggler now exists, the so-called ‘passatori’ but they have little interest in crossing over mountain paths. In any case the border is now under the surveillance of drones and helicopters.

Standards of living have definitely improved for those on the lake, as have the work conditions for the finanzieri of the Guardia di Finanza but the success of the Van de Sfroos ‘Ballata del Cimino’ points to a nostalgia for the recent past and to an important element of local history which has undoubtedly shaped aspects of the local culture. Cecco Bellosi has done much in his books to ensure the heroes of past times are not forgotten and I share his enthusiasm for celebrating and maintaining his and their spirit of rebellion.

Further Information

There are two small museums dedicated to the era of contraband. One is in Erbonne – a small town in the foothills of Monte Generoso. It is called the ‘Burlanda e Sfusaduu’ Museum and is open by appointment by contacting Sig. Sfefano Agnese on +39 333 23 84 179.

The other museum – The Museo Svizzero Delle Dogane – is in Gandria. Call +41 79 512 99 07 for opening times.

There are a number of hiking trails that follow or go near to the old smuggling routes. For example, see sentieri-contrabbando.it for details of hiking trails around Cernobbio and Maslianico. The long hiking path Via dei Monti Lariani passes by the string of ex-barracks of the Guardia di Finanza.  Follow this link for information about the trail and details of the ex-barracks now open to trekkers as mountain refuges. There is also ‘un percorso al contrabbando’ that starts in Casasco D’Intelvi and crosses Monte Generoso over the border.

Via dei contrabbandieri erbonne

The percorso al contrabbando runs from Casasco D’Intelvi via Erbonne to cross the border

The Contraband Game (Il Gioco del Contrabbandiere) is available online from dominionilibri.it  for €24.

Davide Van de Sfroos’ ‘Ballata del Cimino’ is available on Youtube and a translation of the lyrics from laghee dialect into Italian is available at http://testicanzoni.mtv.it/testi-Davide-Van-De-Sfroos_63920/traduzione-La-ballata-del-cimino-3243351

Cecco Bellosi’s book ‘Con I Piedi Nell’Acqua’ is available in Italian on Kindle.

Sentee la Culman

The Sentee La Culman is a steep path used by smugglers to climb from Moltrasio to the side of Monte Bisbino. It now forms part of a gruelling alpine run held once a year with its route marked out by yellow markers.

Other articles in Como Companion that may be of interest include:

Como and Contraband – A Romanticised Legacy?

Carate Urio to Moltrasio via Rifugio Bugone

Como’s ‘Viaggi della Salvezza’ – In Memory of the Holocaust

About comocompanion

I am an Englishman in Como, Northern Italy - definitely both a Euro and Italophile with an interest in modern history, walks in the hills and mountains, and food and wine. I favour 'slow' tourism alongside of 'slow' food.
This entry was posted in crime, Culture, Folklore, History, Itineraries, Lake, People, Uncategorized, Walks and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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