Welcome to Milan, Italy's Wild West

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The Independent Online
IN A cobbled lane in the trendy Milan district of Brera, business is brisk despite the chilly night. Lanky Senegalese youths stand guard over their wares, near-perfect imitations of the Prada and Vuitton handbags on display in nearby boutiques. Fur-draped women and their partners emerging from restaurants stop to look, chat and haggle.

It's a reassuring snapshot: a picturesque and unmistakeably Italian backdrop of designer shops and style-conscious residents, a touch of crime (counterfeit goods) and a dash of colour (immigrants). But nine people were murdered in the first nine days of the year in Milan. Though the killings were unconnected, the "criminal emergency" in the country's economic nerve centre and fashion capital could not fail to make headlines in the holiday season.

A week later, the murders are exposing not merely political divisions or regional tensions, but a gulf between those who make Milan famous - the industrial barons and the fashion designers - and the myriad smaller people who keep the city ticking over. More internationally conscious Milanese, who like to consider their home more Swiss than Italian, are beginning to play down the alarm, conscious that an image as the "Naples of the north" may be bad for business.

"This whole notion that the city is a no man's land and people are scared to leave their houses at night is nonsense," said a middle-aged woman as she examined a fake Prada briefcase. "It's 11pm, and we are walking quite safely through the city centre. Milan is no more dangerous than any other European capital."

In the city's showcase, the Piazza Duomo, there are two police cars and no sign of bag-snatchers or gypsies. "They're making themselves scarce, but they'll be back as soon as the pressure is off," predicted a bartender at one of the historic cafes in the Galleria, the world's first "shopping mall".

In the neighbouring San Babila zone, shoppers are jostling for sale bargains in the boutiques. "Certainly you have to be alert, and there are areas of the city where I wouldn't go," said the owner of an expensive knitwear outlet, "but this idea that there is a crime emergency has been played up by the media and the politicians. They will scare people away if they're not careful."

It was the last of the nine deaths, that of a bar owner in a densely populated northern suburb, that provoked a wave of protest. Ordinary Milanese complained that they had been abandoned, that the police were elusive and ineffective and that the law was stacked in favour of criminals. Particularly agitated were the city's countless small business people, who complained that microcriminalita, or petty crime (something of a misnomer, given that it covers burglaries, theft and sexual assault), had exceeded acceptable limits.

Much of their anger was directed against immigrants, who feature more and more frequently in Italy's crime statistics. Foreign gangs, in particular Albanian and Slav groups, control prostitution in Milan and much of the drug trade.

The further one moves from the heart of Milan, the less attempt there is to put a brave face on the situation - the bella figura beloved of Italians. "We are sitting ducks," said Giovanni, whose family bakery is on Via Padova, a main traffic artery. "We have been robbed twice in the last six months. Junkies, pushers, immigrants ... they have nothing to fear and nothing to lose. We work hard and pay our taxes and what do we get?"

Further out still, in Via Adriano, local residents manning a makeshift roadblock warm their hands over a fire and add a jolt of grappa to their morning coffees. Behind them hang banners proclaiming "Welcome to Milan, the Wild West" and "Our patience is exhausted".

"We are here because every other time the police have kicked out the immigrants from this disused factory here, they come back the next day," said a member of the neighbourhood committee. "It's too easy to brand us as racist. But this area has become a haven for criminals, who just happen to be foreigners and we have had enough. A barman at the cafe across the street is in hospital recovering from stab wounds after a dawn attack by an immigrant a week ago. My wife was sexually assaulted at 2pm by a North African man, on the footpath over there. She went to report it, but the nearest carabinieri station was closed for lunch until 4pm. It's no wonder we feel abandoned."

The city's mild-mannered mayor, Gabriele Albertini, elected on a centre- right ticket, has demanded urgent action from Rome. Opposition leaders such as the local media baron, Silvio Berlusconi, and the former fascist Gianfranco Fini have capitalised on the indecision of the centre-left government over illegal immigration and law and order.

The government has promised 800 extra police, though it is still unclear when they will arrive or where they will be seconded from. The police forces - all four of them - have tried to show they were effectively combatting street crime. Seven Italians have been arrested and charged in connection with a series of bank robberies - they reportedly committed up to three a day - and drug trafficking.

On Friday members of Mr Berlusconi's Forza Italia party protested in front of the law courts, accusing investigating magistrates of pursuing high-profile corruption probes at the expense of more mundane inquiries into crimes against ordinary citizens. Thousands of people took part in a opposition march across the city yesterday afternoon.

However much the fur-draped residents of Brera might like to forget the whole affair, the rest of Milan does not seem inclined to let it drop.