May 08, 1978 12:00 PM

I’m tired, tired,” sighs Elio Cioppa, 39. “Nauseated even.” Well he might be. Cioppa is chief of Rome’s anti-kidnapping squad charged with trying to staunch that most cold-blooded of crimes and, in effect, save the very social order of his country. “Sometimes,” he confesses, “I feel it’s hopeless.”

Since 1970, when the wave first began to build, there have been more than 300 abductions, some $180 million paid in ransom and 39 hostages murdered in Italy. The case of ex-premier Aldo Moro was the sickening climax that made headlines around the world but hardly explained the dilemma. Only a small percentage of Italy’s kidnappings are political. The vast majority are for money, and Cioppa’s major problem is lack of public cooperation with his Squadra Anti-Sequestro. In addition to the understandable reasons, chiefly the fear of victims’ families of retaliation by the abductors, there is a characteristically Italian reaction: public indifference. “Many people,” says Cioppa, “take the attitude toward victims, ‘You made your money speculating, you don’t pay taxes, it serves you right.’ ” Tax evasion and lack of philanthropic activity are indeed ways of life with the Italian plutocracy. When asked if citizens turn state’s evidence to help his staff, Cioppa snorts: “You must be joking. They end up hating us more than the kidnappers.”

Cioppa’s other concern is how the Calabrian Mafia of Southern Italy is spreading the crime to the north. He blames the official policy of confine (relocating suspected Mafiosi to distant parts). “They sent these hoods up around Milan and showed them a hundred times as many targets as they had back in Calabria—unprotected ones, with liquid capital,” complains Cioppa. He also notes sardonically that “the crime is going downhill in quality. Pretty soon they’ll be hitting people who can pay the equivalent of $50,000 instead of a million dollars.” In fact, he reports, one recent ransom was only $270.

The shame is that Cioppa is one of the few Italian officials promoted not by raccomandazione (influence) but by demonstrable merit. His antikidnap squad has broken more than half of its cases in a country where less than 20 percent of burglaries are solved. Elio earned a law degree from the University of Naples, not far from his home, and joined the Pubblica Sicurezza, the public security police, first in Bolzano before moving to Rome. Chosen to form an elite antikidnapping squad in 1975, Cioppa had to draw on other divisions, often getting their castoffs and malcontents. “Cioppa had faith in us,” says one veteran, “so we all tried just a little bit harder.”

Typically, the chief arrives at his sparsely furnished office by 8:30 a.m., and after a busy morning he is driven home for lunch with his wife, Adriana, and two young children, Roberto, 8, and Barbara, 11 months. Back by late afternoon, after the long Roman siesta, Cioppa often stays until 10:30 or later. Whenever there is a major arrest to be made, he insists on going to the scene himself. “Not like some chiefs,” says an admiring aide, “who tell us to go and take a look while they sit back in the office.”

To escape the pressure of the job, Elio plays soccer with the police team, though he’s been hampered since his leg was charred by a Molotov cocktail hurled during a demonstration. He also takes the family to visit the grandparents in Caserta on weekends. “I love the country,” he says. “My dream is to buy some land in Tuscany or Umbria and have a ranch to retire to.” He says “ranch,” having seen a lot of American movies, and at his most agonized moments, blurts, “I’d take a job in America in a minute.”

But would that help? “The crime of kidnapping is being exported,” fears expert Cioppa. “There’s just been a case in Holland, and the Calabrian Mafia has good contacts abroad, especially in the United States. Let me tell you, if they decide to adopt this crime there, the American police will have the curse of God on their hands.”

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