The end of the Balkan war has brought a wave of criminal gangs into southern Italy, many of which are proving so violent and well-armed that the mafia has forged alliances with them rather than try to resist the onslaught. Police have been stunned by the savagery and professionalism of recent heists in which gangs used Kalashnikovs, explosives and motorized battering rams to kill escorts in armored cars. In the past robbers tended to shoot only if pursued or fired at first.
Albanians and mercenaries from Serbia, Montenegro and other parts of the former Yugoslavia are blamed for the attacks, which are linked to the growing trade across the Adriatic in contraband cigarettes, drugs and illegal immigrants.
Two ambushes on remote roads in the heel of Italy last week brought a wave of public shock of the kind not seen since the Red Brigade terrorists were active.
In the first attack last Monday, 10 masked men, some with Balkan accents, rammed and cornered two trucks driven by private security guards near the town of Lecce. Explosives blasted open the doors and machinegun fire raked the guards, killing three and wounding five. The gang escaped with £700,000.
In a second attack on the same day guards were said to have had a miraculous escape when a different gang intercepted a delivery of pensions.
"The abundance of arms, vehicles and determination is striking," said Alessandro Stasi, a chief appeals prosecutor.
Evidence that foreign and Italian gangs were collaborating emerged last May when a group attacked an armored truck in Milan with explosives and fired more than 350 rounds, killing one guard. Several men from the Balkans were later arrested.
According to Professor Ernesto Savona, the director of Transcrime, an Italian research institute which studies international crime, Albanian gangs now control the smuggling of illegal immigrants.
A pact is believed to have been made in which the Italian gangs retained control over trade in cigarettes and arms, while the new arrivals took over prostitution rackets, and the smuggling of drugs and illegal immigrants.
Last week an Italian judge ordered Branko Perovic, the foreign minister of Montenegro since 1998, and 26 other people to stand trial on smuggling and criminal association charges. The charges against him relate to the period when he worked for the Rome office of the Yugoslav Airlines, JAT.