Véhicule Presents: The Untold Story of Italian Cigarette Smuggling Part 1
The blue hulls were particular types of boats, which Neapolitan crime used to smuggle cigarettes, the "blondes" as they were called in Naples. The smuggling of cigarettes originated in the post-war period, to revive local economies.
The builders painted the hulls blue in this color so that they would not reflect the moonlight at night, making them invisible at night.
On board the blue hulls there were generally a maximum of 3 people, one of whom was an experienced motorboat pilot and 2 who loaded about 1000 kg of cigarettes per trip. During the day the blue hulls were proudly displayed on the docks all over the Gulf and admired by hundreds of onlookers.
As soon as the hulls returned loaded into port, dozens of boys filled different cars like "Alfetta" without seats with cigarettes and darted into the hiding places of the various Neapolitan neighborhoods. The boys sold smuggled cigarettes on small wooden stalls on street corners and this allowed the sustenance of numerous families who had no post-war income.
In most cases, the powerful blue hulls managed to trade without being caught. When caught in the act, daring chases were born between the patrol boats of the Guardia di Finanza and the blue hulls. The pursuit lasted for hours and ended if the military vehicle managed to approach the blue hull, even for just a few seconds. In this case, the military threw a line into the propeller or short-circuited the engines with a powerful water cannon.
Whether you like it or not, currency is everything. It influences every dark corner of most people’s existences with very few notable exceptions. It controls all facets of public and private life, for better or for worse. It breeds innovation, or it becomes a person’s downfall. People have studied it, making careers out of trying to understand it, hoping to predict its behaviors and learn how to exploit it. If you can control it, you are the one in power.
Not all currency follows tradition as pieces of paper with numbers on them, abstract coins on some website, or some minuscule fraction of a megacorporation. Sometimes currency is more literal than that and is linked to an object’s intrinsic value rather than an assigned one. For example, post-World War II Italy had the lira, but it also had cigarettes.
In Mussolini’s wake, work was hard to come by in Italy. The United States Army was stationed around the country under the guise that they would help rebuild what was lost, but everyone knew that that was a long-term project. People needed to make a living, and they needed to make it quickly. On Lake Como, up near the country’s northern border, people took advantage of their proximity to Switzerland and the nation’s neutrality throughout the recent war. Switzerland had what Italians wanted—among other things, they had cigarettes. Realizing tobacco’s potential as currency, a handful of enterprising characters took on the role of smuggler. They would work an honest job by day, and by night they would cross the mountainous border by foot to load smuggled cigarettes onto rowboats, bag by bag. A motorboat would have been quicker, but a rowboat ended up being quieter, which in turn raised less suspicion. From there the boat, full of bags with 500 boxes of cigarettes each, would continue the job. Their destination would be big, nearby cities.
There is only so much that can be done by lake, and the need for new territory was pressing. The next logical step was to expand to the sea as a trade route, with Naples as a gateway to the Mediterranean. In Naples, former fishermen abounded, and their knowledge of the sea, its conditions and its geography was unparalleled. They too were eager to get in on this new trade. The fact that international waters began just six miles from the shore made the endeavor seem even more enticing—with a powerboat, six miles would fly by.
Right past the boundary between Italian and international waters sat a “mother boat” waiting to receive its payload. It was a big boat, potentially a conspicuous one. It would be swarmed with smaller high-performance powerboats, each of which came with bags upon bags of cigarettes. Not only were cigarettes exchanged, but payment was too. This would come in the form of 1,000-lire banknotes which were cut in half on the shore before departure. One half of these banknotes would go to the “mother boat,” the other half would go to the drivers of each of the smaller boats. If the two stacks of cut lire fit together when the boats pulled up to each other, the delivery was considered legitimate and the loading procedure proceeded.
From there, the “mother boat” would make its distributions, mostly to small dealers in big cities. There, this unofficial currency would be bartered for the official, government-sanctioned money. The dealers, often children, were known for approaching cars waiting at traffic lights to make a quick transaction. Everyone smoked at the time, so the take rate was high. The driver would get their cigarettes and the vendor would get around 5,000 lire in return, or half of what a legal box of cigarettes would cost at a store. It was a win-win.
Based on an interview with Tullio Abbate and Véhicule publisher Christopher Kippenberger. Story to be continued in "The Untold Story of Italian Cigarette Smuggling Part 2".
Read all about modern day boat smugging operations in Véhicule Magazine.
Naples, 4 April 1972. Neapolitan smugglers celebrate a funeral ceremony at sea in memory of three young colleagues shot dead by an American soldier during a negotiation that ended badly. The victims are Alberto Bravaccino, aged 35 (father of six children); Achille Diodato, aged 30 (father of five children) and Nunzio Pipolo, aged 19.
The facts date back to the previous night and involve the twenty-three-year-old Edward Michael Cox, a young corporal of the marines who on board the aircraft carrier Roosvelt was supposed to deliver six hundred cartons of cigarettes to the smugglers by motorboat. Something went wrong when paying. The soldier demanded a higher amount than agreed, starting a dispute that ended with the death of the three men. After appropriating the money, Cox provided magistrates with a bogus version of the facts, claiming to have witnessed a feud between smugglers with his own eyes.