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0 The smugglers' invasion

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  • 08-05-2020
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During the Second World War, the Swiss border became fateful for numerous civilian refugees, partisans, deserters and troubled foreign troops. The smuggling on the southern border peaked.

With the introduction of the war economy in Switzerland, the supply of the population, economy and army should be regulated via a state-controlled distribution system. In addition to government intervention in the economy and the distribution of food, more attention has also been paid to combating the black market and smuggling. In the first years of the war, the "sneak trade" fell noticeably. While smuggling activities remained relatively low, especially in northern and eastern Switzerland, they began to take on an unprecedented level on the southern border from autumn 1942 - in the opposite direction from Italy to Switzerland.

The reason for this development was the chaotic situation in northern Italy. After the Allies landed in Sicily in July 1943, German troops occupied the area. The dictator-freed dictator Benito Mussolini became head of government of the Italian Social Republic (Repubblica Sociale Italiana), a German satellite state. The situation of the population living there deteriorated dramatically, many people fled to Switzerland. Numerous people who refused to serve, those fleeing the flags and partisans went underground or withdrew to mountainous regions along the Swiss border. There, however, it was no longer possible for them to do regular work, and they also no longer received any brands for the already poor food rations. In order to survive, many worked as smugglers.

Entire columns of people set out to take food such as flour, butter, salami, cheese, but also shoes, bicycle tires, silk and donkeys across the border. By far the most smuggled good was rice, which is why people still remember the “epoca del riso” (“the age of rice”) in the border region. The amounts of rice confiscated at the southern border were impressive: 115 tons were confiscated only in the last year of the war! At the same time, 9,154 smugglers were caught, the effective number of illegal goods being transported was probably five times higher. The annual reports of the Ticino customs district spoke of a "real smuggler invasion".

The Second World War marked a profound break in the history of smuggling. After smuggling from Switzerland to Italy was predominant, it was now mostly in the opposite direction. This phenomenon cannot be explained, as long believed, primarily by the high demand for food in Switzerland, but above all by the exchange rate between the Italian lira and the Swiss franc. During the war, the Swiss franc remained relatively stable due to the (controversial) monetary policy of the Swiss National Bank, while in Italy the devaluation of the lira progressed quickly. When the Italian smugglers sold their goods in Switzerland, they brought the amount collected to the black market in Italy, where the Swiss franc was in great demand. The proceeds could be used to buy many more goods than one had previously owned.

PEOPLE smuggling across the border
Smugglers knew the border like their own pocket. Some of them also acted as "passeurs" by bringing Allied soldiers and Jews who had fled from prison camps across the border. Not infrequently, they shamelessly exploited the fear of death of the Jewish refugees and demanded horrendous amounts from them. Examples of up to 50,000 lire per transit are known. The Allied secret services based in Ticino also needed their help. Through the smugglers, they provided the Italian resistance with financial support and weapons.

During the war, many weapons were in circulation in the border area. Especially when former soldiers or partisans worked as smugglers, the conflicts at the border sometimes turned into bloody clashes. For example, near the border guard post of Cantine di Gandria, where the Swiss Customs Museum is today, a soldier and three smugglers met on the morning of November 27, 1944. It ended fatally for a member of the smuggler group called Rinaldo Fiumberti. Such tragic incidents also mobilized the press, which commented on these events under the title “Wild West in Ticino”. The reporting contributed to the fact that the “smuggler invasion” is still firmly anchored in the collective memory of the population in the border region.


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