A gruesome murder. A hate-filled shooting rampage. And a reckoning with immigration before Italy votes.

Accustomed to peace, the Italian city of Macerata has been the scene of horrific violence.

by Griff Witte and Stefano Pitrelli, The Washington Post

Kofi Wilson had heard gunfire every day of the 15 months he spent in Libya during a harrowing journey to Europe — but never in more than a year since he arrived in Macerata, a tranquil little city of cobblestone streets and handsome blond-brick plazas nestled in the craggy central Italian hills.

“It’s not a gunshot, not here,” Wilson told a friend after hearing the first crack.

With the second, he was crumpled on the pavement, his chest and back spilling blood.

Wilson, a 20-year-old from Ghana, was one of six African immigrants shot here Saturday in drive-by attacks that have stunned both the city and the nation as Italy prepares to vote in elections next month.

A onetime local candidate for the Northern League — an anti-immigrant party that could soon be part of Italy’s government — had the tricolor Italian flag draped over his shoulders when he was arrested on the steps of Macerata’s Fascist-era war memorial.

He has confessed to what police call a racially motivated rampage and said he was acting out of revenge for the gruesome killing days before of a white 18-year-old Italian woman. Her dismembered remains were found in two suitcases left by a roadside in a nearby town. Police have charged a 29-year-old Nigerian immigrant with her murder.

The killing and the shootings have traumatized a city unaccustomed to violence of any kind, while laying bare the combustibility of Italy’s reckoning with immigration. Even in a place such as Macerata, which has long welcomed newcomers, the strains of an influx that has brought more than 620,000 migrants to Italy in the past four years have become all too apparent.

“This was a real awakening,” said Alberto Forconi, the 74-year-old priest at Santa Croce, the church where Macerata’s Catholic faithful have been worshiping since the early 16th century.

While earlier generations of asylum seekers fleeing war in the Balkans and beyond have assimilated well, Forconi said, the same cannot be said for those who have come here in recent years, mainly from sub-Saharan Africa, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

“They don’t work. They don’t speak the language. They don’t know the laws or the culture,” he said. “They’re like birds in the trees. They haven’t landed in our society.”

The result has been growing resentment among native residents. Most people in Macerata, Forconi said, would never condone Saturday’s shooting rampage. But “in some ways, it was expressing their thoughts.”

The suspect in the shootings is Luca Traini, 28, a failed candidate for local office who was unemployed and had been kicked out of his gym last year for his fascist views.

At a court hearing Tuesday, Traini admitted he carried out the shootings and said his only regret was that he had hit a woman — in addition to five men. All six victims are expected to survive.

‘Chaos, rage, social clashes’

Police say Traini fired about 30 shots over 90 minutes Saturday morning, paralyzing the city as he guided his black Alfa Romeo through Macerata’s narrow lanes. Investigators say he used a Glock semiautomatic pistol to fire out of the window, targeting dark-skinned pedestrians.

Lt. Col. Michele Roberti, the local commander of Italy’s elite police force, the Carabinieri, said Traini explained his actions as retaliation for the killing of 18-year-old Pamela Mastropietro.

“He did it out of an ill-conceived sense of revenge,” Roberti said.

Mastropietro’s killing already had set off fierce reaction before the shootings. She was reported missing from her drug rehabilitation center Jan. 29. Two days later, her remains were found just outside Macerata.

Police soon arrested Innocent Oseghale, having been led to him by the taxi driver who said he transported the Nigerian immigrant and his two suitcases to the spot where the remains were later discovered. Bloody clothes and items belonging to Mastropietro were found in Oseghale’s apartment, Roberti said.

“What was this maggot still doing in Italy? He wasn’t fleeing war — he brought war to Italy,” Northern League leader Matteo Salvini wrote on Facebook on Thursday.

The party, which campaigned on a pledge to deport 150,000 migrants and close the borders to nearly all new arrivals, is positioned to potentially join a right-wing government after the March 4 elections.

Even though a former Northern League candidate was implicated in the shootings, Salvini was hardly repentant afterward. While acknowledging that “violence is never the solution,” he went on to blame “out-of-control migration” for causing “chaos, rage, social clashes.”

The Northern League has drawn only a small following in Macerata, where residents have tended toward the center-left Democratic Party.

With its relative prosperity and liberal outlook, the area has attracted an ethnically and religiously diverse community of immigrants in recent decades. In the city of 43,000, about 10 percent of the population is foreign-born. More than 350 people live in government-run reception centers for recent arrivals.

“Macerata has always been a happy island,” said Mohamed Tarakji, a 71-year-old Syrian acupuncturist who has lived here since 1973.

That has not changed because of the recent violence, he said.

“The presence of violent elements does not represent a social problem. It’s an individual problem,” said Tarakji, who serves as faith leader at the warehouse-turned-mosque that local Muslims set up on the edge of town. “It’s the folly of individuals.”

‘I became even more afraid’

But others are less convinced that the city can carry on as normal.

“It’s as if this shooter has wounded the whole African community,” said Ilaria Casarole, co-leader of the Human Solidarity Group, an organization that works with migrants.

Eugene Offor, a Nigerian priest who ministers to the city’s African immigrants, said he braced for a backlash the moment he heard about Mastropietro’s killing.

“The way she was killed was just so barbaric,” he said. “Since it happened, no Nigerian in Macerata has been happy.”

He was among those organizing a vigil among immigrants this past weekend to honor Mastropietro. The vigil was abruptly called off after the shootings.

Offor said the lack of job prospects for newcomers — many of whom are barred from working until their asylum claims are decided — is undoubtedly causing problems.

“You go to the supermarkets and see people asking for money,” he said. “If people had work, they wouldn’t have time for crime and drugs.”

Wilson, the Ghanaian who was shot, is among those struggling to find a place in Macerata. Before reaching Italy, he was imprisoned in Libya and survived a rough voyage across the Mediterranean.

Since arriving, he has been taking classes to learn the language and the culture, and he hopes to find work as a mason.

Wilson was on his way to get a haircut Saturday when the bullet pierced his lung and left him sprawled on the street. He remembers locals coming to his aid as he faded in and out of consciousness.

“I thought it was only me. Then at the hospital, they told me there were five others — only blacks. I became even more afraid,” said the soft-spoken Wilson as he sat upright in his bed, his chest, back and arm wrapped in bandages. “They told me the shooter was coming for his revenge. But he came for the wrong people.”