Silvio Berlusconi's government, which has already put several thousand soldiers on the streets of Italy, will tomorrow legalise vigilante patrols and set out the guidelines under which they will operate.
The plans prompted an outcry from opposition politicians and police unions, but got a mixed reception from Italy's mayors, who must decide whether they want law enforcement volunteers in their towns. An overwhelming majority of those in favour run cities in the north, where the anti-immigrant Northern League has long argued for wider use of vigilantes.
The interior minister, Roberto Maroni, a member of the Northern League, denied that the plan was to introduce vigilantism to Italy: "The decree does not create [vigilante] patrols; it regulates them."
After rejecting the scheme, Rome's mayor, Gianni Alemanno, a former neo-fascist, appears to have embraced it. The head of his council's security committee, Fabrizio Santori, said vigilantes in flurorescent jackets would be deployed in parks, outside schools and at tourist sites.
Taking advantage of a gap in existing legislation, volunteers have formed groups to carry out patrols in cities including Milan, Padua, Parma and Bologna.
Last month vigilante groups from the left and the right clashed violently in the Tuscan town of Massa Carrara.
Maroni told the Corriere della Sera that the minimum age for vigilantes would be 18, not 25 as previously reported. A junior minister said the patrols must be on foot and have no more than three people, and that police- or military-style uniforms, and weapons, would be banned. "Their only equipment [will be] a walkie-talkie that keeps them in contact with the local police or Carabinieri station," Alfredo Mantovano told La Stampa.
The rules will restrict groups such as the Italian National Guard, which is being investigated by a prosecutor in Turin. The Guard, which claims 2,000 members, has a reconnaissance plane and a uniform, complete with armbands, reminiscent of the Nazi SA (Sturmabteilung).
But one of the biggest existing groups, the Milan-based City Angels, which focuses on social work as much as crime prevention, expressed concern that the guidelines would be too restrictive.
The leader of Italy's biggest opposition group, Dario Franceschini of the Democratic party, called the use of vigilantes "demagogic and dangerous".