Behind the Notorious Italian Rehab Community in Netflix’s “SanPa”

February 25, 2021

In the Netflix documentary series SanPa: Sins of the Savior, a tale of a community of people recovering from addiction takes a dark turn. San Patrignano, founded 1978 near Rimini, Italy, became known as the country’s most notorious drug rehab. The Netflix series has rekindled a long-standing debate in Italy about the methods promoted by San Patrignano founder Vincenzo Muccioli, who died in 1995. It also illuminated a community whose existence helped to shape Italian drug laws as they stand today.

As SanPa recounts, what began as a small, family-run farm soon grew into a self-contained town. It housed businesses, homes, a canteen and a hospital. Such growth was made possible by huge donations, but also by the unpaid labor of its scores of young drug users—many of whom tried to escape, only to be thwarted by community security.

In 1984 there were 500 guests; by 1986, 800. Within a few years of its foundation, Italian celebrities began to send their drug-using children to Muccioli’s community, rapidly increasing its popularity. 

Muccioli was a farmer and dog rancher with a passion for parapsychology, spiritualism, séances and natural medicine. He claimed to be a medium, and the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. 

In the ’70s and ’80s, Muccioli was beloved by ordinary Italians, who believed he was the only answer to rising rates of drug use and fatal overdose. His legacy later came under fire as brutal, unscientific and based on human exploitation.


A Legacy of Abuse

Muccioli used to refer to the community “an enlarged family,” said Paulo Severi, who stayed in San Patrignano from 1992 until 1996, when he was forced to leave after being convicted for a minor crime he had committed before entering. The scores of young drug users who populated San Patrignano were referred to as “guests” —though not all of them stayed willingly.

As early as 1983, five years after its inception, San Patrignano was rocked by the so-called “Chains Trial.” Muccioli was accused of kidnapping and mistreatment for having physically chained young people in the community as they went through substance withdrawal. Muccioli was eventually acquitted in 1990, but evidence mounted that the Chains Trial illuminated a cruel practice that had been implemented repeatedly, rather than just in that single case.

“The Chains Trial changed many things in San Patrignano,” Severi told Filter. “In 1993, one year after the moment I entered, physical violence had almost disappeared because the community was under the watchful eye of the national press 24/7.”

“Psychological violence, such as public punishments, were ordinary routine. I suffered them a lot.”

Yet it still persisted, as did psychological abuse. “I remember a girl and a boy being beaten [for] different silly reasons,” Severi said. “The boy, for example, was physically punished for using the toilet for an excessively long time. Episodes of psychological violence, such as public punishments, were ordinary routine, and I suffered them a lot. It was often subtle and underhand violence … because the Maranzano case was booming.” 

In 1989, community guest Roberto Maranzano was found dead near Naples, wrapped in a San Patrignano blanket. He had been reported missing after running away from the community. An autopsy showed that he had been beaten to death. In 1993, an audio tape emerged revealing that Muccioli had been aware of the crime from the beginning and had failed to notify police.

In the tape, Muccioli can be heard referring to another guest of the community who was threatening to reveal the facts, saying, “It would take an overdose … two grams of heroin and some strychnine … you have to operate with surgeon’s gloves. Or you’d have to shoot him with a dirty gun.”

The case raised a huge media interest in Muccioli and San Patrignano in 1993, and prompted other guests to report beatings and violence. During the trial, a former San Patrignano employee told the police that for years he had been in charge of finding and beating those who escaped from the community. As SanPa shows, mysterious suicides that took place during solitary confinement began to come to light. 

In 1994, Muccioli was sentenced to eight months imprisonment for aiding and abetting in Maranzano’s death. Maranzano’s son Giuseppe said, “My father was killed in the place that was supposed to save him.”


Powerful Connections

During Severi’s time there, San Patrignano was at the height of its notoriety in the media. “It was a big village, with more than 2,000 [drug users] who were employed for free in many different activities such as the laboratory, the butcher’s shop and the stable. At the head of the village was the guru, King Muccioli, who was revered by everyone.”

“Muccioli was ahead of his time,” Severi said. He was already making a simple argument: ‘You’re a shitty junkie who has to be isolated, and you gotta thank those who give you even the smallest thing.’”

San Patrignano guests “had everything taken away from them,” he continued. “There was an iron discipline. Whoever made a mistake was shamed in public … Muccioli’s approach tended to replace dependence on drugs with dependence on the leader and his community.”

“There was this bizarre idea that people could be rehabilitated simply by having them work from morning to night.”

Muccioli and San Patrignano were very close to many famous and powerful people—actors, politicians, singers, journalists. Throughout Italy, Muccioli was seen as the only player capable of tackling the problem of drug addiction, which in those years was dramatically rising. “Politicians of all stripes visited San Patrignano in search of votes,” journalist Stefano Trasatti, who has covered the Italian drugs, addiction and harm reduction field, told Filter.

Getting into San Patrignano was no easy feat for those without wealthy or celebrity connections. “You had to stand for days or weeks in front of the entrance gate in order to aspire to have introductory interviews with Muccioli and some of his collaborators,” Severi recalled. “One exception was trying your luck on Christmas night, because on that occasion Muccioli made a concession in front of the cameras and let in whoever was at the door.”

But “rehabilitation”—if it can be called that, given that Muccioli rejected evidence-based treatment protocols—was free for all participants.

“There was this bizarre idea that people could be rehabilitated simply by having them work from morning to night, in this kind of ‘city’ divided by production sectors,” Severi said. “They called it ‘The City Effect.’ But the city was basically a fake place where people could sleep, work, eat and repeat for free.”

“Individuals weren’t as important as the group. Letting individuals down when they were opposing the community’s society was okay with Muccioli. That’s why violence was a part of their toolbox.”


Lasting Harm

“San Patrignano was a community built around Muccioli, who was some sort of guru,” Trasatti said. “His figure fueled the typical Italian need for a strong man in charge. In television debates, and even during the trials, people were crazy about him and organized protests in his favor.”

In Italy, as in many parts of the world, the main narrative of drug use revolves exclusively around crime and overdose. “Nobody cared about Muccioli’s methods, nor the rights of [people who use drugs],” Trasatti said. “They needed someone who was willing to … get them out of people’s sight, segregate them somewhere far away.”

Today, drugs in Italy are regulated by a law called Iervolino-Vassalli. According to that law, penalties for people charged with possession of drugs involve extended incarceration. As a result, one-third of the 60,000 people incarcerated in Italy are held on drug-related charges.

According to Trasatti, “San Patrignano explicitly produced the Iervolino-Vassalli of 1990”—so much so that the law is sometimes called Iervolino-Muccioli. The resulting cultural mindset was that people who use drugs deserve punishment, for no other reason than that they use drugs. 

There are very few studies on the impact that Muccioli’s and San Patrignano’s methods had on the health of the guests. The best known of these found that 90 percent of the guests found a stable job after their experience in rehab. “The problem is that the sample they used was very small and, in any case, carefully selected by the community itself,” Trasatti said.

“Certainly in San Patrignano some people were saved,” Severi said. “But I believe that they were saved not thanks to San Patrignano, but in spite of it.”



Photograph via Netflix/YouTube

Gabriele Cruciata

Gabriele is an award-winning slow journalist and investigative podcaster from Rome. He previously worked as a central Europe Correspondent and Community Editor at Slow News and has freelanced for news outlets including Die Zeit, L'Espresso, La Repubblica, International Press Institute, Trouw, VICE and Sveriges Radio. In 2020 he joined the UNESCO Newsroom and covered the World Press Freedom Conference in The Hague.

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