Women and the ’ndrangheta: a family you can’t refuse
It is the autumn of 2015 in Calabria, the ‘toe’ of Italy. The place is Polsi, a small village clustered around a church that is said to be built on a seventh-century shrine. It’s famous for its statue of the Madonna, a magnet for pilgrims from around Italy and the world.
A tall, slim young woman glides through the crowd that’s gathered in front of the church. Her straight hair is held back from her finely chiselled face with a thin black headband. Lustrous and dark brown, it reaches almost to her waist. She holds her toned shoulders back, her head high, and gives the people a half smile. In a thin-strapped black singlet and body-hugging jeans, there is something almost regal about her. It’s obvious she commands respect, and knows it.
Her surname is Pelle, and her family is one of the most powerful—possibly the most powerful—in the Italian mafia. At the Festa—or Festival—of Madonna di Polsi—it is not the power of the church or the state that people fear most. It is the power of the ’ndrangheta.
Polsi nestles in a deep valley at the centre of the Aspromonte, near a village called San Luca. In 2010 a police operation named Crimine revealed that the festa—originally an annual religious pilgrimage—had become something else as well: a ruse for the annual general meeting of the Calabrian mafia.
It is the time ’ndrangheta ‘Family’ members meet to discuss business deals, resolve disputes, make criminal plans for the year ahead and elect the capo crimine—a member who acts as a mediator to resolve internal conflicts before they escalate to all-out war and terror.
I had been investigating the ’ndrangheta since 2014. I wanted to be there—an outsider looking in—for the most important day in their calendar. I wanted to learn more about the surname Pelle. In the book Il Contagio, ‘The Contagion’, two of Italy’s leading anti-mafia prosecutors, Giuseppe Pignatone and Michele Prestipino, described the power of mafia boss Giuseppe Pelle as equal to that of the former boss of the Sicilian mafia Bernardo Provenzano. To put that in context, Provenzano was the man responsible for the single worst mafia hit in modern Italian history—the assassination of the two brilliant and determined investigating judges, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino in the early nineties.
Police investigations have demonstrated how members of the Pelle family liaise with local politicians, international businessmen, lawyers, doctors, bankers, as well as police officers and people with links to the country’s intelligence services.
The surname Pelle made international headlines when a feud stretching back to 1991 between the Strangio–Nirta and Pelle–Vottari–Romeo clans spilled over from San Luca to the German town of Duisburg, where six members were shot dead in front of a pizzeria in 2007.
Many Italians had become accustomed to such bloody scenes over decades of postwar activity by the Neapolitan Camorra, the Sicilian Cosa Nostra and the Calabrian ’ndrangheta. The rest of Europe was shaken with every gunshot fired on that summer night. Some police may have been aware of the spread of the ’ndrangheta to new European markets and territories, but for the public it was a wake-up call.
The ’ndrangheta manage 60 per cent of Europe’s cocaine trade, possibly more. The cocaine originates with Colombian, Mexican and South American drug cartels that deal directly with the ’ndrangheta clans. The group was listed as a narcotics kingpin by the United States in 2008. The heroin they trade comes from Afghanistan. It’s transported through the Middle East, overland to the Balkans and into the hands of the Albanian mafia. They move the drug by car, ferry and in cargo containers to the ’ndrangheta.
It’s not just cocaine and heroin. The Calabrian mafia is also known to import hashish from Lebanon, but more recently Italian prosecutors have claimed the ’ndrangheta is working with militants of the so-called Islamic State in Libya to traffic their drugs. An EU report outlines how the group is increasingly acting as a broker for other mafia groups that on-sell weapons to extremists, especially in France and Belgium. Prosecutors can’t put a figure on the collective worth of the ’ndrangheta clans except to say ‘billions’.
They’ve exported their successful business model northwards and eastwards, infiltrating clan members and associates into Italy’s north and Europe’s political, social and economic institutions. The aim: to ensure they can influence political decisions, win public contracts and launder their dirty cash.
This is why the title of Pignatone and Prestipino’s book, ‘The Contagion’, is so fitting. Because after Europe comes the world: Canada, the United States, South America, Africa and the Middle East, across South East Asia to Australia—the ’ndrangheta have strategically distributed their family members around the world like seeds to allow their brand of criminality to germinate.
They weren’t always this strong. The Sicilian Cosa Nostra was previously the most powerful of the Italian mafia groups. They rose to power as a vigilante secret society formed to resist the multiple invaders of their land and the unification of Italy, while the ’ndrangheta developed in the shadows.
Dictator Benito Mussolini’s fascist rule forced the mafia groups underground. These groups used the wave of migration from consecutive wars as an opportunity to transport their members around the world. One member of Cosa Nostra would make a special return. In what became known as Operation Husky, the United States needed assistance to invade Sicily during the Second World War. They recruited the Sicilian-born mafia boss Lucky Luciano for the mission. He returned to Europe to help intelligence services. For the Allies, capturing Sicily was a step towards conquering Germany. Cosa Nostra saw it as an opportunity to regain the power they once had in Sicily. The mission was successful on both fronts.
Cosa Nostra made millions from the postwar building boom. They used their political contacts to secure construction contracts and invested that cash in expanding their illegal operations, such as drug trafficking. It was a successful strategy until anti-mafia prosecutors cracked down on the organisation. In response, Cosa Nostra assassinated prominent judges and bombed the historical centre of Florence. The Italian Government set out to crush them. The Sicilian mafia is still recovering from the knockout blow.
Dr Alessandra Cerreti is an anti-mafia prosecutor previously based in Calabria, but is now working further north in Milan. ‘The state focused all their energy on fighting Cosa Nostra, but they underestimated the ’ndrangheta,’ she said. Federico Cafiero De Raho, the chief anti-mafia prosecutor in Reggio Calabria, explained that was partly because the ’ndrangheta decided to stay under the radar. ‘Cosa Nostra asked the ’ndrangheta to join them in their fight, but they knew Cosa Nostra had overestimated their power. They saw it as an opportunity to overtake them.’
The ’ndrangheta did attract some public attention in the mid twentieth century in what is now called the kidnapping season. At least 200 people from across Italy were taken and held for ransom by the Calabrian mafia; some say the figure is closer to 700. Their victims included doctors, journalists and teachers in the south of Italy, and rich businessmen and their families to
The valleys, crevices and caves in the Aspromonte Mountains (Aspromonte is Greek for ‘White Mountain’) provided the perfect places to hide their victims. The lowland is coated with citrus fruits and olive trees, while the hills are wild with oak and pine. I could only appreciate the remoteness of these mountains when I drove along its swirling roads. This ugly chapter was in stark contrast to the beauty that surrounded me.
Carlo Celadon was held for more than two years. The 18-year-old was taken from his family’s villa in 1988. He later described his ordeal to an anti-mafia prosecutor: ‘I was in a pit in a cave. I was chained in three places: on my neck, on one foot and one wrist. Once there was a downpour and the cave was flooded. I lay in the water for several days. They’d given me a stick as a defence against rats and snakes.’ It’s thought his father paid US$4 million ransom to end his ordeal. Giuseppe De Sandro, a pharmacist, was held for 199 days. ‘I was tied up like a dog with a chain round my neck. I was hidden in a pit dug into the ground of a cave. One of my kidnappers would beat me every second day.’
The ’ndrangheta developed a reputation for their kidnapping and negotiation techniques. They were so highly regarded that Cosa Nostra and the Camorra would hand over their victims to the Calabrians for safe keeping in their rugged territory. The large ransoms paid to the ’ndrangheta for the safe return of their victims was invested in expanding their illegal operations and used to bolster their branches overseas, especially in Australia.
‘Part of that money is recycled in Australia, some to legal activities, another part in the production of drugs. The Italian police have demonstrated the infiltration of the ’ndrangheta into some Australian cities where they can control the economy.’ That is how anti-mafia prosecutor Nicola Gratteri explained the activities of the ’ndrangheta in Australia to reporter Mark Colvin, who travelled to Calabria in 1993 for Foreign Correspondent, an Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) program.
A year later the ’ndrangheta was linked to the assassination of Detective Sergeant Geoffrey Bowen. He was part of Operation Cerberus, a taskforce investigating Italian organised crime in Australia. A parcel bomb addressed to him detonated in his hands at the National Crime Authority building in Adelaide. It tore him in two pieces. His colleague Peter Wallis was left permanently disabled. Italian organised crime was linked to the murders of assistant commissioner Colin Winchester and anti-drugs campaigner Donald Mackay. The mafia fell off the media’s radar for a decade, but they continued to wrap their tentacles around the political, economic and social pillars of Australian society.
In 2015 the ABC’s Four Corners revealed the ’ndrangheta’s influence in Australian politics through suspicious donations and the cultivation of people in positions of power. This year Antonio Vottari was arrested in Rome after Italian police were tipped off that the fugitive, convicted for his part in an international drug trafficking ring, was on his way back to Italy.
Vottari had returned from Australia, where he had lived for up to five years to study horticulture, a suitable qualification considering his earlier conviction for the production of cannabis. Italian prosecutors had only issued a European arrest warrant. There was no Interpol notice, so Australian authorities were apparently none the wiser. One week after Vottari’s arrest, Joseph Acquaro, a lawyer known for his mafia-connected clientele, was assassinated after he walked out of the gelato bar he owned in Melbourne.
There’s been little apparent action to tackle the mafia by any Australian government, but the Italian authorities continue to express concern about the threat of the ’ndrangheta in Australia. In a recent government report they advised that the Calabrian mafia is using Australia’s major ports to import cocaine and methamphetamine. Australian police are aware of the members who reside in Australia, but our legislation is structured in such a way that there is little authorities can do until mafia figures can be charged with committing a crime. To put it simply, it’s not a crime to be a member of the mafia in Australia. It’s a loophole the group exploit in countries around the world.
But even in Italy, a country with the strongest anti-mafia legislation in the world, the ’ndrangheta has so far proven too hard to control. Why are they hard to defeat? Italian prosecutors say it’s largely due to their structure. Cosa Nostra is one single organisation, and although prosecutors refer to ‘families’, members aren’t required to be a direct relation to the mafia boss. This makes it easier for law enforcement to infiltrate the organisation and gather intelligence.
The ’ndrangheta is like a franchise. Each clan is autonomous and bound by family blood ties. Those criminal families are united by a common mafia code, which acts like a manual. They work together only when their interests collide and to maintain control of their territory—Calabria.
The people sworn into the clan are male and a direct blood relation to the boss, known as the capobastone. A young boy is only eligible to become a member once he has shown promise by committing crimes of blood and honour. After he has proven himself, the bosses in the boy’s local town, known as the locale, gather for an initiation ceremony. Here the boy pledges his loyalty to the ‘Family’.
They place a picture of Saint Michael the Archangel, the symbol of the ’ndrangheta, beneath the young boy’s hand. His finger is pricked with a needle until droplets of blood fall onto the saint. The bloodied icon is burned over a candle, and the young boy is told, ‘As the fire burns this image, so will you, if you sully yourself with infamy.’ The affiliation ritual varies slightly in the different branches around the world, with two versions found in Australia, but the significance and meaning are the same.
These graduates are then paired off in arranged marriages. Mafia families force their children, some as young as 13, to marry into other ’ndrangheta clans. The children don’t have a choice in their life partner. Their marriage vows are nothing but a tool to resolve feuds, build business alliances and maintain the mafia bloodline.
This structure means that there are a handful of pentiti in Calabria, a name given to a criminal who collaborates with law enforcement. One of the few is Salvatore Morabito. He shed light on why arranged marriages are so important to the ’ndrangheta, using the town of Plati as an example, where most of the Australian-based clans originate:
Crossed marriages are used to keep the peace in Plati, which is actually the only village where there has never been a feud. It is more or less the same thing that happened with royal families. By now the families of Plati—Sergis, Papalias, Barbaros, and the Perres—are all related to each other. Sons and daughters get married and become grandparents, and distant relatives become first, second and third cousins. They know that if a feud would happen to break out, they would all be involved; and then, before getting revenge they’d have to think three times. (Piero Colaprico and Luca Fazzo, Manager Calibro 9, 1995)
Arranged marriages serve another purpose for the ’ndrangheta. Family members will always share a combination of the same first and last names. This makes it harder for police to investigate a crime linked to the mafia. It takes time, effort, resources and occasionally genealogical studies to identify the correct family member.
Sons and daughters are encouraged to become lawyers, stockbrokers, accountants, priests, shop owners and attend the best universities in the world. That means if they’re not directly involved in the criminal affairs, they serve the mafia boss by identifying business opportunities to launder the dirty cash and any potential threats. The clans become self-sufficient criminal businesses bound by blood and family loyalty to ensure little information leaks out.
‘It’s tribal. Everyone born into the family will be called upon, and they can’t say no,’ said Antonio de Bonis from the Carabinieri Army. Judge Roberto di Bella describes it another way: ‘It’s child abuse.’ Judge di Bella has served at the Juvenile Court of Reggio Calabria for more than 20 years. He’s adjudicated more than 50 murder cases that involved the children of mafia bosses, and addressed countless other criminal charges.
We first met in the autumn of 2014, when I was conducting research into the conditions for migrants working on mafia-run orange groves. I entered through a heavily bolted door that could only be opened from the inside once I was identified on CCTV cameras. I heard a loud buzz, followed by the turn of a lock, before the door automatically opened. I was escorted inside by security and seated on a dark brown Italian leather lounge.
The office boasted a black and white photo of Judge Giovanni Falcone leaning over his left shoulder to speak into the ear of his smiling colleague, Paolo Borsellino. It’s a photo that I’ve noticed on the wall of every prosecutor I’ve visited. It’s a reminder to them of what has been sacrificed in the fight against the mafia.
Judge di Bella has implemented a controversial program in an attempt to break the mafia’s family blood ties. ‘We’re trying to free these children from a cultural jail,’ he tells me.
The adult members that I tried when they were children are either in prison or dead, and I am now trying their children. This is why we changed the interpretation of the law; to protect them from their own family when there is evidence they’re in danger. The provision allows us to suspend parental responsibilities. In some cases the provision goes further to the point where we take the children from the family to stop them going further down a life of crime and possibly death.
The youngest child removed from the care of their mafioso father was one year old, with the mother deemed suitable for sole custody. In a more recent case, an 11-year-old boy became Italy’s youngest state witness. He was trained to use guns by the age of nine and witnessed his father traffic drugs by the time he was removed from the family.
Judge di Bella has recently been put under increased security after a toy gun and real bullets were left for him. Enrico Interdonato is a psychologist who works with some of the mafia’s children in the state’s care. ‘The children are always the first victims of the mafia,’ he explained. ‘They see them as the future of the organisation.’
His point is supported in court documents. The case involved the former capo crimine Domenico Oppedisano, an unsuspecting farmer who drove around the coastal town of Rosarno in his ape, a small three-wheeled truck, to deliver oranges to the local market. Oppedisano explained to a criminal counterpart: ‘The youth are the future. I have to give way to these young men. We must start them young.’ The ’ndrangheta’s men know that to groom the mafia’s next generation they need help from a certain group: mothers.
Prosecutors initially viewed the women married to mafia men as passive, with little to no involvement in the criminal business. How could a woman possibly play a significant role? The mafia’s men took advantage of this perception, according to anti-mafia prosecutor Alessandra Cerreti, who has analysed the role of women through her investigations.
‘They would register their businesses and property in their wife’s name because her criminal record would be clean,’ Cerreti explained. Court documents show that the Australian franchise of the ’ndrangheta also adopted this practice. An alleged member of the organisation transferred the family home into his wife’s name to protect his assets when he started a methamphetamine lab.
‘The women would even collect pizzo in Calabria,’ Cerreti said. Pizzo is an extortion tax collected from local shop owners by the mafia in the territory they control. The collection is normally accompanied by standover tactics. It has made the ’ndrangheta millions. The prosecutors eventually caught on to the strategy, so they started to investigate the women in the mafia. That didn’t bother a fluid and adaptable organisation like the ’ndrangheta. They simply registered their assets outside Italy, for example in London, or in the names of ordinary citizens and set up offshore companies. This ensured that regardless of who went to prison for mafia crimes, the wealth of the family would always remain and be inherited by the mafioso graduates.
Prosecutors started to realise that women were privy to all these secrets. ‘The women have a real part to play. They aren’t just puppets,’ Cerreti said with conviction. Their most important role is ‘educating’ the children about the family business and imparting their knowledge. Mothers instil the mafia’s code of honour—criminal values—in their children from the day they’re born. They teach their children about omertá, the code of silence that locks the family’s illegal business dealings behind a wall of secrecy. Mothers demand their daughters respect, honour and obey the ’ndrangheta men because they’re superior to them. The boys must be aggressive, otherwise they’re beaten until they learn to ‘toughen up’. Like dictators, the mothers explain that the family is in control of their destiny and must not be defied. A breach of that commandment is potentially death.
‘The women perpetuate the mafia values. They are responsible for creating the next generation. Most of the time, the father, brothers and other important male family members are either in jail, dead or fugitives. The children must avenge the lives of others and fill in the gaps,’ Cerreti explained. Women encourage fathers and sons in their family to commit acts of violence and pursue vendettas to maintain their deadly reputation and territorial rule. In conflicts, women transport and hide weapons, gather information and maintain surveillance networks to ensure everything the family does is from a position of strength.
‘The women are often very aggressive and can be even more ferocious than men. It will be their son or their husband that’s killed. They want vengeance,’ she continued. Cerreti gave a recent example. The Bellocco clan lives in Rosarno, a small town on west coast of Calabria, along the Tyrrhenian Sea, just 65 kilometres north of Reggio Calabria. The family is respected in the criminal world because they’re part of an alliance that has infiltrated Europe’s ninth-largest port in Gioia Tauro.
That control came after the Piromalli-Mole, Pesce and Bellocco clans were awarded the public contracts to build the port. They decided what construction companies would work on the project and how much they would be paid. The clans collected pizzo and controlled who was employed at the port and affiliated institutions such as unions.
Italian prosecutors say this allowed the clans to transform the port into Europe’s cocaine gateway, with around 40 per cent of the continent’s yearly supply entering through that port alone. To understand how much cocaine they’re talking about, more than 1.4 million kilograms of cocaine was seized from the port of Gioia Tauro between July 2013 and July 2014, according to authorities. Prosecutors claim that’s nothing in comparison to the cocaine they successfully delivered to Europe during the same period.
The Bellocco clan has taken the power earned in Calabria and transplanted their family members around the world, including a small, ordinary town in central Italy called Granarolo dell’Emilia. ‘Some of the Bellocco family members were killed by a rival clan in Granarolo dell’Emilia. They sent a delegation from Rosarno, because the head of the snake is always in Calabria, and they discussed how they would resolve the issue,’ Cerreti explained.
‘The men from the Bellocco family decided that they would kill all the men from the rival clan as an act of vengeance.’ The mothers of the murdered men weren’t satisfied. They told the men, ‘I want you to kill all of them. The kids, women, grandfathers, grandmothers—everyone.’ The Bellocco women wanted to erase the clan. ‘The men were planning to follow the order, but were arrested before they could conduct the operation,’ Cerreti said with relief.
Women become even more important to the organisation when family members are arrested. ‘The women visit the members in prison and communicate messages to the members outside. They also deliver messages from jail to jail, because the authorities split the family members between jails.’
Authorities initially thought that the function of women in the mafia revolved around their roles as a wife or mother. That wasn’t the case. ‘The first women arrested in the ’ndrangheta goes back to 1892, when the organisation was being formed and fighting against the state. These women were committing robberies dressed as men because that was the only way they could get respect,’ Cerreti continued.
Calabria’s archives reveal these women even carried out their own ritual of pricking their finger and swearing allegiance to the ’ndrangheta. Cerreti explained that prosecutors were previously predominately male and ignored these facts. It wasn’t until the mid to late twentieth century that court cases started to shed more light on the ’ndrangheta’s women. One of those cases came in 1993.
The Serraino-Di Giovine clan had been based in Milan, another stronghold of the ’ndrangheta, since the 1960s. The clan was originally from the Calabrian town of Cardeto, near the city of Reggio Calabria, where family members were involved in a feud with the important De Stefano clan from 1986 to 1991. According to court documents, the clan specialised in trafficking drugs such as cannabis, cocaine, heroin and ecstasy, as well as sending weapons to their family back in Calabria.
The mafia boss was a woman, Maria Serraino. Her criminal career started with smuggling cigarettes in the 1960s. As Italian women started to take on more prominent roles in Italy’s north, so did Serraino. By the 1970s she was moving drugs and weapons. Serraino educated her sons, Antonio and Emilio Di Giovine, about the various mafia codes. The boys proved themselves by stealing cars and would later join their mother in the drug trade, which helped convert the family business into a major international operation.
The ’ndrangheta often assign nicknames to their members, and Maria Serraino was one of the boys. She was known as Nonna Eroina—‘Grandmother Heroin’. Serraino was so powerful that she organised for a hit man to murder a drug dealer who tried to move in on her territory. That was a warning shot to other drug suppliers, who would later deal exclusively with Serraino because they feared the consequences if they upset her by selling to rivals.
Her daughter-in-law, Livia De Martino, also helped the family business under the guise of being an ordinary housewife. She trafficked drugs and ran a bar that was used as the clan’s meeting headquarters. Serraino’s granddaughter, who was raised in England, was responsible for laundering the clan’s dirty cash. However, Maria Serraino’s power stopped at the front door of the family home. Her husband was a violent man who repeatedly beat her, even when she was pregnant. Serraino couldn’t protect her daughter, either.
Rita di Giovine was severely beaten by her brothers and raped by her father from when she was a child. Her ordeal only ended when she fell pregnant with her father’s baby and turned to the state for witness protection. The clan was sentenced to prison partly because of her testimony. This case was further proof that the involvement of women was criminal. By the turn of the century enough evidence had been gathered to prove the existence of an association called sorella d’omertá, which means ‘sister in silence’. This is when female family members can become associated to the ’ndrangheta.
They’re still not sworn into the organisation through the symbolic initiation ceremony and the title has been awarded to few women. The opportunity to be a clan’s natural-born leader, like Maria Serraino, has also been a rarity for females. This might start to change. ‘The prosecutors started to aggressively target the ’ndrangheta after the president of the regional council of Calabria was killed by members in October 2005, and then the Duisburg massacre in 2007,’ Dr Cerreti said. The result: more men have been sentenced to prison for mafia crimes, opening a power vacuum.
Prosecutors explained that it’s women who fill this void and take on de facto leadership roles to help their men run the organisation while in prison or living as fugitives. I wondered, is this a criminal version of female emancipation because prosecutors have underestimated the role of women in the organisation for too long?
Dr Anna Sergi was born and raised in Calabria. As a young girl she witnessed the ’ndrangheta’s power and control firsthand. Those childhood years inspired her to study the criminal organisation as an adult. Dr Sergi now lives in London, and her intimate knowledge of the Calabrian mafia has made her one of the world’s leading experts on the group. In one of our many conversations about the ’ndrangheta, I asked her whether what’s happening to the mafia’s women is emancipation or a female revolution. ‘It’s a temporary delegation of power,’ she explained. ‘Each clan is patriarchal. It’s not real emancipation when a woman works for the clan.’
Sergi studied the ’ndrangheta’s family dynamics through several cases for her upcoming paper Like father like son. ‘My impression from the cases that I’ve read is that there is no real emancipation for anyone in the clan. Male or female—they simply can’t leave. No-one can ever choose what they want to do,’ she concluded.
Sergi emphasised that to understand the family dynamic in the ’ndrangheta, you need to understand Calabrian society. ‘Calabrian society can also be patriarchal. There is no gender equality in some parts of Calabria. A woman has far fewer possibilities to study and have a profession. She still lives in the shadow of family and husband. This is less the case in the north of the region.’
‘You have to remember that not every Calabrian family is mafia, but every mafia clan is a Calabrian family. They have different goals, criminal ones. I would say the ’ndrangheta is a twisted version of Calabrian society,’ she said. Dr Sergi used a word that I had heard many times before—twisted. The importance of family, Catholicism, friendship, trust, honour, loyalty and community runs deep in the Mediterranean. The ’ndrangheta has taken each of those values and manipulated them to serve their criminal agenda.
That’s not acceptable to some people. Judge Paolo Borsellino once said: ‘Alle donne che sanno ribellarsi a certi uomini, e anche a “certe” donne.’—‘Women who rebel against certain men also rebel against “certain” women.’ Borsellino was talking about the decision by some women to turn against the ‘Family’ and the society that harbours them. This started with the Sicilian Cosa Nostra.
Borsellino was referring to Rita Atria, the daughter of mafia boss Vito Atria. A rival mafia family murdered him, along with his son Nicolò. At 17 years of age, Rita Atria made the decision to break the mafia’s code of silence in the hope that justice would be served. She testified about the mafia war in her hometown of Partanna and against the men who killed her loved ones. Her evidence put multiple mafia members in prison. Rita Atria’s mother threw her out of the house because of her collaboration with law enforcement. She felt that loyalty to the mafia was more important than justice for her husband and son.
Rita Atria went into the state witness protection program, and Judge Borsellino became a father figure until he was assassinated in 1992. His murder left Atria scared and vulnerable. ‘You have died for what you believed in, but without you, I too am dead,’ she wrote in her diary. ‘I am devastated by the killing of Judge Borsellino. Now there’s no one to protect me.’ After writing that note Rita Atria jumped out of her apartment window.
At least ten women in the ’ndrangheta have followed Rita Atria’s example by providing evidence to the state. Prosecutors say that figure continues to increase, and is more a result of the slow changes to Calabrian society rather than any prosecution technique. One of those women is Giuseppina Pesce. In terms of power, the Pesce family in Rosarno is only second to the Pelle clan in San Luca. They’re heavily involved drug and weapons trafficking as part of their powerful alliance with the Piromalli–Mole and Bellocco clans.
The Pesce clan has also obtained numerous lucrative European and state contracts. One example is the A3 highway that runs from Salerno, just north of the Amalfi Coast, down into the heart of Calabria. The building of this highway started more than half a century ago and it’s still not completed. Construction is repeatedly halted because contracts are awarded to the ’ndrangheta clans, including the Pesce family. The clan has also set up bogus companies to obtain agriculture funds from the EU.
A true indication of their power came in 2009. The election of the former capo crimine Domenico Oppedisano only happened because the Pesce family said it could. Giuseppina Pesce is the daughter of the clan’s boss Salvatore Pesce. As a child she wanted to learn science at school, but her education was cut short when she was forced to marry Rocco Palaia, the son of another mafia boss. Pesce was forced to stay at home and live like a recluse. Her only outing was to work at her father’s grocery shop, which was funded by the clan’s dirty money. Pesce was pregnant by the age of 15. It wasn’t long before Palaia started to abuse his wife and use drugs. He controlled the money and allegedly wouldn’t even provide for their children’s medicine when they were sick.
Both sides of the mafia family knew that Palaia was becoming increasingly violent, but they encouraged Pesce to endure the abuse and not to deprive her husband of being a father. Giuseppina Pesce felt alone, humiliated and yearned for comfort. To satisfy her needs, she committed a cardinal sin by turning to another man for affection. She was under constant surveillance and it was her uncle, Vincent Pesce, who delivered the first warning about her affair. ‘Sooner or later, the door will close on you. Your cousins are watching,’ he told her.
Pesce was arrested for her involvement in the mafia before anyone could take out their revenge. Her depression deepened. She attempted suicide in prison on two occasions. ‘It was an act of desperation and the only way for me to obtain freedom,’ Pesce would later explain to the court.
She came to realise that there might be another way to freedom. That was to break the code of silence and enter the state witness protection program. In 2010 Giuseppina Pesce turned to Dr Alessandra Cerreti to deliver her testimony, but after months of pressure from her children and extended family, she decided to stop collaborating with law enforcement. It wasn’t long before Pesce was arrested again, but this time she was with her boyfriend. Her affair was now a public scandal and punishable by death according to the ’ndrangheta’s code of honour. Pesce would later explain to the court that she knew her family was capable of killing her.
Around 30 years ago, her first cousin, Annunziata Pesce, betrayed her husband with a police officer. It was a stain on the family’s name. The only way honour could be restored was through her death. Annunziata Pesce’s brothers, Antonio and Carmine, drove her to the countryside and murdered her.
Strangely, a prison cell became Giuseppina Pesce’s safety cage. Knowing her cousin’s fate, she decided to resume her collaboration. Pesce justified her decision in a letter: ‘I was and am convinced that this is the right choice for my children. We have had a life full of suffering and difficulty. We can now have freedom and choice.’ Pesce and her children will spend the rest of their lives in protective custody. Is that freedom?
‘There is really one way out of the mafia and that is to get into the protection program. They then get into a situation where someone else is protecting them. It’s not the mafia family, but the law,’ Anna Sergi explained. ‘You’re never free. You substitute the mafia’s oppression for someone else who can protect you. It’s not real emancipation.’ A life in protective custody could be better than the alternative.
In 2015 I travelled to Reggio Calabria to discuss this case with a source. He explained how ten ‘suicides’ are in the process of being reinvestigated on the suspicion that these ’ndrangheta women were forced to their death. Earlier this year it was formally announced that the death of Tita Buccafusca would be reopened for investigation. She was the wife of mafia man Pantaleone Mancuso. She, too, turned to the state for protection, but was later found dead. She swallowed a large amount of acid before she could sign her testimony against the ’ndrangheta.
There was one thing that I still couldn’t grasp about this brutal organisation. The mafia needs a territory to operate its international criminal business. Why don’t the Calabrians push them out? When I first arrived in Italy in 2014, I thought the answer to that question was fear. Two years on, I know better thanks to the people I’ve met along the way. ‘The thing that makes the ’ndrangheta so dangerous is public consensus,’ Enrico Interdonato explained as we drove through the streets of Messina, a city located on the far north-east tip of Sicily, across from Calabria.
Much has been written about how terrorist groups such as Hamas and the so-called Islamic State generate social approval by setting themselves up as an alternative welfare system. Less attention has been given to the Italian mafia groups that have used the same technique to generate public support in Italy, the eighth-largest economy in the world. The ’ndrangheta are seen as saviours by some Calabrians because they feel abandoned by the Italian Government through decades of corruption, mismanagement and what some people call ‘a prejudice towards the south’. Calabria’s infrastructure is old and of poor quality, unemployment is high, and the region has been drained after decades of political corruption and the Calabrian mafia’s illegal activities.
People turn to the ’ndrangheta for money. ‘Do you know how many people get in debt with the mafia because they don’t have the money to pay for their daughter’s weddings?’ Dr Sergi said. The mafia also generates employment. The ’ndrangheta clans have opened soccer clubs and radio stations, run farms across the region, own transport and construction companies. For ordinary citizens, it’s food on the table and money to put their kids through school. It’s not their concern whether the ’ndrangheta clans won the contract under a corrupt public tender process or because the high level of mafia activity has driven legitimate investment away from the region, leaving their criminal-run companies the only viable ones in the region.
Sergi put it simply: ‘The state and the mafia walk towards each other. Why doesn’t anyone inside the port talk about what goes on there?’ she asked rhetorically. ‘Because everyone who got a job at the port owes a favour to a mafia family. That is how they get the drugs through. That’s consensus. That’s omertá. It’s not always forced on you out of fear.’
This is no longer just Italy’s problem. The US Department of State expressed concern in regard to the Italian mafia: ‘The financial downturn has given cash-rich mafia groups the opportunity to tighten their grip on the economy. As banks reduce lending, the criminal networks simultaneously boost their investments.’ There is court evidence that this is happening in Italy and other countries such as Germany, Spain and France. The ’ndrangheta are cashed up, with their tentacles wrapped around the world. Is it too late to stop them?
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