Review by Max Dunbar
Nowadays, when we think of the mafia, it’s with a sense of nostalgia. David Chase captured the feel in classic mob drama The Sopranos. New Jersey don Tony Soprano is very much the modern crime boss. He’s real and frightening, the threat he poses is palpable, but his finances are precarious, his future uncertain, his organisation riven with informants. Tony’s story is not so much The Godfather as Mad Men: a portrait of a culture in decline. As his wife Carmella complains: ‘You eat, you play, and you pretend there isn’t a giant piano hanging by a rope just over the top of your head every minute of every day.’
The drama was true to life at least in the States. By the 2000s, RICO and the drug war had all but destroyed the American mob. In the old country, too, the mafia was broken. After the Italian state intervened to defuse a particular vicious bout of Cosa Nostra infighting in the 1980s (‘In a single day in Palermo in 1982,’ Alex Perry writes in The Good Mothers, ‘twelve mafiosi were killed in twelve separate assassinations’) the Sicilian mob responded by turning its fire on law enforcement. As well as numerous magistrates, police officers and politicians, the brilliant anti-mafia prosecutor Giovanni Falcone was killed in a highway bomb. The Sicilians detonated explosive under a major highway. The blast was so large it registered on local earthquake radar. Everyone remembered where they were when they heard of the assassination.
‘In time,’ Perry writes, ‘even Cosa Nostra would acknowledge that the murders had been a miscalculation.’ The state now had the political leverage, and no realistic alternative, but to destroy the Sicilian crime families altogether. Law enforcement had the extra advantage of broad mafia association laws, and an extraordinary capacity for surveillance (when cops heard that a particular don liked to visit a certain orange grove, they bugged the entire forest surrounding it). By the 2010s, the old country bosses had gone the way of their counterparts in the New World – life imprisonment, or a messy, premature grave.
But there was still another mafia threat, and it grew stronger as its rivals were taken out of the game. The Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta had watched and waited as Cosa Nostra tore itself apart. Then the Calabrians bought their old rivals’ share in the international cocaine business and became the main gatekeeper between Europe and the Latin American cartels. Soon the ‘Ndrangheta supplied three quarters of continental product and had territory all over the EU. It bought up government bonds in struggling West African republics, effectively holding entire countries hostage as way stations for its coke planes and coke boats. The ‘Ndrangheta had bankers, lawyers and captains of industry. It had manipulated stocks and markets. It even laundered money for triads, Russians, Mexicans, killers and thieves across the world. The ‘Ndrangheta was becoming like the banks post 2008: too big to fail, or at least too big to be busted.
This was a long way from the dirt-poor Calabria province from which the ‘Ndrangheta had grown. The prosecutor Alessandra Cerreti visited Rosarno and couldn’t see much sign of money flowing into the area:
Threats, violence and demands for crippling protection payments had ensured all but one of the international transport and logistic businesses proposed for the site had either closed or never opened. Weeds and thickets of bamboo edged far out into the road. Tarmac roads and concrete bays cracked and splintered in the sun. Giant bougainvilleas surfed out over the walls of empty business parks. Once-luxuriant palms were grotesquely overgrown, their green starbursts turned sickly yellow by a layer of sticky dust. Street lights were ubiquitous but lifeless, connected to a field of large black solar panels fast disappearing under long grass. Rusted signs, some peppered with shotgun blasts, pointed the way to now-defunct enterprises whose gates were decorated with sun-bleached strings of international flags. In front of one grand entrance, a giant brass globe on a spike stood at a crazy angle, a dream of world domination turning, continent by continent, into a small pile of rusted metal on the ground. The only sign of life was a herd of goats grazing in drainage ditches choked with poppies, buttercups and pink and purple flowers and, to one side, a tented camp of several thousand African migrants, whom the authorities, or possibly the ‘Ndrangheta, had peevishly kept off site.
It’s worth quoting this para at some length because it evokes how effectively the Calabrian mafia kept communities closed. Unlike the old school mobs, the ‘Ndrangheta did not ‘make’ people – you either had to be born into the mafia, or marry into it. No crime gang was more intimately connected with family. Women were married off as early as their teens, often to other ‘ndrine who made the match to form key alliances, or advance their own positions. Sons were brainwashed into toxic masculinity, taught to assemble weapons by the age of twelve or so. Daughters were kept in gilded prisons. Life as an ‘Ndrangheta wife could be comfortable – doctors’ bills torn up, restaurant tables cleared without reservations, supermarket queues falling away – but for women who transgressed, the punishments were severe. Misbehaviour could result in months of house arrest. Beatings were common. And women who had affairs, or tried to leave, just disappeared. Criminologists compared the ‘Ndrangheta to the purity death cults of Isis and Boko Haram. As in all misogynist communities, the point was to keep family honour clean, and blood was the only real anticontaminant for this purpose.
When Alessandra Cerreti was a child, her class teacher asked everyone to write something about what they wanted to be when they grew up.
‘I want to put gangsters behind bars,’ Alessandra wrote.
Alessandra grew up to be everything the Calabrian clans were not: intelligent, realistic and unsentimental. Yet Cerreti knew that family was the key. Family love supersedes the rule of law, secular morality, every rational thing. Sons grow up idolising fathers who are abusers and drunks and megalomaniacs: mothers implore judges for mercy towards children that have grown up to become murderers and career criminals. Women in Calabria knew things. They were recruited into drug deals and gun crimes. If she could get a few Calabrian wives to testify, Cerreti reasoned, the ‘Ndrangheta might fall.
Alex Perry’s narrative begins with the story of Lea Garofalo. She escaped at an early age from a mob town and fell in love with what seemed like an urbane, decent businessman, Carlo Cosco. Too late she discovered that Cosco was in fact an up and coming ‘ndrine who, like so many mafia guys, married her for political reasons. The out led back in.
Garofalo put up with her husband as long as she could, then turned herself in to the carabinieri as a witness. But the state’s attitude to informants tends to be cynical. Often there is not the recognition that an informant is making a big leap of faith: effectively declaring war on their family and peers, and putting themselves in the hands of authorities that have mostly played a negative role in their lives and a government that they have been raised to despise. Prosecutors view informants as bargaining for themselves. And they could be lying. And it’s only their word. Garofalo’s case followed a pattern that Cerreti would encounter again during her work with ‘Ndrangheta women. They struggled to adjust to the difficult life of a fugitive. They were messed around. Kids got sick of having to change schools. The money ran out.
And inevitably, some of them went back home.
In 2009 Lea and her daughter Denise went to Milan for a holiday and a reconciliation with Carlo. It was like old times. The family went shopping, went out for meals, met up with old friends. Carlo was relaxed and friendly, even sharing a joke about the money he’d spent trying to track his errant wife down. On their last night in the city, Lea vanished. Carlo had taken her out for a romantic dinner, dropping Denise off with some relatives. Hours went by: husband and wife did not return. Lea wasn’t answering the phone. People kept coming in and out of the apartment: Denise heard terse, half-hidden conversations. Eventually Carlo came back. Lea wasn’t with him. Carlo said they had an argument and Lea had stormed off. Denise knew what had happened, and that her life depended on Carlo not knowing that she knew. Denise reported her mother missing. For weeks she and Carlo pretended to search.
This is all in Perry’s prologue, the first of many chilling moments in Cerreti’s story. She worked with two other ‘Ndrangheta wives who broke away from the family: Giuseppina Pesce and Maria Concetta Cacciola. Both left children and families to work with Cerreti. During their years as witnesses, the ‘Ndrangheta families bombarded them with a barrage of guilt, sentiment and threats to bring them home. The Pesces sent Giuseppina a letter from her fifteen year old daughter. How are you? I hope you’re fine… I’m sorry but I’m angry with you, Mama, for what you’re doing. You’re wrong… You’re spitting in the pot you eat from… I want to love you, Mum. But you should know that what you are doing is wrong.
The letter would have broken Giuseppina’s heart if not for one mistake: the line ‘spitting in the pot you eat from’, a classic adult clan phrase, unlikely usage for a fifteen year old girl. Confirmation came when the teenager managed to send Giuseppina another letter, written in secret, saying Mum, I want to be with you… Whatever choice you make, I will follow.
Giuseppina managed to resist all this pressure: Maria did not. She cut ties with Cerreti and returned to her family in Rosarno. Then, a recorded statement was released from the Cacciola family lawyers. In it, Maria renounced her previous testimony against the ‘Ndrangheta. ‘At the time, I was in a bad way. I was jealous. My husband was in prison… out of anger I had said things that weren’t true.’ During a gap in the recording, a second voice could be heard prompting Maria as to what she should say.
A while later, Maria Concetta turned up dead. She had drunk hydrochloric acid. The family said it was suicide, brought on by the shame of betraying her family. The Cacciolas even complained formally to the prosecutor’s office: Maria ‘had been pitiably weak and easily led… dazzled by the state’s offers of a better life.’ Medically, suicide was unlikely. Drinking hydrochloric acid is extremely unpleasant: if you really want to kill yourself, there are easier ways to do it. ‘Though initial forensics suggested Concetta had killed herself, a pathologist later found bruises on her neck and other marks on her arms consistent with someone holding her down while someone else held her mouth open, possibly with a funnel’,’ Perry writes.
What amazed Alessandra Cerreti was that despite the level of indoctrination and risk, ‘Ndrangheta women continued to resist. They walked out, took the children, had affairs, fell in love, and fought for escape. The slang for state witnesses is ‘pentiti’ but Cerreti found that Giuseppina Pesci, Maria Concetta and Lea Garofalo were anything but penitent. They were smart and brave, and their stories were a testimony to the human spirit, which fights for freedom under the worst conditions.
Alex Perry writes a compelling narrative worthy of the great American true crime nonfiction writers like Jeff Guinn, John Krakauer and Hampton Sides. Like them, Perry understands that true crime is always about more than crime. The story of the ‘Ndrangheta women is a story of the dark side of globalisation and a story of the evils in closed communities. And in the #MeToo era it is an inspiration worldwide to struggles against misogyny and authoritarianism.
Max blogs at Max Dunbar.
The Good Mothers, Alex Perry, William Collins, London 2018, 978-0-00-8222210-9, William Collins, London 2018, 978-0-00-8222210-9
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