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The Good Mothers review – women challenge the mafia

Italian mafi-buster Alessandra Cerreti in her office.
Italian mafi-buster Alessandra Cerreti in her office. Photograph: Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images

When Alessandra Cerreti joined the anti-mafia prosecutor’s office in the city of Reggio Calabria in 2010, she was convinced women were the key to breaking open the secret world of Italy’s most powerful mafia. Women, she believed, were more than victims of the oppressive crime system. If they could be persuaded to talk, their knowledge could be devastating. There were precedents, though not many – the ’Ndrangheta, the Calabrian mafia, is based on family groups ruled with a combination of loyalty and fear and, as its wealth and power have grown, it has proved extremely difficult to penetrate.

Cerreti is tough, cool and striking, a brilliant investigator who came to Calabria after working on terrorism cases. Her husband is a carabiniere, and they live under armed guard – they have no children because their work makes them a target. In Calabria, Cerreti found she was up against not only the mafia’s violent and oppressive treatment of women, but also some of her male colleagues, who dismissed the role of women and were reluctant to take female witnesses seriously.

In about 2010, three women from different Calabrian crime families each made a desperate bid to escape from the mafia’s grip. They had all married young and suffered in violent relationships. For these women, whose entire families and social networks were rooted in the mafia, becoming a collaborator offered a way out, but not without collateral damage: they would be putting a bomb under their world. The painful and dangerous process of these women’s rebellion against the family makes a gripping and heartbreaking narrative.

Maria Concetta Cacciola had been a virtual prisoner in her own home for years when she walked into a police station and said she wanted to collaborate. Once Cerreti had established that she was serious, and had valuable information to give, she moved her to a safe place and interviewed her about her family’s history of loan-sharking, murder and protection racketeering. But Cacciola’s family was not going to let her get away. They knew she had a weak point: she would want her children with her.

After almost two months, Cacciola caved in and contacted one of her children and a terrible tug-of-war ensued. The investigators, who had bugged her parents’ car, listened in helplessly as they cajoled and bullied her into coming home. Her mother is heard telling her she must choose: “You’re either with us or with them.” If she didn’t come back to the family now, she would never see any of them again.

To leave the mafia means much more than physically getting away from it. If you leave, the women are told, you cease to exist. You might as well be dead; you will have no place in your children’s lives. Women who want to escape are often declared mentally ill: the intention is to distance and isolate them from the family and dismiss their collaboration as the actions of a mad woman.

This emotional pressure can be annihilating. Cacciola went home, even though the family had threatened to kill her. In August 2011, Cerreti and her officers were waiting in their cars, phones in hand, ready to scoop up Cacciola and her children from her parents’ house, when they got news that she was dead. She had died from drinking hydrochloric acid. Her family insist it was suicide, but the authorities are convinced she was murdered. Her death has the taint of mafia theatricality: there is a horrible symbolism in forcing a collaborator to drink acid, burning the mouth that denounced you.

Lea Garofalo, who disappeared in Milan in 2009.
Lea Garofalo, who disappeared in Milan in 2009.

These stories are not neat and the actions of the people in them are not always reasonable and Perry does not try to tidy them up. Lea Garofalo, who was married to a man who used her to gain status in her powerful family, spent years trying to escape and give her daughter a better life. After a chaotic period in and out of witness protection, she was utterly lost. Her husband worked hard, through her daughter, to drag her back and eventually convinced her that they could be reconciled. She met up with him alone, one evening in Milan in November 2009, and was never seen again. There was no crime scene, no body. The family had expunged her. It was only through the determined efforts of her daughter, Denise, that her killers were eventually brought to justice.

Once women have decided to collaborate, the mafia’s conditioning is so profound that it still takes a long time for them to talk. If they do, it is generally the result of months spent building a relationship of trust and confidence. Cerreti’s greatest breakthrough in the war against the ’Ndrangheta was achieved working with Giuseppina Pesce, who had been an active member of a powerful mafia family in Rosarno. Cerreti describes her first meeting with Pesce in prison. Even as she said she had information to give, she displayed the high-handed attitude of a boss’s daughter. She offered a couple of bits of information and demanded to be released into witness protection. “She looked at me with such loathing,” Cerreti said. “Such pride and resentment. I represented the state, which was ruining her life.”

Pesce’s family fought a long campaign to turn her daughter against her. “They were ferocious. Brutal,” Cerreti says. At one point, under intolerable pressure, she recanted. The local press took the opportunity to run a disgraceful campaign against the anti-mafia prosecutors. But the trust between collaborator and magistrate would prove stronger than the mafia’s threats and blackmail. In May 2013, Pesce’s help resulted in massive sentences and fines against her family’s clan and their allies. Her story shows that, when the authorities are intelligent enough to support them, women can be a powerful weapon against the mafia.

The Good Mothers by Alex Perry is published by William Collins (£20). To order a copy for £17 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

This article titled "The Good Mothers review – women challenge the mafia" was written by Clare Longrigg, for The Observer on Tuesday 13 February 2018 07.00am

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