Letter From Calabria – The Women Who Took on the Mafia – Mafia prosecutor Alessandra Cerreti’s appearance—slim and meticulously dressed, with short, stylishly trimmed hair—emphasized cool professionalism. The prosecutor Alessandra Cerreti believed that discontented Mafia women could bring down the organization.
Letter From Calabria
In Calabria, Lea Garofalo’s disappearance required no explanation. The local Mafia, known as the ’Ndrangheta, had a term for people who simply vanished: lupara bianca, or “white shotgun,” a killing that left no corpse. Residents of Pagliarelle, the mountain village where Garofalo’s family lived, added her name to a list of victims who were never to be mentioned again. In three decades, thirty-five local men and women had been murdered in Mafia vendettas, including Garofalo’s father, her uncle, and her brother.
Garofalo, born into the ’Ndrangheta, had eloped with a cocaine smuggler named Carlo Cosco when she was sixteen. The next year, they had a daughter, Denise, and Garofalo implored Cosco to leave the Mob. Instead, a few years later, she witnessed her husband and his brother kill a man in Milan. “You don’t live,” she once said, of the constrained existence of an ’Ndrangheta wife. “You just survive in some way. You dream about something, anything—because nothing’s worse than that life.” In desperation, Garofalo collaborated with prosecutors to put Cosco in jail. For thirteen years, she and Denise moved from one small town to another, in and out of witness protection, as his men pursued them. One night, she looked outside the window of the apartment where they were staying and saw that her Fiat had been set on fire.
But, in 2009, Cosco, by then out of prison, seemed ready to reconcile. He called off his men, and invited Garofalo and their daughter to join him in Milan. They spent four days on a quiet family vacation, wandering along the canals, window-shopping, visiting a tanning salon. Later, in court, Denise spoke of eating dinner together each night, as a family. Her father, she said, was showing how “caring and kind” he was. On the last night of the vacation, Lea vanished; her body was found years later. Afterward, her sister Marisa described her disappearance as almost inevitable. “Lea wanted freedom,” she said. “But for people who follow the ’Ndrangheta, this choice is considered very eccentric, very serious. You want to be free? You pay with your life.”
At the time of the disappearance, the Mafia prosecutor Alessandra Cerreti had recently arrived in Calabria. She was forty-one, and her appearance—slim and meticulously dressed, with short, stylishly trimmed hair—emphasized cool professionalism. Cerreti had grown up in the Mafia stronghold of Sicily, but she had trained in Milan, where the Mob was considered an embarrassment and a scourge. When she arrived in Calabria, in April, 2009, she was struck by how many Calabrians still accepted the ’Ndrangheta as an immutable fact of life. Even many of her fellow-magistrates seemed to feel that it was too powerful to stop.
By 2010, the Italian state had enough evidence from years of surveillance to suggest that the ’Ndrangheta—whose name, pronounced “n-drahng-ghe-ta,” was derived from a Greek word meaning “honorable men”—was running seventy per cent of the cocaine trade in Europe. Other investigations indicated that it brokered arms deals with criminals, rebels, and terrorists around the world, including fighters on opposing sides of the Syrian civil war; extorted billions of euros from businesses; and swindled the Italian state and the European Union out of tens of billions more, particularly through contracts for roads, ports, wind and solar power, and even the disposal of nuclear waste, which it dumped at sea off Somalia. The bosses ran an empire that operated in fifty countries, from Albania to Togo, linking a Mob war in Toronto to a lawyer’s assassination in Melbourne, and vast real-estate investments in Brussels to a cocaine-delivering pizzeria in Queens called Cucino a Modo Mio (“I Cook My Own Way”).
Prosecutors estimated the ’Ndrangheta’s annual global revenue at as much as a hundred billion dollars, the equivalent of 3.5 per cent of Italy’s G.D.P., but acknowledged that the real figure was impossible to gauge. Wiretaps recorded its operatives talking about sacks of cash buried in the hills. In more sophisticated efforts at concealment, tens of billions of euros were routed through restaurants and construction companies, boutique offshore banks and large investment houses, even the Dutch flower market and the European chocolate trade. The ’Ndrangheta was so successful at laundering money that other criminals—from China, Nigeria, Russia, and elsewhere—paid the organization to do it on their behalf, providing huge sums to manage. Around the world, prosecutors said, millions of people lived in the ’Ndrangheta’s buildings, worked for its businesses, shopped in its stores, ate in its pizzerias, traded its companies’ shares, did business with its banks, and elected politicians it funded. It was difficult to imagine another enterprise with such influence over so many lives, yet almost no one had ever heard of it.
The organization’s economic sophistication belied its social coarseness. The ’Ndrangheta hid in shabby hillside villages, dressing like orange farmers and working out of bunkers beneath their homes. Each family was a miniature fiefdom, in which women were little more than vassals of family honor. Fathers married their daughters off as teen-agers to seal clan alliances. Women who did not uphold exacting codes of respect were beaten, often in the street. Wives who were unfaithful, even to the memory of a husband dead for fifteen years, were killed, typically by their closest male relatives, and their bodies were often burned or dissolved in acid to be sure of erasing the family shame.
Italian prosecutors conceded that ’Ndrangheta women led tragic lives. But many didn’t consider the women to be of much use in their fight; they were just more victims. “The women don’t matter,” the prosecutors told Cerreti. As a woman working for the Italian state, Cerreti knew something about patriarchies that belittled women even as they relied on them. She believed that many judicial officials missed the importance of ’Ndrangheta women, because most of them were men, and “Italian men underestimate all women,” she said.
The team that she joined in Calabria, run by Giuseppe Pignatone, the chief of the region’s anti-Mafia directorate, and his deputy, Michele Prestipino, was an exception. “I found fertile territory,” Cerreti said. The team believed that, in a criminal organization structured around family, women had to have a substantial role. Their most important duty was to raise the next generation with an unbending belief in the code of omertà and a violent loathing of outsiders. “Without women performing this role, there would be no ’Ndrangheta,” Cerreti told me. (We spoke for seven hours, during 2015 and 2016, for the book from which this account is adapted. Cerreti eventually declined further interviews.)
At a time when prosecutors were just beginning to understand “how big the ’Ndrangheta had become and how much we had underestimated it,” Cerreti pointed out, female informants were an invaluable source of knowledge. The prosecutor who had taken Lea Garofalo’s statements, Sandro Dolce, described her as a uniquely coöperative witness, saying, “She said everything she knew. She hid nothing.” But the state had failed to corroborate her evidence, and then, rather than admit its failure, had concluded that her testimony was worthless. She was ejected from witness protection, and within a year she was dead.
Cerreti was convinced that other Mafia women were unhappy with their lives and with their children’s prospects. What if her team could convince them that the state could give them a new life in return for their testimony? “It would break the chain,” she said. “It would remove the guardians of the ’Ndrangheta’s traditions.” The Mafia’s violent bigotry was a fatal weakness, she argued: “Freeing their women is the way to bring down the ’Ndrangheta.”
When Cerreti was a child, in Sicily, across the Strait of Messina from Calabria, the Cosa Nostra was a state within a state, extracting taxes by extortion, dividing up public contracts among Mafia companies, settling disputes, and delivering punishments. To outsiders, Sicilians claimed that the Mafia was a fable, a groundless slur. Among themselves, its proponents characterized it as an ancient brotherhood built on courage, honor, and sacrifice.
Not long after Cerreti was born, Francis Ford Coppola arrived in the nearby town of Savoca, to direct scenes for “The Godfather.” For years afterward, tourists showed up, asking for directions to “the Godfather’s village.” Cerreti always detested the romance that surrounded the Mafia; she never understood why anyone would celebrate tyranny and killing. In grade school, when a teacher assigned students an essay about what they wanted to be when they grew up, Cerreti wrote that she wanted to be a prosecutor, putting mafiosi in jail.
In the nineteen-eighties, a war known as la mattanza—“the slaughter”—erupted between rival clans, and about a thousand Sicilians died. Mafiosi were shot in their cars, in restaurants, on the sidewalk. Politicians and law enforcement became targets, too. In 1992, the Cosa Nostra killed the celebrated magistrate Giovanni Falcone, with a car bomb that registered on Sicily’s earthquake detectors. Falcone’s death was to Italians what John F. Kennedy’s was to Americans: everyone can remember where she was when she heard the news. To Cerreti, the killings provided motivation. “Their deaths made us stronger,” she said.
Cerreti began studying law in 1987 and qualified as a magistrate in 1997, quickly becoming a specialist in organized crime. In the next decade, she investigated the Mafia’s expansion across Northern Italy, uncovered billion-euro tax evasion in the art world, and sat as a judge in a high-profile terror-recruitment case. The threat to her life required stringent security measures: a steel office door, an armor-plated car, and four bodyguards, who accompanied her twenty-four hours a day. It was difficult to meet friends and family, or dine out, or go shopping; her movements had to be planned a day in advance. “We go nowhere with crowds, because of the risk to others,” Cerreti said. She is married, but keeps her husband’s identity secret, in order to protect him. They have no children. If they did, Cerreti said, “I would have to fear for them. As we are, I have no fear.”
To preserve her perspective, Cerreti kept her distance from mafiosi and from their victims, describing herself as driven by “stubbornness.” Her office is filled with neat stacks of files and books but has only a few decorations: a photograph (ubiquitous among Italian magistrates) of the murdered prosecutors from Sicily; a pencil sketch of Justice; and a collection of snow globes, precisely arranged in a glass cabinet. Cerreti knew that she could seem aloof, insistent on procedure and discipline. She told herself that passion was for the Mafia; she had to be forensic and self-possessed.
By the time she began working as a prosecutor, a generation of Cosa Nostra bosses was in jail. But, as the campaign in Sicily abated, a new threat arose in Calabria. For most of its existence, the ’Ndrangheta had been considered little more than a group of country bandits, but during the mattanza it saw an opportunity to take over the Cosa Nostra’s narco-business. It paid the Sicilians’ debts to Colombian cocaine cartels, effectively buying them out as partners. In the first decade of the new millennium, the European market for cocaine doubled, to a hundred and twenty-four tons a year, and the drug became as middle class as Volvos and farmers’ markets.
A new wave of prosecutors was dispatched to Calabria to fight the ’Ndrangheta, and Cerreti volunteered to join them. Her first posting, as a judge in Reggio Calabria, wasn’t the investigative role she wanted, but it gave her time to research her new adversary. Assembling court records, academic studies, police intelligence, and volumes of folklore, Cerreti found that much about the ’Ndrangheta felt familiar.
Like the Cosa Nostra, the ’Ndrangheta originated in the tumultuous decades after Italy became a nation. Giuseppe Garibaldi united the Italian peninsula in 1861, but the country’s regions remained distinct; the north prospered in commerce and trade, while the south declined, and millions of southerners emigrated. The provinces south of Rome came to be known as the Mezzogiorno, the land of the midday sun—a dry, torpid expanse stretching from Abruzzo to Lampedusa. The tip of the peninsula is little more than thornbush scrub and mountains, populated by shepherds and small-boat fishermen. When Cerreti’s escorts drove her out of Reggio, she passed a succession of empty towns, deserted villages, and abandoned farms. The countryside looked like the aftermath of a disaster—which, if you considered centuries of destitution a disaster, it was.
Still, there was a hard beauty to the place. In the mountains, wolves and wild boar roamed forests of beech, cedar, and holly oak. Below the peaks, woods gave way to vines and pastures, followed by estuary flats filled with citrus orchards. The Calabrians, clustered in ancient mountain towns that were cut off for months in winter by snowdrifts, were poor, resilient, and resolutely autonomous. Some families still spoke Grecanico, a Greek dialect left behind by the Byzantines in the eleventh century. The men hunted boar with shotguns and swordfish with harpoons. The women spiced sardines with hot peppers and air-dried trout, to be turned into a pungent brown stew.
Newspapers called the region “the Greece of Italy,” a way of describing its blighted economy; in the first decade of the twenty-first century, unemployment among the young, at more than fifty per cent, was among the highest in Europe. But Calabria had experienced one form of development. In the eighteen-eighties, according to the historian John Dickie, gangs of inmates known as picciotti emerged from the region’s prisons and began enforcing a system of intimidation and extortion that quickly dominated the local economy. Organized into cells called ’ndrine, each with its own turf, ranks, and boss, picciotti initially restricted themselves to local matters: appropriating a neighbor’s field for the boss’s cows, extracting protection money (pizzo) from the neighborhood tavern or brothel, or threatening the occasional bureaucrat foolish enough to levy taxes. By the late nineteenth century, enterprising picciotti were also engaging in smuggling, cattle rustling, and highway robbery. With their earnings, they started buying favors from the carabinieri and bribing officials. In time, the families diversified into kidnapping and loan-sharking, and infiltrated the state, embezzling funds and diverting contracts to Mafia-owned businesses, such as construction firms and trash collectors. Elections were rigged, and more allegiances bought. Those who could not be corrupted or intimidated were beaten, firebombed, or killed.
As the ’Ndrangheta prospered, it built a cult around itself. By the early twentieth century, it was tracing its origins to three Spanish knights: Osso, Mastrosso, and Carcagnosso—brothers who had fled their homeland after avenging their sister’s rape. Landing on a tiny island off Sicily’s west coast and taking shelter in sea caves, they nursed a sense of righteous grievance for thirty uncomfortably damp years. Eventually, their discussions became the basis of a brotherhood founded on mutual defense. With the society sworn to protect all members, no outsider would think of shaming them again. Osso sailed to Sicily and founded the Cosa Nostra, Mastrosso travelled to Naples and set up the Camorra, and Carcagnosso went to Calabria, where he established the ’Ndrangheta, in the name of St. Michael the Archangel.
The story is, as Cerreti knew, bunk. The Calabrian Mafia is not hundreds of years old but barely a hundred and fifty; the story of the three knights is common to criminal groups around the world. But the ’Ndranghetisti adored ritual, and gathered in solemn circles to witness initiates pricking their fingers over a picture of St. Michael. Blood was particularly revered. More than once, they had been seen rushing to the corpse of an assassinated boss, dipping a handkerchief in his blood, and pressing it to their lips. The ’Ndrangheta also recruited almost exclusively through family: you were either born into it or you married in.
In her research, Cerreti found evidence to back the team’s intuition about the role of women in the organization. At times, they acted as messengers between fugitives or imprisoned comrades, passing along tiny, folded notes—pizzini—written in a code of glyphs. Some women acted as paymasters and bookkeepers. In rare cases, when a man was jailed or killed, his wife became his de-facto replacement. A few took part in the violence. In surveillance transcripts, Cerreti read about a meeting to discuss the death of a ’Ndranghetista killed in an internecine feud. The men proposed killing every male member of the rival gang. Then a woman from the clan spoke up. “Kill them all,” she said. “Even the women. Even the kids.”
This co-opting of family, in a country where it was close to sacred, demonstrated a kind of genius. The ’Ndrangheta understood that family itself could be a source of corruption. The love of a mother for a son, or of a daughter for a father, could persuade the most law-abiding to abandon their principles. And, since the ’Ndrangheta made itself indistinguishable from Calabria’s traditional, family-centered culture, anyone thinking of leaving had to fear abandoning everything she’d ever known.
Many prosecutors rejected the idea that women could be persuaded to testify against their relatives. “This was another form of prejudice—the belief that no one, and certainly not a woman, is going to talk about their own family,” Cerreti said. She conceded that it would take unusual bravery. But, she argued, “when justice shows people that it is strong and that the state is present and can help you if you want to collaborate, then you find that collaborators appear.” Prosecutors hoped to discover another Lea Garofalo. As it turned out, Cerreti found two.
By the precepts of clan rivalry, Giuseppina Pesce and Maria Concetta Cacciola were unlikely friends. The Pesces led the most powerful clan in the ’Ndrangheta stronghold of Rosarno, north of Reggio; the Cacciolas worked as muscle for their competitors, the Belloccos. The two families had plenty to fight over. Rosarno sat next to the port of Gioia Tauro, one of the biggest container facilities on the Mediterranean and a hub of the ’Ndrangheta cocaine empire. The town was an unkempt place of cinder-block warehouses and unfinished houses with glassless windows, but even minor Mafia families there were thought to have millions of euros stashed away. In Rosarno, the Pesces had total dominion. “They completely control their territory and their government,” the prosecutor Michele Prestipino said. “People who live there accept that to get something they have to knock on the door of the Mafia and that there is no future other than what the Mafia sees.”
When Giuseppina and Concetta were growing up, in the eighties, Rosarno was a hard place, where girls could be beaten for going outside unaccompanied. Pesce remembered watching Cacciola, at the age of eleven, get dragged home by her hair by her brother, after he caught her playing with some local boys. As schoolgirls, though, they saw each other every day in the playground or on the street. The two were not much alike. Pesce wore bulky woollen V-necks or baggy work shirts, had no time for makeup, and wore her scruffy brown hair at whatever length kept it out of the way. Cacciola, a year younger, favored skinny jeans and half-buttoned blouses, styled her black hair in an undulating curl across her forehead, and wore lipstick and eyeliner like the older girls. “A sunny girl,” Pesce said later about Cacciola. “She was strong. She was an optimist. . . . She cared so much.”
As they grew older, their lives adhered to a prescribed course: marriage quickly followed by motherhood. Pesce left school at thirteen. At fourteen she eloped with a twenty-year-old ’Ndranghetista named Rocco Palaia, and at fifteen she gave birth to the first of their three children. Soon Rocco was regularly beating her, mostly for speaking out of turn. “He beat me when I said what I thought,” she said later. “He attacked me to get me to shut up.” And it wasn’t long before he was arrested and jailed for Mafia association. Similarly, Cacciola, at thirteen, met a mafioso named Salvatore Figliuzzi. Within a few years, she had eloped with him, begun to endure his beatings (including one in which he held a gun to her head), and seen him hauled off to jail. She, too, eventually had three children with her husband.
It was ’Ndrangheta custom to confine prisoners’ wives to the home, but the two women found ways to see each other, exchanging confidences as they dropped off their children at nursery school or sneaked visits after Pesce went to work at a family grocery store near Cacciola’s house. Still, Cacciola felt confined, and she described her sense of isolation in wistful notes to her husband. “I go out in the morning to take the children to school but I have no contact with anyone,” she wrote in 2007. “I’d pay anything, take anything, for a little peace.” Pesce, more assertive, found a way to negotiate a little freedom by joining the family business. She began running messages between bosses in jail and laundering money. In time, she learned how the men in the family moved cocaine through the Gioia Tauro port. She learned which of the roadwork projects on the A3 highway north of Reggio belonged to the Pesces, and the locations around town where her husband had helped bury the family’s arsenal: rifles, pistols, and machine guns, stored in preparation for war. As an ’Ndranghetista, Pesce had privileges. In restaurants, bills didn’t appear. In grocery stores, the manager would serve her personally. “I lived in this family,” she said later, in court. “I breathed these things—the superiority, the power.”
Deceived by a sense of impunity, or perhaps unable to resist the prospect of a little affection, in late 2009 Pesce began an affair with a man named Domenico Costantino, whom she had met at a family candied-fruit factory. “He was the first man who ever seemed to care for my children,” Pesce, who was then thirty-one, said. “The first man to respect me as a woman, the first who ever loved me.” Cacciola, restricted to the family home, found ways to escape online. “In the land of the ’Ndrangheta, the Internet is an open window to a closed world,” Cerreti said. “It tends to provoke a kind of emotional explosion.” On Facebook, Cacciola struck up friendships with at least one man and tentatively began to flirt.
With these liaisons, Cacciola and Pesce risked bringing shame upon their families, which by custom had to be punished by death. In the Rosarno graveyard, the remains of Pesce’s grandfather, killed for having an affair, were clandestinely buried under the floor in the family’s chapel. Alongside him was the body of her cousin Annunziata Pesce, who had betrayed the ’Ndrangheta by running off with a policeman. Kidnapped off the street in 1981, she was shot in the neck while her elder brother looked on.
The men of Rosarno were increasingly wary of betrayal. In 2009, prosecutors had begun putting more pressure on organized crime, especially on the smugglers who moved cocaine through Gioia Tauro. Numerous public officials, including Italy’s President, Giorgio Napolitano, sent the Reggio authorities messages of solidarity. Italy had declared war on the ’Ndrangheta.
Just before dawn on the first Sunday of 2010, a scooter sped through the streets of Reggio Calabria. Two figures leaned into the windshield, huddling against the cold. The driver had on tight jeans, a dark jacket, and a helmet with a visor. The passenger, a portly man, wore a striped jacket and cradled a bulky canvas bag in his arms.
For a few minutes, they followed the shoreline of the Messina Strait. Across the water, a string of white lights demarcated Sicily’s coastal road. Then they climbed toward the old town, until they reached the central piazza, where the driver allowed the bike to coast to rest in front of the city’s judicial offices. The passenger pulled his jacket around him as if he were lighting a cigarette. There was a spark. Flames licked up out of the bag. He ran toward the office gates, swinging the bag high to avoid the flames. The driver revved the engine and let the bike roll slowly down the hill. The passenger dropped the bag and ran back to the scooter, and the two sped off. Seconds later, the bag exploded.
The sound of the blast rolled out over the water, and the shockwave shattered windows. In a press conference hours later, a carabinieri commander announced that the bomb was a stick of dynamite attached to a gas cylinder—the kind of crude device familiar to anyone with experience of Southern Italy’s protection rackets. The explosion broke the building’s iron gates but otherwise had done little damage. The attack was meant to convey a message: the mafiosi intended to fight back.
At the time, Cerreti had recently been given the job she wanted—the lead anti-Mafia prosecutor for Gioia Tauro and Rosarno—and she toured the area for the first time. The signs of the ‘Ndrangheta’s influence were unmistakable. The clans, which dominated municipal contracts, had left Rosarno in disrepair. The trees by the roadside were dying, and their leaves were orange and brittle. The park was just chalky pebbles and dry spiky weeds. The streets were strewn with trash, and the asphalt looked like spilled lava. Everything was covered with crude graffiti.
Drawing on years of carabinieri intelligence and on its own new investigations, Cerreti’s team made its first strike against the Pesces in the early hours of April 26, 2010. Code-named Operation All Inside, it involved simultaneous raids in Rosarno, Reggio, Milan, and Bergamo, in which a total of thirty people were arrested. Reflecting the team’s beliefs, the raids also took in seven women, including Pesce’s mother, sister, cousin, grandmother, and great-grandmother, as well as Pesce herself. The charges included extortion, money laundering, loan-sharking, drug smuggling, Mafia association, and two counts of murder. The range of assets seized—a gas station, a car dealership, a food-distribution company, and a candy distributor—suggested involvement in every part of the town’s commerce. A Rosarno radio station, Radio Olimpia, was confiscated after carabinieri discovered that jailed bosses were using its request show to communicate. A prisoner would submit a question—Was my appeal successful? Were my orders carried out?—and his family would call in and request one song to signal yes and another to signal no.
Pesce faced more than a decade in jail, but that wasn’t what troubled her. The Calabrian newspapers reported that she had been detained with a man. “Someone who betrays and dishonors the family must be punished by death,” she said. “It is a law.” If she went to prison, or if she was killed, her children—Elisea, Gaetano, and Angela, who ranged in age from three to fifteen—would be raised by the ’Ndrangheta. A few years back, when Gaetano was asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, the boy had replied “a policeman.” His uncle beat him, then vowed to get him a gun, to remind him who he was. Pesce’s fear, she wrote later, was that, “when I get out of jail, my son could already be in a juvenile detention center. . . . My two daughters will have to marry two ’Ndrangheta men and be forced to follow them around.”
In custody, Pesce was defiant: she refused to talk to prosecutors, and would not eat the prison food. At times, though, she seemed inconsolable. A few days after her arrest, she tried to hang herself, and three months later she slashed her wrists with a razor. “I couldn’t stand the thought of my children without me,” she said later, in court. “I wanted a way out.”
The prosecutors were unmoved; if an ’Ndranghetista was suffering, they had done their job. And the mafiosi were doing little to encourage sympathy. In the months after the courthouse bombing, a shotgun cartridge was found on a prosecutor’s windshield, and other officials discovered that their car wheels had been loosened. Giuseppe Pignatone, the head of the anti-Mafia directorate, got a call saying that a gift was waiting for him around the corner; it turned out to be a rocket launcher, left under a blanket in the street. The carabinieri, for their part, staged more raids, arresting three hundred people throughout the ’Ndrangheta hierarchy; the detainees included businessmen, lawyers, bankers, accountants, politicians, policemen, and public-health-care managers. The prize was the supreme capo, Domenico Oppedisano, eighty, whose arrest was greeted with a standing ovation in the Italian Senate.
When Cerreti heard about Pesce’s suicide attempts, she felt little compassion. “I didn’t believe she was sincere,” she said. But, in October, a letter from Pesce arrived at the Palace of Justice, requesting a meeting without a lawyer present. Prosecutors understood that she was concerned that a defense lawyer in Calabria would be loyal to the Mafia; the letter suggested that she was considering testifying. Pignatone told Cerreti, “If you can make her talk, we’ll have done in three years in Calabria what took us thirty years in Palermo.”
On October 14th, the two sat across from each other in a meeting room in San Vittore prison, in Milan. “She looked at me with such loathing—such pride and resentment and hatred,” Cerreti has said. “I represented the state, which was ruining her life.”
Cerreti had barely introduced herself when Pesce said that she wanted to be moved to a safe house, where she could see her children. In return, she would help the state catch some fugitive ’Ndrangheta bosses. “She wanted to give us a couple of names in exchange for her freedom,” Cerreti said. It was a pathetic offer—and, in any case, prosecutors don’t negotiate with gangsters. Cerreti closed her laptop and stood to leave.
Cerreti admitted later that she was bluffing: she would have listened to anything Pesce had to say. But Pesce was alarmed. She had expected to negotiate the ’Ndrangheta way: reveal little of what you have, affect nonchalance, and eventually extract as much as possible for as little as possible. Before Cerreti reached the door, Pesce cleared her throat. “Everything I testify to now,” she said, “I do to give my children a different future.”
Cerreti and Pesce began talking in San Vittore, then continued for several more months at a safe house, south of Rome, where Pesce and her children were placed. It wasn’t just the scope of Pesce’s knowledge that prolonged the talks. She revealed what she knew hesitantly, torn between loyalties to her children and to the family business. “She was desperate to be reunited with her kids,” Cerreti has said. “But it was really hard for her to betray her relatives.”
When Cerreti felt that Pesce was holding back on a sensitive matter—her marriage, her affair, the habits of the Pesce men—she asked male carabinieri in the room to leave, so that Pesce would feel less likely to be judged. Cerreti assured her that the government would protect her and her children. “I had to explain to her over and over that it’s not normal that, if you cheat on your husband, then you have to die,” she said. Pesce, as she spoke with Cerreti, grew calmer and more confident. In their talks, she provided a comprehensive view of her family’s empire. At its heart, she said, an ’ndrina was a collective. “They decided together, as a family, who took state contracts, who handled extortion, who oversaw the drug trade.” Her grandmother’s house often served as a base of operations. The family would often discuss at length the delicate question of how much pizzo to charge. The younger men tended to squeeze as much as they could out of everyone. Once, the Pesces extorted tickets for the entire family from a visiting circus. The older men warned that driving a business to ruin served no one’s interest. Another point of discussion was how to divide the take. Pesce saw many picciotti try to resist handing over their revenues to a common family pot, as required. Everyone agreed, however, that there could be no exceptions to paying pizzo. “An outsider can’t say no,” Pesce said. An ’Ndranghetista “would go and ask for money like he was doing people a favor.”
Despite the ’Ndrangheta’s power, its members operated in a state of constant suspicion. The police and the carabinieri tapped phones, took video of their houses from miles away, mounted secret cameras on the street, and buried bugs in Pesce’s grandmother’s garden. The family members, for their part, installed microphone detectors, jammers, and scanners but were often reduced to whispering and using sign language in their own homes. For many bosses, the solution was to retreat to their bunkers, which they converted into luxurious second homes. Some were built in olive groves, or into cliffsides that provided a view of the sea. The Pesces, instinctively territorial, built their bunkers in town. Before Pesce’s father was arrested, in 2005, he had been hiding for years in a carefully renovated bunker under the floor of his mother’s house.
Cerreti, whose work entailed constant wariness, felt a sense of recognition. For her, too, the effects of being involved with the ’Ndrangheta were isolation, friendlessness, and fear. She made sure that Pesce was never alone and was always able to call her. She began visiting even when they had nothing professional to discuss. Cerreti was aware that she was breaking her own rules. But her attachment to Pesce felt almost “umbilical,” she recalled.
Transcribed, Pesce’s evidence eventually ran to more than fifteen hundred pages. It included diagrams of the ’Ndrangheta hierarchy, descriptions of rituals, evidence of murders, locations of bunkers, and detailed accounts of cocaine smuggling, extortion rackets, money laundering, credit-card fraud, and public corruption. Pesce’s evidence both backed up existing cases and prompted new ones. “The whole character of our investigations changed,” Cerreti said. Eventually, the team laid charges against sixty-four men and women from the Pesce ’ndrina. More than the loss of money or personnel, Pesce’s betrayal shook the ’Ndrangheta. “Pesce was a name that created terror in Calabria,” Cerreti said. “This—breaking the chain—it was like a bomb.”
When news of Pesce’s testimony reached Rosarno, her clan’s rivals reportedly held a party to celebrate. “A woman with the name of Pesce . . . she betrays them and moves to the side of the state,” Prestipino, the prosecutor, said. “Immediately, they lose prestige. They lose power. It’s devastating. Ordinary people see they’re not invincible.” For ’Ndranghetisti who wanted out, Cerreti said, “Giuseppina showed that the state could save you and save your family. She was living proof that you could leave the ’Ndrangheta, that you could survive it and be free.”
Pesce’s old friend Concetta Cacciola was paying close attention. A few months before, anonymous letters had begun arriving at her family home, claiming that she was having an affair with one of her Facebook friends. Her father and her brother, Michele and Giuseppe, beat her until they cracked a rib. The men refused to let Cacciola be treated in the hospital, arranging for a clan doctor to visit the house instead. It was three months before she was well enough to step outside. Even then, male cousins followed her wherever she went.
On May 11, 2011, the carabinieri summoned Cacciola to pay a fine for a minor offense that Alfonso had committed on his scooter. The walk to the station, twenty minutes across town, was her first time out of the house alone in months. When she arrived, she asked to speak to someone in private, and Officer Carlo Carli led her into an interview room. He closed the door, and she immediately began to describe her predicament. She told him that she was a prisoner in her own home. Her family had accused her of an affair. They beat her senseless. They would kill her if they knew that she was talking to the carabinieri. As if to underline the point, her mother began calling her cell phone, asking where she was.
Four days later, Carli called Cacciola back to the station. This time, she confessed that her family’s suspicions were justified: an online friendship had grown into a romantic relationship. Her brother was just waiting for proof, she said. “Sooner or later, he’ll come to me and say, ‘Come with me.’ Then he’ll make me disappear.” On a subsequent visit, Cacciola declared that she would testify against the ’Ndrangheta in return for witness protection.
Cerreti and another prosecutor, Giovanni Musarò, met Cacciola and concluded that she was credible. When Cerreti asked whether she wanted to take her children into protection, too, Cacciola demurred. “I need to find my strength in the choices I make,” she said, according to an interview that Cerreti gave the organized-crime reporter Clare Longrigg. “Then you can go find them, tell what I’ve done and why, and they can make their own decision.” In late May, Cacciola stole out of the family home and ran to a waiting carabinieri car. She left a letter for her mother, describing her children as “the most beautiful thing in my life” and asking her to give them “a better life than I had.” At the end, she added, “Forgive me, I beg you.” On the dashboard of the family car, she left a second note, for her father and her brother, implying that she was going to follow Pesce into witness protection. “I’m going over to my friend Giusy’s,” she wrote.
Pesce, though, was having doubts. After the carabinieri picked up her children from their aunt Angela’s house in Rosarno and took them to the safe house, the elder daughter found a cell phone hidden in her clothes bag. The calls from Aunt Angela started soon after. Were the children eating O.K.? How was she coping without her family? Was she keeping away from undesirables? Aunt Angela said that Pesce had decided to collaborate without considering that it would rip her children away from their family and friends. “Tell your mother you want to be with us. If she wants to go on, she should go on alone,” she said. “But you come back to us.”
The daughter, who was also named Angela, was torn. She loved her mother, but she had promised her children a better life and then left them stranded. She was soon arguing with Pesce, calling her selfish. She stopped eating and refused to get out of bed. Aunt Angela told her that her mother was making her ill. It was all so unnecessary, she said: the family would forgive her. Why didn’t they all come home? “My daughter started calling me her enemy,” Pesce said. “She would tell me how good Aunt Angela was to her, how Aunt Angela loved her.”
Aunt Angela was calculating that, if Pesce had started collaborating for the sake of her children, she would stop for them, too. In early 2011, a second cell phone found its way to Pesce in the safe house. Her brother-in-law Gianluca Palaia began calling to instruct her in how to end her collaboration. The family would find her a lawyer to handle her retraction, and then rent her an apartment. No one would do anything to her, Pesce’s relatives said. In early April, Aunt Angela and Gianluca showed up at the safe house, saying that they were there to offer “emotional support.” Pesce knew that the ’Ndrangheta were in her house, sitting with her children. Unless she did as they wished, they would take them from her. “I couldn’t say no,” she said.
By Italian law, Pesce had to affirm that her evidence was true by April 11th. The day before, Cerreti travelled to the safe house with nearly two thousand pages of transcribed interviews. The result of six months’ work, they contained a singularly detailed portrait of the ’Ndrangheta. It was enough to bring down one of Europe’s most powerful crime families, and also an indisputable vindication of the team’s intuition about ’Ndrangheta women. Cerreti felt a moment of triumph as she set down the files in front of Pesce.
Pesce told her that she couldn’t sign.
Cerreti was stunned. “Are you refusing to sign because everything you’ve told us is lies?” she demanded.
Pesce, crying, invoked her right to silence. Cerreti packed up her files and stepped out of the room. She returned half an hour later. “Is this really what you want?” she asked.
Pesce began to cry again. “It’s not what I want,” she said. “It’s what I must do for my children.”
On April 28th, the provincial daily Calabria Ora printed an open letter from Pesce to Calabria’s attorney general. In it, she wrote that her testimony was invalid, because she had been “seriously ill and suffering from being separated from my children” when she gave it. “The more you accuse, the more you are believed. But if you accuse your family you are believed even more. I was so sick that I slandered my closest family members. . . . I feel like they used me. Now that I feel better, I’ve found the courage to withdraw these allegations, even though I fear the monstrous trial that I know awaits me.”
Calabria Ora also ran an interview with the Pesce family’s lawyer, who claimed that Cerreti had “extracted” Pesce’s testimony by threatening to cut off access to her children. The lawyer produced a report, by Dr. Nicola Pangallo, a “surgeon and specialist in psychiatry,” saying that she had examined Pesce and found that she had “particularly serious health conditions that don’t allow custody in prison.” Soon afterward, the newspaper’s editor-in-chief wrote an op-ed, saying, “I’ve never been on the side of laws. I tend to think that it’s right to stand up for the weak, whoever they are.”
Cerreti could feel the case falling apart. But, in early May, she obtained a surveillance video of a conversation in which Pesce’s brother Francesco reassured their grandmother Giuseppa Bonarrigo: “We just have to try to get her home. . . . I’m trying to approach her to tell her I have nothing against her, that I love her.” Giuseppina was a problem made in the home, Francesco said, “and we’ll bring her home.” Giuseppa, seventy-eight years old, mimed the action of strangling a victim.
Cerreti thought over the last conversation she’d had with Pesce. When challenged to disown her evidence, Pesce had gone silent. But refusing to sign wasn’t recanting; it was merely refusing to sign at that moment. “She’s being clever,” she told her staff. To the ’Ndrangheta, Pesce was trying to appear repentant. To Cerreti, she was indicating that “what she had said in all those months of interviews was true.” But there was little time for Cerreti to prove her theory. Uncoöperative witnesses were summarily ejected from witness protection. If Pesce’s family had its way, she would be murdered within days.
The order for Pesce’s removal from witness protection was issued in early June. On the morning of June 10th, before the command could be executed, Cerreti got a call from Pesce’s protection officers saying that she had left with her boyfriend and her daughter Angela, to spend the day in Lucca, four hours to the north. Angela had been threatening to sneak out and see a friend there, and Pesce felt that she had to accede to her daughter’s wishes. “I was living those days as if they were the last I would ever spend with my children,” she said later.
A trip to Lucca violated the terms of house arrest, which confined witnesses to a specific area. Cerreti told me that she called carabinieri in Lazio and asked them to intercept Pesce on her return. If she could be caught, she could be sent back to prison, where she would be safe. No problem, the carabinieri officer replied. What car were they looking for? Cerreti said that she didn’t know the make, the color, the license-plate number, or even the route it was taking. That was why she was asking for a hundred carabinieri to be deployed. Minutes later, the commander of Lazio’s carabinieri was on the line. “We wouldn’t use a hundred men for bin Laden,” he said. Cerreti insisted; this witness could take down the entire Rosarno ’Ndrangheta. Cerreti added that she had a valuable asset: Pesce’s cell phone, whose G.P.S. signal indicated that she had just left Lucca.
Within minutes, the carabinieri were setting up roadblocks. As Cerreti watched the G.P.S. screen, the dot approached the first checkpoint, then sailed through. Half an hour later, it passed a second one. Cerreti phoned the commander. “What’s going on?” she shouted. The commander, unaccustomed to being yelled at by a southerner, much less a woman, responded that his men were doing their best. But, one by one, his men all reported seeing nothing. When Pesce was three miles from the safe house, he told Cerreti, “We’ve lost her.”
“You do not give up, Commander!” Cerreti shouted.
The officer promised to keep the line open. A few moments later, he came back: “Hold on!”
There was a commotion, and then a brief silence.
“Don’t shoot!” a woman’s voice said. “My name is Giuseppina Pesce!”
Because Pesce had broken the terms of her house arrest, she was forbidden from talking to prosecutors for three weeks after she returned to prison. Cerreti waited anxiously. She was angry that Pesce had jeopardized the case, but there was a risk in going too long without contact. When Pesce was first arrested, fourteen months earlier, she had tried to kill herself. Now she was in jail again, and her children were back with her family in Rosarno. She could be forgiven for wondering what the benefit of collaborating was.
Cerreti was counting on a transformation. A year earlier, Pesce had been defined by the men in her life: her father, her husband, a group of violent relatives whom she had served as a faithful accomplice. In the past year, she had broken with all of them, and it was unthinkable that she would return. Her family evidently agreed. Monitoring Pesce’s mail, Cerreti read a letter from her husband, Rocco, that was filled with sarcasm and suppressed fury. Addressing her as “my dearest love (if I can call you that),” Rocco told her that Cacciola had had an affair and begun coöperating with the state. It was “something she should rightly be killed for,” he wrote. “Your situation, of course, is very different. Everyone’s forgiven you, me most of all. Still, I wondered if this reminded you of anyone?”
A bug in the prison housing Pesce’s mother, Angela Ferraro, revealed that she had stopped referring to her daughter by name. Now she was “the collaborator,” “the traitor,” or “that whore.” When Pesce’s daughters, Angela and Elisea, visited, their grandmother demanded that they reject their mother. “She doesn’t exist anymore,” Ferraro told them. “Tell her! She doesn’t care who’s in jail.”
In Rosarno, the clan was pressuring the children in other ways. Aunt Angela threw them out, and they were forced to live with their grandfather Gaetano Palaia, who often claimed to have no money to feed them. Elisea lost weight and developed leg cramps and insomnia. Gaetano regularly beat his grandson with a belt. One day, he took the boy to a game room, where he was set upon by older kids, as his grandfather watched.
Angela, the child with the most influence over their mother, was made to join in the campaign of blackmail. On July 18th, Pesce received a letter from her older daughter, accusing her of betraying the family. “Making this choice for the second time, you’re spitting in the pot you eat from,” she wrote. “If you want our happiness and our family’s, you should step back.” Pesce was devastated, but something in the letter rankled. The phrase “spitting in the pot you eat from” didn’t sound like Angela, or like any fifteen-year-old she knew. Four days later, a second note from Angela arrived. In this one, she said that she was writing in secret, and that the earlier letter had been dictated by her uncles. “You’re my mom, and without you I am nothing,” she wrote. “Whatever choice you make, I will follow.”
On the evening of August 20th, Cacciola’s father, Michele, pulled up to Santa Maria Hospital, in Polistena, near Rosarno, in the family’s Mercedes. Cacciola was immobile in the back seat, with burns around her mouth and foam spilling from her lips. After seven weeks of testifying, she had e-mailed her older daughter, and her parents had used that contact to reopen communication, saying that unless she retracted her testimony, she would never see her children again. Cacciola left witness protection on August 8th.
Within days, though, she had changed her mind and requested readmission. Cerreti was with a squad of carabinieri, waiting for Cacciola to call and arrange a ride to the safe house, when the news came from a police officer at the hospital that her witness was dead. Her father said that she had been found in the basement of the family home, an empty litre bottle of hydrochloric acid lying next to her. (The family claimed that it was a suicide attempt, even though it is all but impossible to voluntarily drink that much acid.) Three days later, Cacciola’s parents sent the prosecutors’ office a recording of their daughter retracting her evidence. Cerreti was shaken by the death, and by its effects. “If this phenomenon of women testifying gathered momentum with Giuseppina, it was going to come to a sudden stop with Concetta’s death,” she said. “Concetta was a symbol that the ’Ndrangheta could get to you.” Calabria Ora agreed. “The season of coöperation is over,” it declared.
If the killing was meant to intimidate Pesce, it had the opposite effect. On August 23rd, the day the Cacciolas filed their complaint, a letter from Pesce arrived at the Palace of Justice, addressed to a group of prosecutors who had worked on her case. “I think you already know my story, but here I wish to start from the beginning,” she wrote. “After six months of imprisonment, on 14 October, 2010, I expressed my desire to Dr. Cerreti to pursue this path, driven by my love as a mother and my desire to lead a better life away from the environment in which we were born and lived. . . . My hope is that we still have time.” Driving back from Lucca, she wrote, “I realized the importance of my motivation to collaborate: my children’s future, and the love of a man who loves me for who I am and not for my last name.” She feared that she had lost credibility, but she assured the prosecutors that her evidence was real. “Your Honor, I would like to tell you that I’m not crazy, like they said,” she wrote. “I never told lies. I just had a moment of confusion.”
The prosecution of sixty-four members of the Pesce ’ndrina opened the next month, with the full trial beginning in May, 2012, when Giuseppina Pesce was called to testify. The court convened in the grand marble courthouse in Palmi. The defendants were ushered past the columns of the portico and into a windowless room, where they were placed in a large cage. Pesce gave testimony by video link from a bunker in Rebibbia prison, in Rome; cameras had been arranged so that she could not be seen by her family members and mostly could not see them, unless they stood in the witness stand. For a week, Cerreti led her through the evidence. In forty hours of nearly continuous testimony, Pesce described the family’s empire and detailed numerous murders, the result of an endless war encouraged by the rules of clan feuding: “You killed one of ours, we killed one of yours.”
Despite the protection of the video link, Pesce’s family made several last attempts to intimidate her. Her brother Francesco coughed whenever she mentioned his name, which she told Cerreti was a message: I hear what you’re saying about me. Her sister Marina persuaded a prison guard to pass her a photograph of the two of them with their children. One day, her father, Salvatore, asked permission to make a statement, and stood in the dock; when Giuseppina saw him on the screen, she began to cry. He was wearing a white shirt with blue stripes that she had given him as a present. “It was her father’s way of reminding her of her blood ties,” Cerreti said. Salvatore then read from a sheet of paper. “I want to tell my daughter that everybody loves her. And after this is all over, when all the lights have been turned out and all these careers have been improved and when you’re all by yourself, you will find us here waiting for you. We’ll be here.”
The case took nearly five years to conclude. Finally, on March 29, 2017, after all appeals were exhausted, thirty-four sentences were confirmed. Pesce’s uncle Antonino, the clan leader, was sentenced to twenty-eight years, her father to twenty, her husband to nineteen, her mother and her brother to thirteen. Her grandmother Giuseppa Bonarrigo had been sentenced to a year and eight months. Seven other relatives were sentenced to between thirteen and sixteen years. Acting on Pesce’s evidence, Cerreti confiscated four villas, forty-four apartments, forty businesses, a hundred and sixty-four cars, sixty plots of land, and two soccer teams, together worth some two hundred and sixty million euros.
After the trial, Pesce and her children were kept under state protection. Members of the Italian witness-protection program lead a cautious, tenuous, and often tedious existence. Typically moving at least once a year through a series of cheap guesthouses and small apartments with basic furnishings, they are often unable to work or to experience more than fleeting human contact. Communication with anyone from their previous life is largely forbidden. An Italian journalist who visited several safe houses described people living with near-terminal boredom, unable to go out, missing the company of friends and family. He said that most of them show little care for the places where they stay, with plates of old food and full ashtrays left sitting around. Still, security demands that most never leave the program.
Cerreti described her former witness as conscious of what she had given up. “She knows what she did is another death,” Cerreti said. “It has to be her brother, the same blood, who kills her to restore the family honor. And one day he will get out.” But Pesce was at peace, she said; it had been years since Cerreti had seen her doubt herself. In testimony, Pesce had spoken of how the ’Ndrangheta men turned love and sanctuary into hate, intimidation, and fear. “That’s the evil I see,” she said. “Evil in the sense that this chain doesn’t break—this willingness to go on committing crimes. That’s why women are always going to meet with prisoners and now are prisoners ourselves.” As she broke with the family, she had gone to jail and had seen her children tormented; her friend had been murdered. But her letter to the Palace of Justice suggested quiet acceptance. “All these experiences strengthened me as a woman,” she wrote. “I found the strength to make this important decision, to defy a fearsome, powerful, and unforgiving family. I knew the risks for me and for my loved ones. But in the end I did it.” ♦