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Daily Mirror
Daily Mirror
Emmeline Saunders

Meet the brave wives and daughters who spoke out to bring down ruthless Italian mafia

The ‘Ndrangheta have controlled southern peninsula of Italy ruthlessly for decades, with hundreds of victims left dead, maimed or vanishing without a trace.

This mafia’s relentless extortion racket – demanding protection money, or pizzo , from businesses – combined with blackmail, money laundering and importing cocaine from Columbia, meant that by 2007, the ‘Ndrangheta was raking in yearly revenue of €40billion (£35bn), the equivalent of 3.5 percent of Italy’s GDP.

Nothing could stop what was one of most powerful criminal organisations in the world, no one would dare touch them.

Or so they believed.

Ironically, for an organisation where family was everything, it was the wives and daughters of the criminals, a handful of brave, determined women, who did what neither rivals nor authorities has managed.

Freed Getty in 1973 (Popperfoto/Getty Images)

This story is now being told in Disney+ show, The Good Mothers, which shines a light on the women of the ‘Ndrangheta – pronounced n- drahng -ghe-ta – and their brave battle to bring some of the worst “godfathers” to justice.

Chief prosecutor Alessandra Cerreti was instrumental in putting some of the clan’s biggest linchpins behind bars, working with three women who put their lives on the line to testify against their families.

Speaking exclusively to the Mirror, she said: “There have been difficult times for both me and these women. For some of them, unfortunately, it didn’t work out because they didn’t trust the State enough. They didn’t allow us to protect them as fully as we would have liked. Thankfully the others are now safe with their children.”

From its origins in the late 18th century, the ‘Ndrangheta steadily increased its influence from the southern city of Calabria and exploded worldwide with the start of wide-scale emigration in the 1950s. Today, the mob still operates globally and has a special relationship with cartels in South America.

Actresses Gaia Girace and Micaela Ramazzotti in scene from The Good Mothers (Daily Mirror)

While building its influence, the ‘Ndrangheta kept most of its illegal activities under wraps, silencing any potential whistleblowers with threats and violence.

That changed in 1973 when the mob kidnapped John Paul Getty III, the grandson of oil tycoon J. Paul Getty, once the richest man in the world, off the street in Rome and keeping him captive in a cave.

Demands to his rich family for a $3.2million ransom were ignored as the Gettys believed the 16-year-old was part of the plot. So the gang sliced off the teenager’s ear and sent it to a newspaper to make it clear they were serious.

When the youngster was released five months later, in December 1973, he was in poor health, and later succumbed to drug and alcohol addiction as a way to cope with his traumatic experiences.

Mirror report of Getty kidnap (Handout)
Lea Garofalo with daughter Denise (DAILY MIRROR)

The ‘Ndrangheta were linked to more than 200 such abductions between the 1970s and mid-1990s, and by 2010 were estimated by the Italian state to be running 70% of Europe’s cocaine trade. Their tentacles snaked around the globe, extorting billions from businesses, government and even the European Union through dodgy contracts for ports, roads and energy production.

Closer to home, the mob went after their perceived enemies with laser focus. Italian magistrate Francesco Ferlaino was gunned down in cold blood while returning home one night in July 1975. In 1983, marine engineer Gennaro Musella was blown up by a car bomb for interfering in a public contract for the construction of a new port.

Alessandra, now 55, had good reason to pursue the ‘Ndrangheta. Growing up in Sicily, where the Cosa Nostra ran the island with an iron fist, and residents turned a blind eye out of fear.

The period which coincided with the first 15 years of her life is known in Sicily as la mattanza – the slaughter, with more than 1,700 Sicilians killed by the Mafia.

Giuseppina Pesce provided detailed testimony (DAILY MIRROR)

“At that time I didn’t understand what the mafia was, but I decided that I had to stop them,” she says from her office in Milan. “I have always dreamed of being an anti-mafia judge and I worked hard to become one.”

Other state prosecutors had tried and failed to stop the syndicate, but Alessandra had a new tactic: targeting the women trapped within layers of family loyalty, menacing threats to their lives and omertà , the code of honour and silence.

All too often the women had been dismissed by the Italian state as mere victims, as they were married off young by their fathers to seal alliances between clans, or ‘ndrine , and their behaviour was fiercely monitored by brothers, cousins and uncles.

Widows could be killed by family members if they were caught being “unfaithful” to their dead husbands, their bodies dissolved in acid or burnt to expunge the black stain from the family’s honour.

Police images of Lea and suspects (Lanese/EPA/REX/Shutterstock)

So betrayal was virtually unknown.

That changed with Lea Garofalo, who was 16 when she fell in love with a cocaine smuggler called Carlo Cosco and eloped with him. They had a daughter, Denise, and Lea was once forced to watch Cosco and his brother slaughter a man in Milan. Having been born into the ‘Ndrangheta, she knew there was no way out.

“You don’t live, you just survive in some way,” she once said. “You dream about something, anything – because nothing’s worse than that life.”

Desperate to make a new life for her and Denise, she bravely went to the authorities to turn in her husband. Forced to flee into witness protection, she was tailed by Cosco’s men for the next 13 years, until he was released from prison and begged to see her. Knowing the risk she ran, Lea decided to meet him in Milan.

Site where trial held in Calabria (SALVATORE MONTEVERDE/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

The first few days were quiet and calm, they dined together as a family each evening. But on the last night, Lea disappeared. Fragments of her body were found years later: she had been burnt and hit in the face with a mast multiple times. The message was clear: if you cross the ‘Ndrangheta, you pay with your life.

It was at this point in 2010 that Alessandra joined the prosecutor’s office. She worked with fearless Denise to get justice for her mum. Six mobsters including Cosco and two of his brothers were given life sentences for the brutal murder.

It led to two more women coming forward with their own stories of life in the mob. Maria Concetta Cacciola, who had been married off at 13 and beaten by her husband, walked into a police station one day and told the officer she was willing to testify against the ‘Ndrangheta.

After meeting with Alessandra, she left her children and family for witness protection. But it wasn’t long before her furious relatives tracked her down and began intimidating her, using her children as leverage.

A call centre was converted for 2021 mob maxi-trial (AFP via Getty Images)

Unable to take the pressure, after seven weeks of testimony Cacciola returned home. Days later she was dead, with an empty litre bottle of hydrochloric acid found next to her body in the family’s basement.

Her parents claimed it was suicide; a recording of her retracting her evidence turned up at the prosecutors’ office three days later. Alessandra despaired: the case against the ‘Ndranghetista was breaking down and the death would surely dissuade any other woman from coming forward.

But she hadn’t counted on Cacciola’s friend Giuseppina Pesce, who had eloped with an ‘Ndranghetista named Rocco Palaia at 14. Pesce was aware her three children would be subjected to the same strict rules as she was. When she was arrested in a 2010 raid, newspapers reported she was having an affair while her husband was in jail.

“Someone who betrays and dishonours the family must be punished by death,” she later said. “It is a law.”

If she was killed or jailed, her two young daughters would have been married off by the mob and her innocent son would have been raised to kill. While in custody, she decided to write to Alessandra and promised to tell the state everything she knew.

“It was an important moment,” says the prosecutor. “Historic. I had to make that young woman understand there was a different life option for her children, a future of freedom. It wasn’t easy but I did it. That woman’s love for her children was stronger than the mafia ties with the family.”

Pesce’s 1,500-page testimony detailed cocaine movements, credit card fraud, evidence of murders and diagrams of the mob’s hierarchy, and was enough to charge 64 members of the ’ndrina with crimes. After five years, multiple members of the clan were jailed, including her uncle, father, husband, mother, brother and grandmother.

Pesce is now in witness protection, moved between safe houses every year to reduce the risk of retaliatory attacks. She is not permitted to speak to anyone from her old life, but in a letter said she has no regrets.

“All these experiences strengthened me”, she said. “I knew the risks for me and for my loved ones. But in the end I did it.”

While the ‘Ndrangheta still operates, the authorities have a better grip on its activities as a result of the women’s brave actions. Alessandra, who must go everywhere with bodyguards, sees stopping the mob as her life’s work. “I’ve never been afraid for my safety, because I am the State,” she says.

There are four main Italian mobs:

Sicily’s Cosa Nostra: Known as the Sicilian Mafia, the Cosa Nostra has existed since the 19th century and has 5,500 members. It is organised into “families”, or cosca, each controlling a single territory of the island of Sicily.

Calabria’s ‘Ndrangheta: Now the most powerful mob in Italy, the ‘Ndrangheta seized the bulk of drug trading from the Cosa Nostra in the 1990s, building links with the cartels of South America.

Puglia’s Sacra Corona Unita: Itailan for United Sacred Crown, the SCU was formed in 1981 and uses Catholic symbolism to recruit members. Main earnings come from drug and arms trafficking, prostitution and extortion.

Campania’s Camorra: Dating back to the 17th century, the mob is known as the most violent and murderous group in Italy. It has a horizontal hierarchy, making it harder to remove its top brass because another faction will step in.

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