(Abstracted from a lengthy article in the New Yorker entitled “The Women Who Took on the Mafia”)
Once considered little more than a group of country bandits in the Calabrian region of Italy, after the 1990s the ‘Ndrangheta (pronounced “n-drahng-ghe-ta”) became one of the most powerful crime syndicates in the world. By 2010, it ran 70% of the cocaine trade in Europe; it extorted billions of euros from businesses and swindled both Italy and the EU of billions more 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 50 countries.
Like other mafia organizations, the ‘Ndrangheta revolved around family structure. Each family was a miniature fiefdom, in which women were little more than slaves. Fathers married their daughters off as teenagers to seal clan alliances. Women were beaten for speaking their minds, and unfaithful wives were killed, usually by their closest male relatives.
Italian prosecutors agreed that ‘Ndrangheta women led tragic lives. But they didn’t consider women of much use in their fight…until the Mafia prosecutor Alessandra Cerreti arrived in Calabria. She believed that judicial officials, who were mostly men, missed the importance of ‘Ndrangheta women because “Italian men underestimate all women.” The team she joined in Calabria was an exception; it 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 a strict belief in omertà and a hatred of outsiders. But many also became involved in the business. At times, they acted as messengers between fugitives or imprisoned comrades, passing along tiny, folded notes—pizzini—written in code. Some women acted as paymasters and bookkeepers. A few took part in the violence.
Cerreti believed that female informants were an invaluable source of information but that it would take enormous bravery for them to cooperate. When Italy declared war on the ‘Ndrangheta in 2010, she got her first break. Following raids in several towns, 30 people were arrested, including 7 women. Giuseppina Pesce, whose husband was already in jail, knew that she faced more than a decade behind bars herself. But what really bothered her was that she was having an affair, and the newspapers reported that she had been detained with a man. She would probably be killed and her three children would be raised by the ‘Ndrangheta. She finally asked to speak with prosecutor Cerreti and they eventually made a deal. “Everything I testify to now, I do to give my children a different future.”
Pesce’s evidence ran to more than 1500 pages. It included diagrams of the ‘Ndrangheta hierarchy, descriptions of rituals, evidence of murders, locations of bunkers (where the criminals lived), detailed accounts of cocaine smuggling, extortion rackets, money laundering, credit-card fraud, and public corruption. It supported existing cases and opened up many new ones. Pesce’s betrayal shook the ‘Ndrangheta. And it mobilized her family who thought that if she were collaborating for the sake of her children, she would stop for them too. Then a long series of threats began using Pesce’s children as pawns. Pesce recanted her testimony.
Following the murder of a girlfriend who had become an informant, Giuseppina Pesce regained her resolve. The trial of 64 members of the Pesce ‘ndrina (clan) began in 2012 and took 5 years to complete. In the end, her evidence brought down one of Europe’s most powerful crime families.
For both Ceretti and Pesce, it was a brave journey in a life characterized by isolation, friendlessness, and fear. The prosecutor has a steel office door, drives in an armor-plated car, and has 4 bodyguards but very few friends. Her husband’s identity is a secret and she has no children for fear of their lives. Pesce and her children will be kept under the witness protection program for the rest of their lives. They lead a tedious existence. They move at least once a year and cannot communicate with anybody in their prior life. One day Giuseppina’s brother will get out of jail and will try to find her and kill her. “All of these experiences strengthened me as a woman. I knew the risks, but in the end I did it.”