'The Good Mothers' profiles the female prosecutor who took on Italy's mafia

Alessandra Cerreti took the unusual route of stalking southern Italy's Ndrangheta through the group's wives and mothers.

The Good Mothers: The True Story of the Women Who Took on the World's Most Powerful Mafia By Alex Perry William Morrow 352 pp.

In "The Godfather, Part II," Michael Corleone, played by Al Pacino, looks out over Lake Tahoe to ensure his brother Fredo is properly dispatched by a professional assassin. While this familial drama was the province of Hollywood lore, half a world away this would barely warrant a mention in the local newspaper.

In November 2009, Lea Garofalo was brutally murdered, dismembered, and dumped in acid in suburban Milan by her ex-husband, Carlo Cosco, a man with whom she had begun to reconcile after a tumultuous past. Like Corleone, Cosco’s primary allegiance resided not with family but with his criminal clan. Cosco belonged to the Ndrangheta, the Calabrian crime outfit that rivaled its Sicilian (Cosa Nostra) and Neapolitan (Camorra) cousins in both power and reach, if not public notoriety.

Even today precious little is known about the Ndrangheta. Unlike the Cosa Nostra which recruits its members from a particular geography, the path into the Ndrangheta is only by birth or marriage. By co-opting the Italian family structure, the Ndrangheta created an organization that remains nearly impenetrable to law enforcement authorities worldwide.

The Ndrangheta is proficient in drug trafficking, loan sharking, and extortion, among the other dark arts that have been long-practiced by various criminal enterprises from Boston to Shanghai over the centuries. What differentiates the organization is its remarkable political power. The railway that connects Gioia Tauro, one of the largest container ports in the Mediterranean, to Europe stops 1.5 kilometers short of the actual shipping terminal. This logistical anomaly is no coincidence. It ensures that Ndrangheta-owned trucking companies enjoy a monopoly on the three-minute overland trip necessary to transfer all goods from ship to rail. Neither international commercial interests nor the Italian government possess the power or will to unseat the Ndrangheta from this lucrative arrangement.

Alessandra Cerreti set out to unsettle the Ndrangheta’s iron grip on much of southern Italy. Already a seasoned prosecutor, she arrived in Calabria in early 2009, having eagerly pursued the role for the unique opportunity to tackle the mafia. This was an assignment for a lawyer driven by a bold mission and a small measure of masochism, not one in pursuit of glamour or safety. Any venture outside the confines of her fortified apartment in the Carabinieri barracks required an armed escort. Cerreti was thick in the middle of enemy country.

In The Good Mothers: The True Story of the Women Who Took on the World’s Most Powerful Mafia, Alex Perry chronicles Cerreti’s siege of the Ndrangheta through the unlikeliest of sources; the very women who are supposed to maintain its traditions and enforce its secrecy.

Cerreti’s approach was unique because she was the first to actively recruit the women who were wives of and mothers to the Ndrangheta’s soldiers. Many of these women were abused, cloistered, and prevented from leaving their hometowns. Primary school was often the academic ceiling for them. Divorce was akin to a death sentence, and the Ndrangheta decided where and with whom a divorced couple’s children lived. Lea Garofalo was one of these women, and Cerreti’s quest did not stop until she brought her killer and his criminal retinue to justice.

Perry’s account is thorough and wrenching. It is difficult for an outsider to comprehend the ferocity of the Ndrangheta or the gruesome demands it makes of its constituents. While Cerreti’s work has made an indelible mark on the Ndrangheta, Perry leaves no doubt that securing any long-lasting gains will require much more than an enterprising prosecutor and her devoted team of attorneys and law enforcement professionals. The real healing begins when a society, even a small part of it, demands that the rotting appendage is not welcome within the body politic any longer.

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