WOMAN OF HONOUR
In Calabria, aristocracy is a byword for decadence: the grand old families have proved the most spinelessly compliant of all the collaborator s in the brutal new world of the modern Mafia. But 63- year-old Baroness Teresa Cordopatri dei Capece is made of sterner stuff
Sunday 25 February 1996
The Baroness's misfortune is to have been the heir to a lush, fertile olive grove, 12 hectares all told, near the village of Castellace, in the wooded plain of Gioia Tauro in southern Calabria. Castellace was once the Cordopatri family's country seat, a fine villa some 40 miles north of the provincial capital, Reggio Calabria. For the past 50 years, however, the village has been the stronghold of the Mammoliti clan, one of the region's most powerful Mafia families, which through a mixture of intimidation, bureaucratic sleight of hand and raw violence has gradually taken over the surrounding olive groves and citrus orchards for itself.
Mostly, the aristocratic landowners in the area have capitulated without a whimper. Why risk life and limb when there is a far more palatable alternative - selling out and clearing out? The Calabrian countryside is littered with deserted villas whose fine furniture and family heirlooms have been abandoned and, later, filched. Scores of mountain villages have closed up their shutters and died as their better-off inhabitants - including most of the Cordopatri family - have moved north. But one branch of the Cordopatris has held out.
Teresa's father Domenico began the fight in the Sixties; her brother Tonino continued it in the Seventies and Eighties. Both are now dead - Tonino was murdered by the Mafia in 1991 - and for the past five years Teresa has battled on alone.
Although nearly 60 years old at the time of her brother's murder, and quite unprepared for a life of political activism, the Baroness has proved herself more than equal to the task. In common with other members of that tiny but indomitable band of brave individuals whose courage has helped keep post-war Italy from utter anarchy and despair (one thinks of the assassinated Sicilian judge Giovanni Falcone, or the women who came to Calabria in the late Eighties to demand the release of their kidnapped children), she has turned into an extraordinary and highly effective symbol of the country's remaining anti-Mafia resistance. Speaking out about her plight in a part of the world where most people are too frightened to open their mouths, she has refused to waver even when confronted with the most extraordinary pressure from her former friends, her adversaries and certain organs of the state itself. Thanks to her resolve, and her testimony in court, her brother's killers are now behind bars, while 35 members of the Mammoliti clan are on trial for Mafia-related activities.
But the battle is not over. The Mammolitis, although weakened, are not vanquished; the Baroness is far from triumphant. For reasons of both security and personal impoverishment, the Baroness is no longer able to live at the family's town residence on the main street in Reggio Cal-abria, an imposing 18-room palazzo built by her uncle after the 1908 earthquake in the pseudo-rococo Liberty style then popular in Italy; instead she has moved into her cousin Angelica's flat on the shoddy outskirts of town. Her country villa has been reduced to a burnt-out shell, its valuables long ago looted or smashed. She has had to give up her regular livelihood, an antiques business, in order to devote herself full-time to her judicial and personal battles. She has been ostracised from polite society, and friends who once invited her for coffee when they bumped into her now cross the street to avoid her accusing gaze. Since November, meanwhile, she and Angelica have had to make a hazardous hour-long journey to Castellace every day and pick their olives themselves under armed guard, because no labourer dares work for them. For an aristocrat with a 1,200-year history of land-owning in Calabria, that is a humiliation of almost tragic dimensions.
"We are the living dead waiting for justice," she remarks bitterly about the plight in which she and her two loyal companions - Angelica and Angelica's son Giuseppe - now find themselves. "My life has meaning only if I manage to spend it fighting the arrogance of the Mafia."
CATCHING UP with the Baroness to interview her, you quickly understand her sense of isolation. The road to Castellace may be breathtaking, taking you along the rocky corniche of the Tyrrhenian coast and then inland into the lushly cultivated foothills of the otherwise forbiddingly rugged Aspromonte mountains, but the village itself is a sad, jumbled collection of poorly built houses hiding behind high stone and concrete walls. Ask for directions to the Cordopatri estate, which is hidden away down a rough track a few hundred yards from the village's centre, and everyone stares at you suspiciously before answering, without an ounce of sincerity: "I wouldn't know, I'm not from around here."
On the day I arrived at the olive grove - a deceptively peaceful oasis of high, arching, sun-dappled trees - the Baroness was not there. One of the cars in her police escort had crashed (nothing more sinister than the result of driving too fast, a common weakness among Calabrian policemen), and the whole convoy had headed off to Polistena hospital, some 15 miles away. The Baroness had been penned into a heavily-guarded waiting room and was now too shocked to talk. Nobody, it turned out, had been seriously hurt.
Eventually we meet the following evening, at her home in Angelica's flat in Reggio Calabria, in a middle-rise building near the sea. In endearingly aristocratic fashion, she apologises for appearing in a simple sweater, slacks and slippers, explaining that she is still shaken from the previous day's accident. The Baroness is nevertheless an elegant woman, her smooth, moon-shaped face framed by a thick sweep of greying hair. Her poise compensates for any signs of strain; she even manages an occasional smile. All around us, the elegant furniture bears the heraldic symbol of the Cordopatri family, a sun and three stars in the top half, a mountain range and a large heart in the bottom. (The name Cordopatri means, literally, "I give my heart to my country.") Five cats play happily as we talk.
The Baroness, though not strident, is forthright. "The Mafia are no better than sewer rats, strong only when they are drugged up and carry a pistol in their hand," she says. "They only win because people are afraid of them. My conviction is that the Mafia is not strong at all."
These are fighting words from a woman whose story speaks volumes about the vice-like grip in which the Calabrian Mafia, known locally as the 'ndrangheta ("honoured society"), holds the social and economic life of the region. Calabria has a higher concentration of Mafia activity than anywhere in Italy, more so even than Sicily, and Reggio Calabria is its most insidious corner. The influence of organised crime hangs like a pall over every aspect of day-to-day life. As a Calabrian, you have to be careful not to step into the wrong bar for your wake-up cup of cappuccino, or park your car in the wrong spot; traffic wardens, meanwhile, distribute parking tickets at their peril. "Calabria is the problem to beat all problems," says Salvatore Boemi, the most prominent of Reggio's anti-Mafia prosecutors. "We have to find a way to isolate the Mafia, otherwise we will never get rid of it."
IN MANY ways, Baroness Cordopatri's battle with the Mammoliti clan epitomises the social forces which underly Italy's ambivalent relationship with the Mafia. It is a classic confrontation between the old aristocratic order and the new entrepreneurial criminal classes that have sprouted from the agrarian peasantry.
The Cordopatris once owned nearly all of the plain of Gioia Tauro, the most fertile territory in Calabria, whose lush soil and warm, humid climate help produce some of the finest olives, lemons and oranges in Italy. In the 18th century, though, the estates began to be divided; Baroness Teresa's line of the family ended up inheriting just 40 hectares, including the fateful 12-hectare olive grove.
Despite the evident decline, the Baroness still talks enthusiastically about the noble blood of her lineage, starting with the Swabian princes who founded the dynasty in the sixth century. She notes how the Cordopatris first came to southern Italy with Charlemagne, establishing themselves as landowners several hundred years before the Savoys, the Piedmontese dynasty which provided Italy's short-lived royal family. "Our family felt only contempt for them. In fact, when my father said he wanted to join the diplomatic service in the early years of this century, my grandfather forbade him, saying no Cordopatri would ever be allowed to serve the House of Savoy."
The Cordopatris have always been refined, educated and well-connected. Teresa's grandfather was friends with mad King Ludwig II of Bavaria, while her father entertained the post-war generation of government ministers, including the founding father of the republic, Alcide De Gasperi. When the Baroness was baptised in 1933 (as Teresa Maria Rosaria Carmen Rachele Cordopatri dei Capece), the guests were driven to church by liveried chauffeurs and the women were all offered perfumed lavender bottled for the occasion.
The Mammolitis, by contrast, are of rough peasant stock. Unlike the families of Cosa Nostra in Sicily, who have moved down into the cities from their mountain villages, the 'ndrangheta clans have never allowed their new- found wealth to persuade them to leave the rural estates where their forefathers worked for generations.
Calabria is Italy's poorest area, a wild, rugged region in which starvation and disease, particularly malaria, have never entirely lost their foothold. The inward-looking, largely agricultural population has always resented the successive waves of invaders and aristocratic exploiters of their land. ('Ndrangheta is an ancient Greek word, a linguistic throwback to the days when Calabria was part of colonial Magna Graecia.) Originally, the Mammolitis were exploited along with the rest. But when feudalism was abolished in southern Italy in the early 19th century, the landowners' stranglehold was replaced by that of the network of estate managers that they had established. These were the forerunners of the modern Mafia. By the beginning of this century they had begun to stand up to their masters, with growing impunity. At first this 'ndrangheta activity took the form of working-class solidarity, a kind of "poor man's freemasonry", as the eminent local journalist Aldo Varano puts it; it was only later that the clans also began intimidating the peasant classes from which they themselves stemmed. The Baroness recalls the intensity of class hostility that greeted her on her first trip to Castellace at the age of eight. The guardian at the gate of the family estate leaned over and whispered to her: "Landlords are like death, always coming even if you don't expect them."
In the Fifties and Sixties, the most powerful 'ndrangheta families, chiefly the Mammolitis and their rivals the Piromallis, launched into broad-scale expropriations of land and full-blown entrepreneurship, financing their operations by intercepting government development funds or by kidnapping the children of rich industrialists. By the Seventies they were strong enough to seize Paul Getty Jr, terrorising the boy's family by sending them his severed ear. The billion lire (pounds 400,000) paid as ransom for his release in 1974 was invested in the trucks with which the 'ndrangheta won all the transportation contracts for the container port of Gioia Tauro. (This turned out to be one of the biggest development white elephants in Italian history: only the Mafia ever made any serious money from it.)
One of the men charged with the Getty kidnapping was Saro Mammoliti, the head of the clan, nicknamed the "playboy of Castellace" for his good looks and taste in women. By that time, though, he was too powerful for the judiciary to do him much harm. In 1972 he had escaped from prison, and he lived more or less openly without fear of recapture for the next 20 years. In 1976 he got married at Castellace's parish church, a stone's throw from the police station, and he subsequently visited each of his new-born children at the local hospital. In the Getty affair, he was acquitted by an obliging local judge.
The Mammolitis' harassment of the Cordopatris began during the Second World War, when the Baroness's father, Baron Domenico, was away serving as an artillery captain in the Italian campaign in Albania and the olive crop was regularly stolen. Then, in the ensuing decades, the harassment slowly materialised into solid threats. The villa at Castellace was regularly burgled; on one occasion a broken statue was left outside the front door, a coded Mafia message meaning that there would be further attacks later. Notes would arrive at the Cordopatri palazzo in Reggio Calabria saying: "Baron, if you don't give us the land we will kill you in front of your house and then we will kill your family too."
The Baron had no intention of giving up. Time and again he had impressed upon his children the need to hold on to their family heritage. In a recently published memoir, Baroness Teresa recalls a moment in her childhood when her father turned to her at the olive grove in Castellace and said: "This land is the land of my fathers. These trees are the testimony of a past laden with glory. They are my past, the roots of my life. The love which binds me to the land is the same as the love that binds me to life itself."
Such sentiments were not wasted. When a stroke confined the Baron to a wheelchair, in 1965, his son, Tonino, took up the fight. He soon discovered what a hazardous enterprise this was. In 1972, Tonino was shot at from a motorcycle while driving to the olive grove. Thereafter, he sought to contact the Mammolitis and ask them what they wanted. He was invited to one of the five houses in Castellace occupied by the clan, discovering to his horror that the room where he sat was filled with 17th-century furniture previously looted from his own property. It was a typically unnerving display of Mafia power. Saro Mammoliti offered Tonino roughly 10 per cent of the market price for the olive grove; Tonino said he would rather cut down every last olive tree and leave the ground barren. Shortly afterwards, a message arrived at the house in Reggio Calabria: "At the cutting of the first olive branch you are a dead man."
On this occasion, as on every other, Tonino and Teresa reported the incident to the police, but to no avail. For more than 20 years they never received any protection, and never got so much as a hearing from either the criminal or the civil authorities. One of their tenants, a farmer occupying 15 hectares of citrus trees a few kilometres away from the olive grove, has paid no rent since 1968, but the local administrative court in Palmi - believed by state prosecutors to be tainted by 'ndrangheta interests - has consistently refused to hear the case and authorise an eviction.
In the Seventies and Eighties, the olive grove was also let out, to a farmer named Francesco Ventrice who later turned out to have been used by the Mammolitis, like countless others in his position, as a front for their own interests. Not only did the Mammolitis use him to siphon off profits from the olive grove (including around 100 million lire in EC agricultural subsidies), but they also used his name to set up bank accounts filled with billions of lire in dirty money. According to the Baroness, Ventrice was a good man who allowed himself to be intimidated by the Mafia. "My father threatened to denounce him to the police, but Ventrice responded that he'd rather go to prison than his own funeral," she recounted. Ventrice was eventually arrested in 1992, after Tonino's murder, but was found hanged in his police cell before magistrates got a chance to interrogate him. It is still not clear if his death was suicide, motivated by fear, or murder.
THE DAY that Teresa Cordopatri's world was definitively shattered was 10 July 1991. There had been warnings of renewed trouble - another assassination attempt on Tonino the previous autumn, and a chilling end-of-year message that read: "Eat your fill, because this is the last Christmas that you'll be eating sweets. Next year you'll be chewing dirt." Psychologically, though, she was unprepared to lose her brother; neither of them had ever married, but they drew their strength from each other and their mission to protect a dying dynasty from the Mafia. On the fateful morning, the two of them were about to drive to church when a pale 25-year-old gunman blasted three bullets into Tonino's face as he was getting into the car. The young man turned next on Teresa, who was on her way down the staircase of the palazzo in Reggio, but the gun jammed, leaving nothing more than a scar from the explosion on the Baroness's outstretched hand.
The next few minutes proved crucial, as Teresa ran through the streets after her brother's murderer. The police thought she had had her handbag snatched by a petty crook, and caught up with the assailant, Salvatore Larosa, within 20 minutes. When she picked Larosa instantly out of an identity parade, the judicial authorities were given no room for prevarication and, for the first time in the 30-year-long Cordopatri saga, pressed ahead with charges.
Luckily for her, the magistrate assigned to the case was Salvatore Boemi, later described in a report by the parliamentary Anti-Mafia Commission as "the only voice [in the institutions of the state] who seems to have grasped the gravity of the situation". Boemi and his team not only brought Larosa to court, but also rounded up 35 members of the Mammoliti clan, Don Saro included. Thanks almost exclusively to the Baroness's fearless testimony, Larosa was sentenced to 25 years in prison, while Don Saro's nephew Francesco, held to be the man who ordered the murder, got life. Don Saro himself, meanwhile, was sent down for 22 years for extortion and other Mafia-related charges. The judicial process is still going through the appeal stage, which, failing a major reversal, could result in the Mammolitis' extensive property being impounded.
Such a victory has not come without a price. On the day of the murder, the already dilapidated villa at Castellace was set on fire and the stone steps broken up - Mafia code meaning that the owners would never step inside again. The palazzo in Reggio was also burgled, the robbers getting away with several big black ebony mirrors, armchairs upholstered in rough damask silk, and - perhaps most damagingly - Tonino's personal record of his dealings with the Mammoliti clan over a generation. The trial itself was a nerve-racking experience, as a member of the defence lawyer's bench, never reprimanded by the judge, shouted out in court that the Cordopatris were "a race of shitbags". Throughout her testimony, the Baroness heard the defendants murmur words like "bitch" and "whore" from behind their high-security cages. "I never gave them the satisfaction of seeing me in tears," she said, "but every night when I got home I broke down and wept for hours."
Another cruel blow was in store for the Baroness in September 1994, when she received a tax demand for 300 million lire in death duties on the estates of her uncle, father and murdered brother. The demand made a nonsense of her financial situation, since Mafia intimidation had severely diminished any profit from the family's holdings. She was in no position to pay the bill, but had only a month to find the money - thus piling pressure on her to sell her land to the Mammolitis. Not knowing what else to do, she started a hunger strike outside the law courts in Reggio. On the first morning, her cousin Angelica bought her a pair of jeans, the first she had ever possessed. For 23 days she held out, refusing all solids even after she became ill.
To her surprise, the media rallied to her cause and her plight was advertised on every news programme in the country. Anti-Mafia sentiment in Italy as a whole was running at a high following the brutal murder of Sicily's two most prominent judges, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, in 1992, and the bombing of tourist sites in Rome and Florence the following year. The head of Cosa Nostra, Toto Riina, had recently been captured and his lieutenants were turning state's evidence by the dozen. In Calabria the situation was less dramatic, with very few 'ndrangheta members choosing to break their code of silence and collaborate with the state, but the collapse of Italy's old political system (including the corruption-riddled city council of Reggio Calabria) had undoubtedly weakened even them. Within two weeks, hundreds of volunteers and civil rights protesters had joined the Baroness in her square, and eventually the serving interior minister, Roberto Maroni, made a special trip to Reggio to see her. He hailed her as a heroine - "Baroness Courage", as the newspapers called her - and agreed to defer the tax demand for two years.
Gradually, the state apparatus creaked into action, providing the Baroness with a round-the-clock police escort. But the victory was never more than Pyrrhic. The tax authorities impounded the palazzo and the antiques shop which the Baroness had run for the previous 10 years. Moreover, some local politicians, as well as her former friends and most of her family, have turned against her. According to her own account, the parliamentary leader of the far-right National Alliance, Raffaele Valensise, came to her to encourage her to sell out to the Mafia. Valensise, a former neo-fascist who lives in Reggio, has denied the story, but it has been given credence by members of the parliamentary Anti-Mafia Commission. Meanwhile, a Christian Democrat former deputy, Vito Napoli, has described the Baroness's fight as "a fascist attempt at imperious Stalinism, a political struggle to wipe out the best elements in Calabrian politics".
NOW, with no other means of earning a living, a heavy-hearted Teresa Cordopatri travels with her cousin every day to the olive grove in Castellace to do the work of common labourers. The Baroness finally managed to persuade the interior ministry last month to buy her an automatic fruit-picking machine, which enables her to gather her own harvest from the towering 200-year-old olive trees on her estate and make some money from the land for the first time in years. One local farmer, whom she refuses to name for security reasons, has agreed to buy her crop and process the olives for oil. But these are small signs of progress and they do not satisfy her. Under the ever-watchful eye of her police escort, she feels more like a prisoner than a free citizen. Every now and again, the women of the Mammoliti clan come to her fields to laugh at her.
"I haven't won at all. In fact, I've lost," she remarks. "They may be in jail, but sooner or later they will be allowed out on furloughs and eventually they will be freed completely. But I don't get any furloughs because I have lost my brother for ever. They have won, and all I can do is contain their victory." Where does she find the courage to wage her battles? Is she not afraid of suffering the same fate as her brother? "I am already dead," she says with fatalistic solemnity. "I died at 9.30am on 10 July 1991. What I am doing now is merely carrying out my duty to those members of my family who have gone before me."
One senses that Teresa Cordopatri cannot always be an easy person. The Anti-Mafia Commission report into her case noted an underlying hostility towards the members of her police escort, "as though they all had it in for her". And certain members of the Reggio community fighting against the influence of the Mafia have taken umbrage at her constant assertions that she is alone; they claim that they have been by her side throughout her tribulations.
La Baronessa gives the most genteel of explanations for her occasionally prickly behaviour. "It is true that many ordinary, modest, honest people have stood by me and clasped my hand or hugged me when they've seen me on the street," she says. "But not the people from my social sphere. Respectable Reggio, the Reggio that counts, has spurned and insulted me. Just the other day, one of my own lawyers crossed the street to avoid me." The Baroness's troubles have not displaced her sense of order.
"In the Seventies and Eighties," she goes on, "all our friends deserted us. After Tonino's murder, the family followed suit. I've had to change hairdresser five times in two years, not to mention my laundrette and all the rest. Apart from my cousin and my nephew, I am truly alone."
Giuseppe Cordopatri, 30-year-old heir to the seemingly cursed family legacy, listens on intently. He too is imbued with the same crusading zeal, the determination never to give up, whatever the odds stacked against him. Already he talks about the olive grove at Castellace as "my land"; he describes those relatives who have given up the struggle against the Mafia as "disgusting".
"It would be much easier for me to sell the land and live off the profits for the rest of my life," he says. "But I have a duty towards the family to fulfil. Nobility is not just something you are born into, it is something you have to earn. I would rather strip the land bare than let it fall into the hands of the Mafia." Such were the sentiments that Tonino Cordopatri uttered back in the Seventies in his heated confrontations with Saro Mammoliti. Giuseppe must pray that the tragic fate his uncle suffered does not also lie in store for him. !
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Cameron's freebie to apartheid South Africa
- 2 Sherlock series 3: Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman provide teasers for the biggest comeback in British television
- 3 Is this the scariest advert ever? Japanese tyre commercial comes with its own disclaimer and health warning
- 4 Australian ultra-nationalist politician Stephanie Banister in car crash immigration TV interview
- 5 People will try to reduce Mandela to a lilting reggae tune about ‘love’. They will fail
- < Previous
- Next >