Blood feud that led to betrayal over a kitchen table in Puglia

It began with a case of horse-rustling and a bitter dispute over grazing. In the 30 years that followed, it cost 35 lives. Then one woman decided to blow the whistle on a deadly vendetta. Peter Popham reports
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We don't know her name, and for excellent reasons her photograph has not been released, but from the police description we can picture her well enough: a brunette, petite, angular, 25; pretty and striking, no doubt, to have caught the fancy of the powerful man she was about to betray.

Alone she bustled down the platform of Foggia station and caught the train to Bari, capital of the Puglia region in the far south of Italy. Alone she walked to the Tribunale, the court building in the city centre, took the lift to the second floor and presented herself to the Direzione Investigativa AntiMafia, the regional crime squad dedicated to tackling organised crime.

"Officer," she said, "I'm tired of watching murder, attacks and vendettas cooked up around my kitchen table while I'm making dinner..." And her long tale of butchery and revenge began to unfold.

As a result of what she said, police in the Gargano region staged overnight raids this week netting 90 alleged gangsters implicated in avendetta that has claimed 35 lives.

The young woman, now re-settled in a secret location with a new identity, was the "companion" as she put it, of the leader of a gang in the town of Sannicandro Garganico, Puglia. And the crimes dreamt up by the family's menfolk while she was chopping basil, stirring the ragu or throwing pasta in the pot belong to a vendetta between rival clans, principally the Ciaravella and the Tarantino, that has been going on for 30 years. Besides the 35 dead, there have been 50 other attempted murders.

It began back in the 1970s with a case of horse-rustling and a bitter dispute between herdsmen over grazing land. Crime begat crime in the traditional southern way, with sons and brothers goaded by wives and mothers to exact revenge and protect the family's omerta, or honour. The key atrocity, which set the tone for all that followed, came in March 1981: an entire family, comprising Matteo Ciaravella and his wife and three children aged between five and 17, were slaughtered in their home. Their bodies were never found. It is thought they were ground to a paste and fed to the pigs.

The man believed responsible for the massacre belonged to the Tarantino family, with whom the Ciaravella had already been feuding for years. And now it was the turn of the Tarantino to suffer the blows of honour. The most recent one to die was Antonio Tarantino, 41, blown away with three shots from a pistol outside a bar in Sannicandro Garganico. Of the eight Tarantino brothers, Antonio was the sixth to die violently, all continuing to pay the blood-price for the slaughter of Matteo Ciaravella and his family. Giuseppe Tarantino, Antonio's brother, has been in jail since 1981, serving life for the Ciaravella family murder.

But that will be of no consequence to the family's enemies because, as Clare Longrigg writes in her book Mafia Women, "The law of vendetta does not acknowledge any other form of justice." If the feud - faihida in local dialect - continues, and the first, nightmarish rule of vendetta is that it never ends until everyone is dead, Giuseppe Tarantino can also expect to be gunned down one of these days, either inside prison or out.

Sannicandro Garganico is on the edge of the Gargano National Park on the heel of the Italian boot. Until a few decades ago, Gargano was practically unvisited by the outside world except for the occasional pilgrim. It was a mountainous promontory rising like a mysterious island from the plains of Tavoliere, shut away by dense forests of beech and oak. Seen from the north, southern Italy is lawless, feudalistic, introverted, marching to a different drum; and as southern Italy is to the north, Gargano is to the rest of the south.

Although the Gargano case is now being handled by the Direzione Investigativa AntiMafia, this is the first time in the long involvement of the forces of law and order with the clan war that the word "Mafia" has been invoked. These warring families are not in origin Mafia gangs as the outside world understands Sicilian clans such as the Corleone to be. They are merely farming families who ran fatally afoul of one another, in a region where the presence of the Italian state remains hazy, where state justice is either absent or too late.

Crimes of horse-rustling and pasture-poaching, the details long since bleached from collective memory, long ago begat crimes of blood in punishment. And in the lands where "blood calls blood", that was enough to set the vendetta ball rolling.

And because what was at stake was that glittering, ineffable entity known as omerta, it was not enough that the one who had given offence or his kin be merely rubbed out. The crime must be avenged in bold colours, on the big screen, with all the effects of grand guignol drama that the theatrically beautiful towns of southern Italy can provide: the victim emerging after Mass from some immense baroque church, surrounded by hundreds of fellow-worshippers, or if shot at home, struck by so many bullets from that no identity remained.

Attempts to short-circuit the vendetta by bringing in the police are singled out for exemplary punishment. Antonio Miucci, a member of one of the clans involved in this faihida, went to the police after his brother was murdered by two hired killers wearing carnival masks. He gave the police the names he knew, and six men were duly arrested. All were, however, acquitted for want of evidence. One year later, on 14 August 1993, in the piazza of Monte Sant'Angelo, Miucci was himself shot dead by another man in a carnival mask.

"Many trials," as the local people say cynically, "many acquittals". "Many enemies," they say, in terms of mingled respect and fear, "much honour".

Much blood spilt and few witnesses: Antonio Tarantino was murdered outside a busy bar in San Nicardo Garganico on 1 November last year, on a public holiday, when the streets were teeming with people. "Many people," wrote the crime reporter on a local news website, "but few witnesses." Was the killer on foot, in a car or scooter, was he near or far? No-one saw a thing.

All this is the classic mise-en-scene of the southern Italian vendetta: it could have happened just like this, one supposes, give or take a few technical details, at any time in the past 500 years or more. But like the rest of Italy, Gargano is changing fast. Much of the beautiful woodland has been cleared, for example, and this once remote corner of the country has now been discovered by foreign tourists.

And the warring families of Ciavarella and Tarantino have been changing, too.

They have, in a word, turned professional. Grazing and horse-stealing was granddad's thing; now they kill each other over the usual staples of organised crime: drug importing and dealing, protection money, extortion, kickbacks from public works projects.

And perhaps that is part of the explanation for why one housewife decided to call it a day. Thirty years ago, when they first answered the call of omerta, these were country families like all others, absorbed in the rearing of their crops and animals, neighbours and feast days. Thirty years protecting family "honour" has transformed them into brutal and pitiless criminals. Perhaps she noticed the glaring contradiction.

Because what she did was entirely out of character for women trapped in a blood feud. Like Lady Macbeth, the classic female role is to egg on their menfolk. "The classic view of Mafia women," says Clare Longrigg, "is of avenging angels in black veils, crying vendetta for the murder of their loved ones."

It is a view endorsed by the travel writer Norman Lewis, who once married the daughter of a Mafia boss. He describes a blood feud between two families from the suburbs of Palermo, in the late 19th century.

"A man might be approached," he wrote in The Honoured Society, "by some enshrouded, tragic crone he had never seen before - the female head of one of the clans - who would inform him that he was now the surviving head of the [family], and that he must consider himself in a state of ritual vendetta with some cousin he had never seen or heard of..."

He described one of the constant features of the ritual: "the kissing, even pretended sucking, of the wounds [of the dead man], by close relations such as mother, wife or brother, followed by the spoken formula: 'In this way may I drink the blood of the man who killed you....'"

The exception to that rule only serves to drive it home: a Palermo woman in the 1960s, Serafina Battaglia, went to court to denounce the men who had murdered her husband and son - only because no man was now left alive to avenge her. As long as her son remained alive she had given him no peace.

"After her husband's murder," wrote Nino Calderone in Gli uomini del disonore, "every morning without fail she would scream at her son: 'Get uuuuup! They have murdered your father! Get uuuuup! You must go out and kill them!'"

Signora Battaglia's faith in vendetta was perhaps retrospectively vindicated when, as happened so often in Mafia cases before the age of the supergrass, all the men she denounced were acquitted.

This week 90 men are in jail in the town of Foggia thanks to one woman's revelations; but another 30, including the alleged chiefs of the warring clans, are still free - quite enough, police fear, to get the vendetta back on the rails again.

"This is an organisation that has been characterised by extreme omerta" the anti-Mafia prosecutor Pier Luigi Vigna told reporters after the arrests. "I am extremely grateful for [this woman's] action."

As a result of what she has told the police, there is enough evidence, it is said, to declare 18 of the 35 clan murders "solved." All that remains is for the rest of the wanted men to be hunted down and put on trial; and for enough witnesses to be coaxed to give evidence that the judge can consider their guilt to be proved; in other words for justice to be done.

Then the idea that "honour" means killing people in the most ghastly way imaginable must somehow be extirpated from the region; and one brave young woman must be given the opportunity to make herself a new life.

It's a tall order.