When Maria Concetta Cacciola drank the bottle of acid that would kill her in August last year, one can only imagine what was going through her mind.
The mother of three, 31, had effectively been imprisoned in the family home in the dreary town of Rosarno, in the southern Italian region of Calabria, and probably envisaged a life of torment that made her agonising death pale in comparison. Women from mafia families who seek to sever ties with organised crime face tough choices. Many fear a life of deprivation, loneliness and, of course, retaliation.
Ms Cacciola experienced all of the above, according to investigators who last month pieced together the events that led to her death. Her relatives were leading members of Calabria's 'Ndrangheta mafia, and she had made the unforgivable error of attempting to escape their criminal lifestyle by contacting the authorities, offering information on arms stashes in exchange for protection. But having fled and given evidence, she decided she could not live without her three young children, who she was forced to leave behind.
Ignoring advice from police and lawyers, she retracted her testimony and left the northern city of Genova on 10 August to return to the family home. But 'Ndrangheta does not forget, and it does not forgive those who break its code of silence. After 10 days of psychological and physical abuse, allegedly at the hands of her own family, Ms Cacciola drank the bottle of muriatic acid and died in agony soon afterwards.
Her mother, father and brother were arrested last month, accused of using threatening behaviour and physical violence against her. Ms Cacciola's death came four months after another 'Ndrangheta refugee, Tita Buccafusca, 38, the wife of the mobster Pantaleone Mancuso, died after drinking sulphuric acid in mysterious circumstances. She too, had made a bid for freedom.
Some female informants, such as Denise Garofalo, 20, continue to receive state protection for the evidence they provide. It is difficult to imagine the trauma she experienced in testifying against her mobster father, Carlo Cosco, after he organised the abduction, torture and murder of her mother.
In November 2009, Cosco, a key 'Ndrangheta figure in Milan, lured Ms Garofalo's mother, Lea, who was also an informant, to No 6 Viale Montello, a notorious 'Ndrangheta stronghold in the city. Ostensibly, the meeting was to discuss funding their daughter's higher education. Soon afterwards, she disappeared and was never seen again. In March, Cosco and five others – including two of his brothers – were jailed for life for the killing. The trial heard that Ms Garofalo's body was dissolved in an acid bath in a warehouse north of Milan in a lupara bianca – a mafia hit designed to remove any traces of the deceased.
Denise Garofalo raised the alarm when her mother went missing; she said she knew immediately what had happened. She suffered the additional torment of having to live with her killer father for several months before his arrest. He told her on numerous occasions: "If you were to rebel against me, you'd end up the same way." But she did rebel, providing key testimony against her father. And when, for technical reasons, the trial had to be restarted, she relived the trauma again.
"This trial will be remembered as an historic mafia trial," said Vincenza Rando, a lawyer with the anti-mafia campaign group Libera, who also gave evidence. "There were six life sentences – and this despite the fact no body was recovered. And this was thanks to the incredible bravery of Denise Garofalo."
Corrado De Rosa, a psychiatrist and expert witness in mafia trials, said women who seek a way out of their mafia lives tend to fall into groups. "One group is looking to denounce someone who has killed one of their loved ones," he said. "The other concerns those who want to free themselves from the tyranny of the clan. Effectively, to make a gesture of rebellion."
Ms Cacciola was forced into a loveless marriage at the age of 16, with a man who almost immediately disappeared into the solitary confinement wing of a prison. From then on, she was rarely allowed out of the house, and complained to her few friends of her oppressed existence at the hands of her parents as she strove for the freedoms most young women take for granted.
"Women don't exist in 'Ndrangheta society," said Laura Garavini, a Democratic Party MP and a member of the parliamentary anti-mafia commission. "They are silent. They cannot participate in the organisation's activities. They are objects."
The deaths of women like Lea Garofalo, Maria Cacciola and Tita Buccafusca are Italy's honour killings. After announcing warrants for the arrest of Ms Cacciola's immediate family, an investigating magistrate in Calabria said: "This is a dreadful story that relates to a young woman forced to suffer years of serious psychological abuse and physical violence in a horrible system that puts the protection of the family's honour ahead of everything else."
"The nature of these deaths is a warning to other 'Ndrangheta women who might be thinking of rebelling," said Ms Garavini. "But things are changing. Some of the women are rebelling and 'Ndrangheta is terrified."
Ms Cacciola's cousin, Giuseppina Pesce, is now also collaborating with prosecutors, even helping them to jail some of her family members. But with the odds still stacked against women seeking an escape, the state must do more to help them, says Ms Garavini. In the wake of the Cacciola case, Ms Garavini has tabled a parliamentary question for the Interior Minister, asking why the authorities are not working to allow female informants to take their children when they go into hiding.
Maria Cacciola returned to what would be the scene of her death in order to see her children. Lea Garofalo met her killer because the state was paying him the child support she needed to pay for their daughter's higher education. "Both of these horrible deaths could have been avoided if the state had supported them as mothers of young children within the witness-protection programme," Ms Garavini said.
Ms Rando spoke to Lea Garofalo, whom she described as an "intelligent, sensitive, moral person, who simply wanted a better life for herself and her daughter" two days before she was abducted and killed. At this point, Ms Garofalo had abandoned the witness protection programme; she had been dropped from it once and left after rowing with the interior ministry after her evidence had not brought indictments.
"She told me she felt alone and abandoned," said Ms Rando. "But the state should always support these witnesses and never leave them by themselves."
Mr Rando has high hopes, though, for Lea's daughter, Denise. Her ambition is to move abroad, perhaps to the US or Australia, and start a new life as an interpreter. She has been given a new name and is studying languages.
The armed carabinieri officers who follow her everywhere show that her life is far from normal. But her determination is evident. In one of her few public comments during the trial of her father, she said: "My mother paid with her life for her decision to give me a better future, far from the blood and the feuding. And now I'm going to carry on with what she started. I'm going to live a normal life – for my mother as well."
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