Italian mayor who took on the 'Ndrangheta mafia

Maria Carmela Lanzetta

The Calabrian mafia, suspected of running Europe's biggest cocaine smuggling operation, controls its area of southern Italy with a mixture of bribery and corruption. But when Maria Carmela Lanzetta, the mayor of one small town was attacked a year ago, she and the country said "enough".

There is something uncomfortable about Calabria. It is like the embarrassing distant relative nobody likes to mention.

Being down in the toes of Italy's boot I am struck by a gruesome metaphor. Calabria's woes are the country's neglected gangrene - so far away in the extremities that few further up the limb seem to care.

But in April 2012 the nation woke up to a burning sensation in its diseased foot.

Perhaps from the fire in Maria Carmela Lanzetta's chemist shop, underneath her family's apartment? Or maybe it was the sting of the bullets shot at her car soon afterwards?

Who are the 'Ndrangheta?

  • Mafia organisation based in Calabria, at the southern "toe" of Italy, near Sicily
  • "'Ndrangheta" comes from the Greek for courage or loyalty
  • Formed in 1860s by Sicilians exiled from island
  • Less famous than Cosa Nostra (Sicily) or Camorra (Naples) but thought to be most powerful
  • Estimated 160 cells, with about 6,000 members
  • Global reach with links to Argentina, Australia, Canada, and Colombia
  • "If it were not part of Italy, Calabria would be a failed state. The 'Ndrangheta organized crime syndicate controls vast portions of its territory and economy, and accounts for at least 3% of Italy's GDP" - US Wikileaks cable (2008)

Source: FBI, Wikileaks

Whatever the case, the mayoress of the tiny coastal town of Monasterace cried out in pain. And she was heard.

After months of intimidation, most likely by the 'Ndrangheta - the Calabrian mafia - Maria Carmela Lanzetta's cry of "basta" ("enough") echoed nationwide.

Her resignation became front-page news, prompting the national leader of her Democratic Party to travel down to Monasterace to beg her to reconsider.

Other local mayors threatened to resign en masse and local people - who had helped clean up her fire-damaged pharmacy - held candle-lit processions for her.

The unassuming mayor of a town with a population of 3,500 became a national symbol of the fight against the mob.

The government gave her police protection and promised to help her achieve her goals.

She conditionally agreed to take back her resignation, giving the state a three-month ultimatum to make the changes necessary for her to govern.

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That was a year ago. Now I had travelled to Monasterace to find out in person if anything had changed.

"No," she tells me despondently. "Or perhaps it has. It has got worse. This should have been the year of stability. Instead it's a mess."

Maria Carmela is quick to stress that this is not simply about death threats and the mafia: it is about a crippling economic and bureaucratic vacuum that has left her powerless to see through any of her plans.

"We have no money; state funds have been frozen. We have had to declare the council bankrupt. I have got no resources, no prospects. I'm seriously thinking of giving up."

Map showing organised crime groups in Italy

I admit I am surprised. I have just finished reading Italy Down Here - Maria Carmela Lanzetta and the women against the 'Ndrangheta, by Goffredo Buccini.

Women against the mafia

Rita Borsellino

Elisabetta Tripodi - Mayor of Rosarno, Calabria, who lives under 24-hour police protection. Sued a local 'Ndrangheta boss and won settlement of 50m euros for the city, to be paid out of confiscated mafia funds.

Carolina Girasole - Ex-mayor of Isola Capo Rizzuto received death threats and had her car burnt soon after her election, having vowed to clean up the Calabrian resort town. Lost re-election attempt in May.

Rita Borsellino (above) - Democratic Party MEP and activist who set up grassroots anti-mafia organisation Libera in 1995. Sister of pioneering anti-mafia magistrate Paolo Borsellino, killed in 1992.

Rita Atria - Born into a Sicilian mafia family, at 17 she became an important state witness in a major 1991 mafia investigation. Disowned by her mother, she committed suicide a week after her mentor Paolo Borsellino was killed.

In it, she comes across as a determined leader and a powerful mother figure. But right now, she feels more like Sisyphus.

"I'm tired and I've had enough." Her brown-flecked blue eyes bear no trace of self-pity, just a "that's-how-it-is" tone of wistful resignation. "I want my life back."

Maria Carmela's life has definitely not been her own since last year. She has invited me to her home as she does not like to call out her police escort on a Sunday.

"It's like being in prison," I say, as we sip coffee on her terrace.

"Absolutely," she replies grimly, indicating the glistening sea just across the road. "I used to swim every day - at lunchtime or after work. I haven't been in the water for over a year."

"Why don't you ask the police to accompany you? They wouldn't mind."

She shakes her head. "Only for official business," she says. "But they're there to protect you personally," I protest. She shakes her head again. "I do miss popping to the shops, and going to the hairdresser."

I tell her I think she is being bloody-minded. She says it is a matter of principle.

Maria Carmela is undeniably a woman of steadfast principles. She plays by the rules and her rulebook is always the strictest version. But she wants everyone to play by them and that has just never been the Calabrian way.

Illegal building Illegal and unfinished construction sites are common

The magnificent coastline is pockmarked with eyesores - half-finished concrete monstrosities built without planning permission, and rotting rubbish on the streets.

Start Quote

I didn't want any mafia connections. I've managed to keep all our contracts clean, but I don't have the resources to continue”

End Quote Maria Carmela Lanzetta

Her high standards have put many backs up. She tells me: "Culturally, there is an absence of civic responsibility. Lots of my citizens don't see why they have to pay taxes for water and refuse collection."

She is self-critical too, telling me that she does not always communicate well with her citizens and that her rigid attitudes have led to frequent conflicts with other council members.

"I had no political experience. The only thing I knew was that I wanted to bring legality to Monasterace - I did not want any connections with the mob, and I have managed to keep all our contracts clean, but I don't have the resources to continue."

And now she would just like to be the local chemist again.

"Mayors get a small salary but I don't draw mine, I do this as voluntary work. I'm paying others to do my job while I'm working for free. If you had to give up the source of your income, no matter how noble the cause, you'd struggle too."

'Ndrangheta: Exploring the mafia's underground world

Pursued by a newly determined police, the 'Ndranghetisti constructed an astonishing network of secret hiding places under the streets and houses.

It is virtually a parallel city, an underworld where bunkers located behind sliding staircases, hidden trapdoors and even inside a pizza oven are linked by endless tunnels.

Even the deepest and best-concealed bolt-holes have secret escape routes within them.

Read full article and watch video from May 2013 here

She wants her family life back too. "My husband's always supported me in this. My sons did too at first, but now they say, 'Mamma, who's forcing you to do this?'"

Fortunately, Maria Carmela has found great friendship and support in other female mayors from Calabria, some of whom, like her, live under police protection.

In the book, she says she believes it is the women of Calabria who will bring about positive social change. "I still think that," she smiles wearily, "I just think we need a whole lot more women to be able to achieve it."

Having said goodbye, I go to see the council building - a derelict former school with missing windows, stained walls and broken shutters.

As I walk down to the beach to dip my feet into the evening tide, I pass the rubbish overflowing from the seafront bins.

Rubbish bins

I wonder if this brave pharmacist will ever find the remedy for Calabria's literal and figurative decay.

I had just finished writing this when I heard the news that she had resigned.

From the end of July, Maria Carmela Lanzetta will no longer be mayor of Monasterace.

I phoned her. She sounded relieved. This time, she says, her "basta" is definitive.

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