Italian mayor who took on the 'Ndrangheta mafia
- 13 July 2013
- From the section Magazine
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?
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.
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."
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.
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.
The magnificent coastline is pockmarked with eyesores - half-finished concrete monstrosities built without planning permission, and rotting rubbish on the streets.
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."
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.
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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