Madonna di Polsi, a festival known for the 'ndrangheta's attendance. Photo: Connie Agius.
I was married at 13.
It ruined our lives.
I wanted peace, love, to feel, to be myself.
Life has brought me nothing but pain.
This is not another story about a forced marriage in an Islamic country.
It's a paragraph from a letter written by Maria Concetta Cacciola, a young woman in "modern", post-Enlightenment Italy.
Her life in Rosarno, a small town that hangs over the deep blue Tyrrhenian Sea on the west coast of Calabria, played out like a Greek tragedy. Maria Concetta Cacciola had the bad luck to be born into a family respected in the underworld for its membership in the Italian mafia group known as the ‘ndrangheta.
It's long been the dominant social force in Calabria, in Italy’s “toe”. The 'ndrangheta comes from the Greek: it means “courage” and “loyalty”. It’s one of the most powerful criminal organisations in the world.
Each clan is autonomous. Only relatives can be indoctrinated. It's these ties of blood that let the mafia manipulate the concept of family loyalty and lock away their criminal secret dealings. The unbreakability of Family is what has made the 'ndrangheta so impenetrable to authorities.
What unites these clans is the code of honour, which operates like a procedures manual. The rules are like those of mediaeval Europe - feudal in nature.
Crime is inherited. Sons are educated from birth to become the next generation of criminal bosses. Their daughters are forced to marry these young mafiosi, sometimes before puberty. Not only do they have no choice of life partner, some 'ndrangheta women don't even marry outside the family - they're forced to marry cousins. The wedding vows are a tool to ensure the longevity of a "pure" ‘ndrangheta bloodline.
As with medieval royalty, arranged marriages are also used to resolve feuds or build business alliances. The traditional practice of parading the bed linen stained with virginal blood on the balcony after a couple's wedding night has not died out in parts of Calabria. The red stain is evidence of an "honourable woman" - and it represents the lives lost during a feud that the marriage has resolved.
Young girls lose their sense of identity in the ‘ndrangheta’s system. They are required to obey and serve the men of the family. Some women do not have their own bank accounts, are not permitted to drive and cannot leave the house without permission or a male chaperon. They must do whatever is demanded by the family – criminal or otherwise.
Disobedience is not tolerated because it tarnishes the family’s honour and standing in the community. Omertà - the vow of absolute silence - is an important factor in their definition of honour. The punishment for breaking that silence can range from severe beatings to death.
Why do women tolerate this treatment?
This feudal code is normalised from birth, so it is generally not challenged. The mafia also twist the concept of culture. Travelling in Calabria this year, I had a rare chance to sit down with a family, some of whom had been convicted for Mafia Association in Italy. My question about how they could justify their crimes, the murders, manipulation of family and their way of life, was met with a wry smile.
"It's hard for you to understand," said one of the men. "It's part of the culture in the south. It's our family against the other [‘ndrangheta] families ... and the system." Mafia families drill the concept of "us" against "the rest" into the children.
Maria Concetta Cacciola was one of many young women trapped in this world. Court documents show she grew up in a family heavily involved in the transportation of drugs and weapons. Her destiny was sealed at birth because of her surname. Forced to marry her husband, Salvatore Figliuzzi, at 13, by 15 she was pregnant. Figliuzzi was later convicted for mafia-related crimes.
Maria Concetta, now an adult, still had no control over her own life. She was left with no choice but to move back with her parents. Back in what she now regarded as almost a family prison, she and her children were never left unsupervised - a rule the Mafia imposed to "honour" her husband while he served time in prison.
Then things got really dangerous. Cacciola defied their law by having an online flirtation with another man, an "affair" which her family eventually found out about. The punishment was a beating so severe that she was left with fractured ribs. Maria Concetta was prevented from receiving treatment.
Cacciola wanted her freedom. She turned to the Italian police who put her straight into witness protection. She was completely isolated - she'd had to flee without her children.
“The best thing in my life is my children who I will keep in my heart. I leave them with so much pain and sadness,” she wrote in a letter to her mother. “I am entrusting my children to you, but I beg you. Do not make the same mistake with them. I want them to have a better life than the one I had.”
Cacciola thought she was close to her mother that she would understand her decision. That was an illusion. Her mother used the children to lure Maria Concetta back to Calabria.
Against the advice of Italian police and her lawyers, Cacciola left the witness protection program and retracted her testimony. If she thought that would help, she was wrong.
She felt her family home, already almost a jail, now turned into a dungeon. Cacciola contacted the police again. This time she wanted to take her children and leave forever, but that day would never come.
Overlooking Rosarno, where Maria Concetta Cacciola died. Photo: Connie Agius
In August 2011, Maria Concetta Cacciola was found dead. She had swallowed a highly corrosive form of acid, leading to an agonising death. It's regarded as a common method of suicide in southern Italy, but a long investigation determined that Maria Concetta had not killed herself.
This was murder, but who forced the acid down her throat is still unknown. Her mother, father and brother are now in prison for mafia related crimes and for the physical violence which led up to her death.
Maria Concetta Cacciola is not the only woman to suffer at the hands of this family. Her relative Antonio Cacciola committed suicide. The Cacciola family blamed his wife, Giuseppina Multari, and decided to punish her by locking her in the house as a slave.
Although forbidden to leave without an escort, one day Multari did manage to escape, but only briefly. She tried to kill herself by jumping into the sea, but was saved and taken back to the family, who responded by stepping up the security.
In one last desperate attempt at freedom, Multari smuggled a letter out of the house to her father. This time she was successful and is now under witness protection.
Why should we care?
This is not just a tragic story about a family in Italy.
The list of cases that highlight violence against women in the mafia is growing - Lea Garofalo, Giuseppina Pesce, Tita Buccafusca, and Rita Di Giovine are only a few.
The group manage at least 60 percent of Europe’s cocaine trade and have infiltrated clan members and associates into political, social, and economic institutions around the world.
From Canada, the United States, South America, Africa to Australia – the ‘ndrangheta has spread like a cancer.
The organisation’s family structure and mafia code are replicated in each arm of this criminal octopus.
Many of the women born into mafia families outside Italy are also exposed to a continuous cycle of violence and repression.
Read more articles on openDemocracy in this year's 16 Days: Activism Against Gender-Based Violence. Commissioning Editor: Liz Kelly