Police and caution tape outside an restaurant in Italy.

Carabinieri and scientific police at the scene of the murder of Leonardo Portoraro, a 'Ndrangheta boss, who was shot dead on June 6 in Villapiana, in Calabria, Italy, by two killers.

Alfonso Di Vincenzo/Kontrolab/LightRocket via Getty Images

In different ways, and to varying degrees, the title characters in Alex Perry's new book, The Good Mothers: The Story of the Three Women Who Took On the World's Most Powerful Mafia, challenged organized crime in Italy. These Mafia wives did so with the help of prosecutors who cannily understood that the misogyny embedded in Italy's organized crime syndicates—wives and daughters are the victims or horrific violence and brutal living conditions—could be used to get some of these women to turn on the men in their lives. As well as providing a window into the worlds of three very complex women, Perry's book is a journey through Italy's horrifying, still-powerful underworld.

I spoke by phone recently with Perry, who divides his time between magazine journalism and book writing. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed why the mob has been so hard to defeat in Italy, how organized crime groups differ in their treatment of women, and the dangers of Mafia reporting.

"This organization has penetrated every single major financial center on the planet. It owns businesses, and it funds political parties. It is part of the fabric of modern life." — Alex Perry

Isaac Chotiner: What is the state of the mafia in Italy today?

Alex Perry: We tend to think of the Mafia as something from the past, with The Godfather. The 'Ndrangheta, the Calabrian mafia, is actually the mafia that you've never seen pictured in a movie, or really in any books. For the same reason, it's more powerful than it's ever been. It was actually kind of a revelation to me—and I thought I knew something about the world—[to learn] quite how powerful it is. It's an enterprise that draws in somewhere between $50 [billion] and $100 billion a year. It smuggles 70 percent of the cocaine in Europe. It runs arms all around the world. It embezzles tens of billions from the European Union and the Italian government. All that activity requires a secondary industry of money laundering. So good has it become at money laundering, and its penetration of the financial market, that other major organized crime groups ask the 'Ndrangheta to wash their cash as well.

So, the 'Ndrangheta's in charge of hundreds of billions, if not trillions, of illicit dollars around the world. Really, that's what makes it so influential and so powerful. It's in all our lives. This organization has penetrated every single major financial center on the planet. It owns businesses, and it funds political parties all over the world. It is part of the fabric of modern life and that's actually the point. It's got itself to a point now where it's indispensable to the functioning of the modern world and it's very difficult to root out.

When you call "it" an organization and indeed refer to it as "it," in the singular, is that the best way to understand the 'Ndrangheta?

Well, yeah, that's actually a very good question, and one of the reasons why it's so kind of elusive and slippery. It is an organization, but it is a very horizontal one. It's kind of an alliance of 140 families, and the power rests in those families, in those clans. There is a hierarchy, or there has been a hierarchy above that, but not in any managerial sense. The hierarchy is there to resolve disputes between families. To adjudicate, essentially. A very sort of passive role. The proactivity of the organization, the enterprise, rests with individual clans. You can't cut the head off this snake. On top of that, it means that whenever you take down one family, another one can move into its place.

It also means that it's really difficult to uncover the extent of all its operations. You'll notice with the estimate that I gave you for how much money it makes every year, there's a $50 billion spread in that, and that's because no one clan, no one 'Ndranghetista, knows the extent of the 'Ndrangheta's operations. It's very siloed. So, if you're a prosecutor trying to even map the extent of this organization ... Well, so far, they've been unable to do it.

The cover of The Good Mothers.

William Morrow

What has been the role of women historically in the mafia over the past 100 plus years, and how is it different today?

It varies between the different mafias. As well as the 'Ndrangheta, you've got Cosa Nostra in Sicily, which is the famous one that you know about. And then you've got Camorra in Naples, also relatively famous, particularly because of Roberto Saviano's work. So, the status of women varies. In Naples, in the Camorra, you actually have women heads of different families, of different clans. Women displacing men, actually, as crime bosses. You have that to a degree in Cosa Nostra in Sicily, although it's still very much a patriarchy, still very much male-dominated.

The 'Ndrangheta is the one that has stayed closest to, for lack of a better description, 19th-century values. It's kept the same values from since the days that it was founded. These very closed, traditional families where, in the 'Ndrangheta families, women are essentially viewed as chattel, as property. They are vessels of family honor, not really to be trusted, to be given very little independence, never really allowed outside the house unaccompanied, married off as teenagers in clan alliances. And if you're unfaithful or you show disloyalty as a woman, that's a death sentence. They will kill you, and it will be your closest relatives to do it.

The one thing that has changed is that the prosecutors came to understood that the sexism of the 'Ndrangheta was its great flaw, was its weak spot. But if they could offer these women a different life, then in return, they would tell them everything they knew about the 'Ndrangheta. Up until these women spoke, you know, the state really knew very little. The 'Ndrangheta being this quite horizontal and flexible, adaptable organization has already kind of assimilated that flaw in some sense. So, some clans are still very, very traditional. But other ones are already realizing that what they need to do to counter this new attack on them via the women is to promote the women, is to drop its sexism, is to modernize. And they're doing that now, not out of any sort of high-minded ideal but simply out of pragmatic ability to counter the appeal of crossing to the side of the state.

How did you get into reporting this story, and what did you make of the women you were writing about?

The backbone of the book is actually prosecutors' documents from trials, which was another revelation to me. In Italy, when you present a case, the prosecutors put all the evidence they can find, not just for a particular crime, but generally of the existence of the mafia, they put it all down in transcripts, including transcripts of phone conversations and bugged conversations from cars, and so on. Everything is there. It's an absolute treasure trove for a reporter. It's also legally unimpeachable. So, that was a very kind of secure way of reporting the case, and also one that got me around the whole problem of omertà, of silence. I wasn't ever going to get a mafioso to talk to me. That's the whole point of them; they never talk. But here they were on tape talking to each other and revealing their empire. It was incredible.

As for what I thought about the women, you know, you spend 2½ years listening to someone talk, reading their words, listening to their statements, some of which had gone on for weeks, you get a pretty nuanced view of who they are. And you're right, they're not straightforward characters. Maria Concetta Cacciola is very much sheltered and a victim and perhaps the most sort of one-dimensional character, but Giuseppina Pesce was a gangster. A low-level gangster who rebelled because she felt the injustice of the world she was in, but also to save her skin. She committed adultery and they were going to come and get her. Lea Garofalo, yeah she tried to escape the mafia many times. On the other hand, she clearly still loved the man who eventually killed her. She wanted to save her daughter, but she found it very difficult to exist outside the family that she tried so hard to escape. She was very lonely, and she had also taken part in some kind of low-level criminality herself. To me, that's the richness of the story, and part of what makes it so compelling is this conflict inside all the characters.

Did you ever feel in danger reporting the story? Because I know that the different mafia organizations have gone after journalists for that.

They have, and in Italy, that's very serious. There are a few hundred Italian journalists who have had to seek protection from the police. I had a couple of warnings. I met a lawyer once who made it very plain that the organization that I was going to be writing about "always got what they want," in her words. Nothing actually ever really came of that.

Probably the most threatening time was when I went to Lea Garofalo's ancestral village. I just really wanted to see the little flat where she'd lived and be able to describe the place where she grew up. Long story short, I was made. I'd hoped to slip in and out without anyone noticing. That didn't happen at all. I was pulled up, made to go and meet Lea's sister Marisa, given the most sort of perfunctory interview, where she was absolutely monosyllabic but polite. At the end of that, she took our pictures, me and my translator, took our full names. The next week in the local paper, there was a 2,000-word article detailing everything about me, where I'd been, who I'd met, what I was up to.

In the local newspaper? What newspaper?

Just the local newspaper.


But the idea of that is, "We know you. We know what you're up to." You know, it's a warning.

There's obviously a lot of chaos in Italy right now with the government. And there's been a lot of chaos in Italy politically for a very, very long time. For much of the postwar era, I mean. To what degree do you attribute the Italian state's inability to really get a handle on organized crime to that general political chaos?

There are two dynamics there. The mob thrives on chaos. It likes chaos. It likes to be the alternative authority that you go to because you can't get anything done through the legitimate state. For that very reason, I think there's no doubt that it promotes that chaos. It likes civic distrust. It likes cynicism. It can profit from that. I think the great tragedy of Italy is that, to a large extent, it's kind of succeeded. It plays on the divide between north and south Italy. It plays on the idea that Italy has never really coalesced as a single unit but is terribly regional and terribly factional. And at the heart of that is a hole at the heart of Italy, where there should be a center and established certainty and facts. There's a vacuum.

There's a famous bomb attack, for instance, in Rome in 1971. To this day, nobody knows who did that, and there are both fascists and communists serving time for the same bomb attack. That's the real tragedy of Italy. Nobody knows what's true. And in that environment of distrust, the mob thrives, because you can't really point at them and say with certainty, "That guy's a criminal." Because he's pretending to be something else and everybody's pretending to be something else, and therefore nobody's to be trusted. In that kind of atmosphere, where it's difficult to distinguish right and wrong, wrong can thrive. And wrong can paint itself as the righteous champions of southern resistance to northern domination.

The whole thing about the mafia is it's a massive lie. There is no honor to the "men of honor." There's no righteousness. They don't care about the rights of southerners. They don't care about the economy. They are parasites. They are predators, but they've managed to create this myth around themselves of, as I say, "men of honor." It's that uncertainty in Italy that allows them to persist.

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