When Lea Garofalo disappeared, her daughter Denise knew she was dead. She also knew that the man who killed her mother was most likely her own father.
Their family was part of the ‘Ndrangheta, a branch of the Italian Mafia based in Calabria, generally known as “the toe” of Italy. Lea had tried to leave that life, offering the police information in exchange for protection. When she suddenly went missing in 2009, Denise was left alone with her father.
“Denise actually guesses immediately what’s happened to her mother, but also understands immediately that she can’t let on,” said Alex Perry, author of The Good Mothers: The True Story of the Women Who Took on the World’s Most Powerful Mafia.
Perry told The Current’s guest host Ioanna Roumeliotis that Denise, who was 17 at the time, had “to pretend that she loves her father.”
“She has to pretend that she agrees with her father when her father says: ‘Your mother must have run off to Australia,'” Perry said.
“She’s holding this terrible secret that she knows her father killed her mother.”
Perry’s book looks at the ‘Ndrangheta, which he said is the most powerful of the three Mafias in Italy, ahead of the Cosa Nostra in Sicily, and the Camorra in Naples.
Perry said the ‘Ndrangheta makes between $50 to $100 billion US a year, has an arms smuggling network and controls 70 per cent of the cocaine in Europe.
However, he adds that there’s a reason you might have never heard of it.
“Secrecy is the secret to its success, actually,” Perry said, “and that is based on this incredibly tight, claustrophobic, cult-like family structure, which hasn’t changed since the late 19th century.”
Women in that Mafia culture are treated as objects, he said. The girls are married off young to form alliances.
“If you’re unfaithful, you’re dead. And it will be your father, or your brother, or your son that kills you, and quite likely dissolves your body in acid to erase the family shame.”
Lea had tried to escape that life. She had been born into what Perry called “Mafia aristocracy” in Calabria, as well as the violence that came with it. Her father was murdered when she was a baby, and her small village of 400 people has had 35 murders in 30 years, Perry said. Lea, he added, wanted to leave from an early age.
At 16, she married Carlo Cosco, a man from a farming family who she believed would take her away to Milan. But Cosco had concealed the fact he was a small-time cocaine smuggler. For him, marrying into a crime family like Lea’s was a promotion too good to resist.
As their marriage sucked her deeper into the crime world, she became depressed and made several attempts at suicide, Perry writes in his book.
In 2002, she told Italian police: “You don’t really live. You just survive in some way. You dream about something — anything — because nothing’s worse than that life.”