#6 Malacarne – Married to the Mob
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Married to the Mafia
A woman’s life in a criminal country is complicated in the extreme. Impenetrable rules, brazen customs, inseparable bonds. Where the Mafia governs, women are subordinated to a rigid, immovable code of conduct, requiring them to perform a perilous balancing act between tradition and progressiveness, between moralistic constraints and illimitable coolness in business affairs. They can order a man’s execution, but under no circumstances may they leave or betray their own husband. They can invest in whichever enterprise or trade they choose, but they must not wear any make-up whilst their spouse is behind bars. During Mafia trials, the womenfolk can commonly be seen huddled together in the gallery blowing kisses or waving to the accused in the steel cage of the dock. These are the wives, even if they look more like their mothers. Dressing up, wearing make-up and nail varnish while their husbands are doing time means they are thinking of someone else. Dying one’s hair is tantamount to admitting to an affair. Without the husband, a wife’s existence means nothing, she is nothing more than a lifeless object. A thing halved. No sooner is the husband incarcerated, than the wife demonstratively neglects her appearance. It is a sign of fidelity, at least amongst the clans of the Campanian hinterland, parts of the ‘Ndrangheta and some Cosa Nostra families. If, on the other hand, she is neatly dolled up to the nines, then her man must be free and not far away. He gives the orders and the way she looks is an expression of his power. Often, however, the most inconspicuous, unkempt wives of bosses in jail are the very women who hold the most sway as they deputize for their absent husbands. In a criminal country, all women share a similar fate, regardless of whether their lives have taken a tragic course, or they have managed to lead a tolerably normal life. Man and wife have invariably known each other since childhood, marrying between the ages of twenty and twenty-five. What better guarantee can there be of virginity than to wed the woman one has known since she was a young girl? It is acceptable for a man to have playmates, so long as they are not Italian – a condition imposed by their wives in recent years: Russian, Polish, Romanian, Moldavian women are considered inferior and incapable of having or raising a family. A relationship with an Italian woman or, worse still, one from the same village, would undermine everything and must be punished accordingly. Sexuality is a defining element of education for both men and women living in the Mafia system. “Never beneath a woman”, as they say.
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Allowing the woman to get on top during sex suggests a man easily dominated in everyday life. “Oral sex, never” is another maxim. For a man to be indulged is one thing, but to perform oral sex on a woman is a “canine” taboo. “Never become anyone’s dog” is an old saying still observed even by the younger generation of followers. The laws are even stricter outside of Italy. Take the influential Jamaican Yardie Mafia, for example, active not only in Kingston, but also in many districts of London and New York. Oral sex and anal sex are completely forbidden, as is touching a woman’s anus. These are considered dirty practices (homosexuality is punishable by death in the Jamaican Mafia). Sex has to be dynamic, masculine and, above all, clean. No kissing. A real man knows, he needs his tongue to drink and will not use it for anything less. Clan members are positively obsessed with proving their masculinity and the strict code of sexual conduct serves as a ritual demonstration of their power. It is adhered to in almost every realm of the ‘Ndrangheta, Camorra, the Mafia and the Sacra Corona Unita and is unquestionably more than a mere reflection of a chauvinistic culture. Little else demonstrates so clearly the iron rules of allegiance, hierarchy, power and territorial dominance. This authority presides over life and death, predicated on killing or being killed. Woe betide anyone who believes the rules do not apply to him. Regulating people’s sex lives plays a fundamental role, with even a spot of flirting dictated by marking out one’s turf. Getting to know a woman more intimately runs the risk of breaching enemy territory. In 1994, Antonio Magliulo of Casal di Principe, dared to get involved with a girl who was engaged to one member of the Caselesi clan and sister-in-law to another. Magliulo showered her with gifts and, sensing that she was not so enamoured with her future husband, felt no inclination to back off. He was just crazy about this much younger woman and courted her as was the custom where he came from, with Baci Perugina pralines on Valentines Day and a fox stole at Christmas. He would wait outside her workplace for her of an evening. One hot summer’s day, a few members of the Casalesi clan summoned him to the ‘la Scogliera’ lido in Castelvolturno. They did not even wait to hear him out.
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Maurizio Lavoro, Giuseppe Cecoro and Guido Emilio raked a club spiked with nails over his skull, tied him up and stuffed his mouth and nose with sand. The more he swallowed, in an attempt to breathe, the more they forced into him. He asphyxiated as the sand and saliva hardened like cement in his throat. Executed for making advances to a girl who was related by blood to a leading figure and was already promised to another. To flirt, to date, to spend a night together, these are risky, stressful undertakings, weighed down with responsibility. Valentino Galati was nineteen years old when he disappeared on 26 December 2006 in Filadelfia – not the American Quaker town, but a settlement founded by Freemasons in the province of Vibo Valentia. Valentino was close to the local ‘Ndrina family clan. With ‘Ndrangheta blood flowing through his veins, he signed up and began working for Rocco Anello, the boss. When the latter was sent to jail for extortion (every contractor working on a small stretch of railway had to pay him 50 thousand Euros per kilometre), his wife, Angela Bartucca, became more reliant on the support of the ‘Ndrina. Taking care of the shopping, cleaning, bringing the children to school, Valentino slipped into a pivotal role as her aide. That they should fall into a surreptious relationship seemed almost logical. Yet the fact that he must be punished is equally certain. None of the villagers is surprised when, one day, he vanishes from the face of the Earth. He had an affair with the wife of the boss, and the price for his indiscretion is his life. Only Anna, his mother, refuses to accept the truth. Her son with a clan leader’s wife? Impossible, he’s far too young, barely an adult at all. Yes, indeed, before her son disappeared, Angelina did call in for a coffee from time to time, but she has not done so since. But what does that prove? Valentino’s mother insists “my son had nothing to do with any of this”. She is convinced that there is another explanation, but the Anti-Mafia Directorate disagrees. For a long time, Anna slept on the sofa next to the telephone, waiting for her son to call, afraid she would not hear it ringing from the bedroom. And so, at last, she takes refuge in her silent pain, as the Omertà demands, yet steadfastly refusing to accept the facts. Santo Panzarella from Lamezia Terme, murdered in July 2002, suffered a similar fate. Four years earlier, Santo had fallen in love with Angela Bartucca. Always his Angela. They sprayed him with the contents of an entire clip before slamming him into the boot of a car. But they had been mistaken in believing that Santo Panzarella was dead. He started thrashing out inside the boot.
So they snapped his lower limbs, to prevent his flailing kicks from interrupting his final journey.At the end of the ride, they put a bullet in his head. All that was recovered of his body was a collarbone, which proved sufficient to get the investigation under way. Another man executed for a liaison with the wrong woman. Valentino may well have known that he was risking his life, but that was not going to deter him. Angela Bartucca, a femme fatale, a “praying mantis” as the newspapers liked to call her. Her powers of seduction could make a man forget the mortal danger awaiting him – to love this woman carries a penalty of death. Yet in reality she bears little resemblance to such a creature of legend. Her photograph depicts a nice girl, guilty of nothing more than wanting to have some fun. With her man behind bars, a Mafia wife is expected to practice total abstinence – which goes for lust as well as love. The only exception is when an older boss, married to a younger woman, offers his consent for her to see a surrogate, so to speak, if he himself is serving a lengthy prison sentence. A suitable substitute is the village priest or, if he is not available, a brother, cousin or some other relation. On no account a member who is not a blood relative, somebody who might revel in the relationship to such a degree that a new-found charisma could see the husband replaced. Many women, including the young ones, wear black almost all of the time. Mourning a husband murdered, a brother, nephew, a neighbour slaughtered. Grieving for the killing of the husband of a co-worker, the son of a distant relative. There is no shortage of reasons to wear black. Underneath, red is worn, to signify the blood which has to be avenged.
A red corsage for the older womenfolk, red lingerie for the younger, a perennial reminder of the blood that keeps the pain alive, the shockingly intimate colour of vengeance, set alight by the contrasting mantle of black . To be widowed in criminal territory is equivalent to losing one’s identity as a woman, reduced to the role of a mother. If a widow wishes to remarry, she needs the permission of her sons. She is only allowed to marry a man whose rank in the Mafia hierarchy is at least equal to that of the husband she has lost. She must first observe seven years of chastity and remain in strict mourning for the same period. This corresponds to the time it takes for the soul to reach its final resting place, as is traditionally believed, so that the soul need not witness her “unfaithfulness”. The charismatic boss of San Cipriano d’Aversa, Antonio Bardellino, attempted to liberate widows from these medieval constraints and enforced suffering. Don Antonio could be heard in the village announcing: “It takes seven years to reach paradise, but where we are heading requires a much shorter journey, namely a single night.” But when Bardellino was murdered, the Schiavone clan seized power and reinstated the old rules of sexual conduct. In August 1993, Paola Stroffolino was caught with a lover. She was the wife of the influential boss Alberto Beneduce, one of the first to supply cocaine and heroin directly to the Caserta coast. Following his assassination, she failed to respect the seven years of widowhood, entering into a relationship with Luigi Griffo. The clan ruled that such a disregard for the former boss could not go unanswered. A close friend, Dario De Simone, was entrusted with the task of exacting punishment. He invited the couple to a farm in Villa Literno under the pretext of sampling the first mozzarella of the season. Instead, each received a single shot to the head. The most basic of executions for two traitors who had disrepected the honour of the dead. Their corpses were then tossed into a deep well in Giugliano by the man who had thus proved his loyalty, aided by Vincenzo Zagaria and Sebastiano Panaro. Sandokan (Francesco Schiavone) and his brother were charged with having issued the orders. The widow of a boss cannot be touched, but if she is tarnished by another man, she loses her inviolable status. In their efforts to remove any doubt the court might have, a revealing statement was made by a key witness for the prosecution: “Dottò, a fuck is more serious than murder where we come from. It’s better to kill the wife of a boss. At least there’s a chance of mercy, but if you fuck her, you’re dead.” To love one another, sleep with each other, kiss, give each other gifts, smile and touch each other’s hands, to seduce a woman or be seduced by her, can be fatal. The last, most dangerous step you take. When implacability is the law, feelings and passion are transgressions payable with death.
They are the good guys, watching over the evil heart of Palermo. They live where the Mafia live, among broken-down streets, neon-lit bars it is better not to enter. Monitored by Mafia informers who race by on their mopeds. Surrounded by decaying buildings and the odd memorial plaque here and there, the most famous of which can be found on the Piazza Anita Garibaldi, where Padre Pino Puglisi was killed by a shot in the back of the neck. Born here, the prodigal son returned to found a school. He wanted to get the children off the streets, out of the clutches of criminality.
The good ones sit inside a grey building, close to the railway tracks, resembling a rain-worn factory. It may seem deserted, but this is the site of a commissariat. With the state emblems, bulletproof glass, barriers and a gate, amid the lush undergrowth of Palermo’s outlying districts. This particular district goes by the name of Brancaccio. The commissariat is called the “outpost of the lost”. And the young men who are striving for an exit strategy from this misery, for thirteen hundred Euros a month, are christened the “Brancagel”.
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The word “Brancagel” is uttered as contemptuously in these parts as “sbirro” in Sicily (and Campania and Calabria as well), as the cops, the fuzz are known. The name’s etymological roots go back to the ice cream factory once housed in this cement block. “Branca” derives from Brancaccio and “gel” from “gelato”, or ice cream. Previously, the commissariat was situated in a ground floor flat with kitchen tiles and water pipes in the entrance, part of a cheap residential block. The apartment was destroyed one night – by a gas cylinder with a time fuse, not by bulldozers. The present commissariat, previously an ice cream factory, also had a baptism of fire. A bomb planted on the roof was set to explode on the day of its inauguration in 1991, but the danger was averted just in time. Still, authority stepped forward in the form of the Alto Commissario, responsible for matters concerning the Mafia. High Commissioner Emanuele De Francesco raised the flag, announcing “we shall not be intimidated”. And then he was gone. Only the Brancagel remained.
76,000 people live in Brancaccio, their quality of life is extremely poor. No cinemas, no theatres, no sports fields, just overflowing drains, festering puddles, a miserable level of income, record-breaking numbers of convictions. Fifty people work in the commissariat, running the office and leading investigations, as well as – if the need arises – offering psychotherapeutic assistance and social aid. The streets of the district are a labyrinth covering hundreds of miles. Derelict buildings, backyards, cul-de-sacs, piles of rubbish, unlit alleys.
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A patrol covers the streets in each six-hour shift, accompanied by their patron saints to keep them from harm.
Leading the team of investigators is Peppino Costantino, 40 years of age, with a thinnish beard, dark glasses and slim hands. The Mafiosi call him Barbuzza (the bearded one), Can ca’ Barba or Muslim, whichever suits the situation best. He wears a sports jacket, carries two handguns and follows three rules to stay alive: “Trust no one. Stay alert at all times. Never get used to it.” The last is the most important of the three, as “the decay and desolation can get you down so much, it can eat away at your heart and make a blind man of you.. if that happens, then they have beaten you.
Never get used to it. Especially when you see children, ten years old, trained in the art of selling drugs. Or Nigerian girls sent naked onto the streets like slaves. Or when you discover that the new clans are using hearses for their drug deals, lining coffins with cocaine. Or when nobody has seen a thing, nobody heard any shooting, everyone held captive by fear, lie, the Omertà, a wall of silence. Or when you want to make an arrest and they are lobbing roof tiles and wash basins out of the windows at you and the women surround your car, crying and screaming and cursing for as long as it takes for the suspect to make his getaway.”
Peppino Costantino has four men and one woman in his team. They work in the commissariat’s largest, neon-lit room, furnished with plastic desks, old iron cabinets, card index boxes, a map of the district on the wall, a photocopier which has run out of toner, computers – but no internet connection.
“There isn’t any connection yet.”
And how does that work?
“With paper, with our memories, with archives from other commissariats.”
Half of the team is out in the field. The other half is here with him: Fabrizio Di Mazio, his right-hand man, sports jacket, blue eyes, a soft smile on his lips, and Giuseppe Aru, an excellent police officer, a cheerful character, standing firm with his hands in his pockets. The families of all three live outside the district. In places they prefer not to mention. Far away. They also go shopping elsewhere, if needs be. Keeping their distance. Giving away as little as possible about themselves, their wives and children, if indeed they have any. Who can say if they have a home, a wife and children, a weakness of any kind?
Costantino says: “It’s a job you do, if you believe in it.”
Believe in it – what do you mean by that?
“Irregular working hours. Permanent stress. Taking the occasional day off from holidays you didn’t use last year.”
And what do you get out of it?
“That’s a good question.”
Do you ask yourself sometimes?
“Every single day.”
“Let’s take a ride, maybe I’ll come up with a good answer.”
Let’s do just that. Their own two cars are parked outside in the dusty yard, a Fiat Brava and a Fiat Punto, both of which have seen better days, when their paintwork sparkled in the sunlight and the engines started up instantaneously, without coughing out black clouds of smoke. Before the doors squeaked and pedestrians did not stop to watch them bounce over holes in the road, as they do today, spitting on the pavement as they see them driving by. Maybe they will use their mobile phones to report back on the officers’ movements. Just like the guy on the opposite side of the street at this very moment, a picture of equanimity as he speaks: “They are on the move now. Where the fuck are these Brancagel off to?” As one might imagine, this warning message is all part of the day’s routine.
The district of Brancaccio is not marked on the pretty maps of the town which can be found in the hotels at Palermo’s centre. Indeed, why should it be? There are no restaurants, no tourist trails, no sights to be seen here. With the possible exception of the Giardino della Memoria, the memorial garden on the road to Ciaculli – two and a half acres of greenery close to a deconsecrated church and the former villa of Mafia boss Michele Greco, known as the pope. Each of the trees here bears the name of a Mafia victim. School groups or official parties sometimes visit the garden, but at other times the wind blowing through the trees is the only sign of activity. The scent of orange blossom and the stench of smog fill the air.
Brancaccio is a district of some importance. In the 1950s, lemon and orange groves stretched out here as far as the eye could see. Beautiful villas, flowers, swallows and the splendour of Palermo’s Conca d’oro. Then the Sacco di Palermo came along, the great investment scandal which put paid to all that. The era of Vito Ciancimino, Mayor and Andreottiano (associate of Andreotti), transformed this paradise into a miserable hell with a speculative programme of cheap apartment blocks. Good for the drug trade, the conscription of soldiers and the “pizzo” (protection money) demanded of the factories in the so-called industrial zone. In those days, even the dogs had to pay protection money in Brancaccio, so they say. The Graviano brothers, Giuseppe and Filippo, allies of Totò Riina’s Corleone Mafiosi, took charge of the empire as absolute rulers over every soul. Including those who marched past the brothers’ windows during their patron saint processions as a demonstration of their respect and honour. Up until 29 September 1990, when Padre Puglisi was summoned to say Mass at the church of San Gaetano. The son of a cobbler and dressmaker, he had the heart of a lion. His lesson to the congregation was to pray only to God, not to the Mafiosi. He strove to establish the first school between the pitiful dwellings on the Via Hazon, to get the children off the streets. On the evening of his sixty-fifth birthday, the 15 September 1993, he came home to find himself staring down the barrel of a 7.65 silencer. He smiled as he recognised his executioner, Mafia hit man Salvatore Grigoli, 13 murders on his conscience. “Just what I expected” he said, before he died.
He is survived by two things, in addition to the tree in the Giardino della Memoria. His smile, which moved Grigoli to undergo a conversion (“I will never forget the light in his eyes”), turning principal witness after receiving a visit from Karol Wojtyla in jail. And the plaque at the school, named after Puglisi, keeping his memory alive like a posthumous dream, a promise kept.
“They broke in here one night last week, turned the place over and made off with a few old computers”, Costantino and Di Mazio explain as we drive ever so slowly through a crowd who follow our progress or disappear behind their doors. A Piaggio three-wheeler (Apecar) drives alongside us, a little boy standing on the truck bed, trying to keep his balance amongst crates of sea anemones. “I have arrested that driver seven times already. He wants to show he isn’t afraid of us.” At which point he overtakes us with a smile, only to pull up a moment later in front of a bar with darkened blue windows. “The bar owner has gone into hiding.” Immediately alongside is a car mechanic’s, closed down on account of drug dealing. The row continues with a series of empty shops, now used by prostitutes. As far as the gate where somebody was killed a few months ago.
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Costantino lights a cigarette, inhales and tells his partner: “Take a right, so he can see it.” He points out imaginary corpses along the wide road: “We’d pick up at least one every day when things came to a head in the late Eighties, early Nineties. They dropped us off here, in the Via Conte Federico, which runs into the Via Brancaccio. We’d be out on patrol until dawn. First, we’d collect the dead and then we’d go for breakfast.”
Arrested and charged with the 1993 bombings, the Graviano brothers were succeeded by the Guttadauro family. Guiseppe was the boss, a doctor, ruling in the name of Mafia chief Bernardo Provenzano. Giuseppe Guttadauro specialized in hospitals and made life uncomfortable for Sicily’s regional minister, Totò Cuffaro, during his reelection campaign and the Sicilian minister for health, Mimmo Miceli. In this, the penultimate era of the Mafia, private clinics were the new treasure chests waiting to be emptied, receiving government subvention amounting to millions. Much of which passed through Brancaccio.
In Brancaccio, a dose of stepped on cocaine costs between 15-20 Euros. “You can get it around the clock, easier than in the supermarket.” The boys with their mobiles spring into action. They hide their stash in the most unlikely places, even in children’s chocolate surprise eggs for a while, concealed within withered palm leaves. In Brancaccio you can get hold of weapons, explosives and contacts to buy stolen cars, motorbikes, scooters, furniture, televisions or other electronic goods and clothes. “You can find yourself talking to a fifteen year old kid or a seventy year old man. Whatever.”
Brancaccio has experts in weapons-free robberies: they drive to a different part of town, pay a visit to some guy, tell him: we know who you are, we know where you live, we know your children’s timetable. Bring us twenty thousand Euros tomorrow and nobody has to die this time. “This town is like one big cash machine to these characters. Push the button, take the money and go.”
Brancaccio is also home to blowtorch specialists. They break into shops, apartments, offices, fill entire delivery trucks with stolen goods. The vans are unloaded directly into the cellars of the district, into the belly of cheap apartment blocks.
“There is a spot in Brancaccio”, Costantino says, “where there is a particular thing I would really like to do.” He brings the car to a halt up on the Ponte dei Mille bridge, beside the railway station. He gets out and motions to the road before us which leads to the town centre. “You see this road? If I could, I’d cast a net at sunset, just like the fishermen. I would wait until daybreak and catch the sharks of Brancaccio as they race out of town, back from the hunt.” He smiles at the thought. Motorbikes, jeeps, sports cars, shimmering like fish scales. All caught in a big net. “How good would that be?” Knowing full well that his dream will remain just that, he turns his attention to a half-finished building, remarkably attractive, which they have confiscated from the Mafia. This is earmarked for the new commissariat. Standing for three years already, they are waiting for the final paperwork, the first delivery of bulletproof windows and funding – equal to the annual salaries of a couple of parliamentarians. Everyone from the commissariat drives by here each day to remind themselves that it really does exist. “There will be central heating and an internet connection as well.” And a bar with decent coffee. And people who don’t growl whenever the Brancagel appear. “Even Brancaccio can get back on its feet”, Costantino tells me. “You asked me why we do this here. I still owe you an answer. Partly out of a sense of responsibility. Partly a sense that all is not lost. There are things we can do every day. Offer our help to those who want to remain upright and to those who have had enough of cowering.” Until the day when there is no need to cast a net for the sharks and the outpost of the lost has served its time.
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There is a tragic video recording of the murder of Mariano Bacioterracino, boss of the Sanità district in Naples, always an active hunting ground for the Camorra.
What is remarkable about the video is how composed everyone, including the killer himself, appears at the scene of the execution. “Composure” might sound like something of a paradox, but when a town is in the throes of war, its inhabitants quietly regard events with a sense of cold indifference.
The killer enters a bar, takes a swift look around as if wanting to buy something, then leaves. His prey is standing outside, on the corner of the street, next to a woman who has just purchased a lottery ticket. The killer draws his gun as he crosses the threshold, first shooting the victim in the side, then in the head, the coup de grâce.
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A classic Camorran execution captured on video, a glimpse of reality very different from the image of crime we have grown accustomed to seeing in the cinema. Instantaneous, effective, a carefully premeditated execution.
Such sang-froid, such disciplined movement, this can only be the work of a man who knows his trade. His pistol resting easily in his trouser pocket, the perpetrator emulates none of the techniques of a military operation, he does not stretch out his arm, does not line up his target, there is no shouting. No one notices a thing, it all happens so fast, in the time it takes to drink an espresso at the bar or bump into somebody on a crowded street. All a normal state of affairs, this is how it is when someone is killed.
It is sickening to watch these few seconds of film over and over: the killer enters the bar, looks around, pulls out his gun as he steps outside, one shot to the body, one to the head. A repetitive loop of tape, the same sequence, an exercise in inch-perfect precision from the first to the last gesture. Nothing new, least of all the all-important coup de grâce, as the killer dutifully eliminates any risk of his victim staying alive. The coup de grâce takes care of that.
Anyone who is not a native of Naples is sure to be surprised how the bystanders react in the minutes that follow, as the pool of blood around the dead man’s head grows larger. To the right of the scene, a man with a street stall quietly packs his things together and slopes off with the mininum of fuss. Another man passes by with a little girl in his arms. She looks on inquisitively whilst her father does not bat an eyelid, simply hurrying along with his daughter. The woman with the lottery ticket hears the shots but just moves away, as if nothing more than one of Naples’ typical car accidents has taken place.
In sanctioning the distribution of such a horrific video, the Procura della Repubblica di Napoli, the Public Prosecutor’s Office of Naples, has taken an unprecedented step, eliciting an intense reaction. The idea is to encourage the local inhabitants to come forward and offer their assistance, to get involved in solving a murder case for the first time. People know each other in the Sanità district and the face of the killer – a crucial detail – is clearly visible in the film. Anyone who recognizes him can press charges and the hope is that a large number of folk will do just that, a sign that the community will pull together and, for once, avoid a single individual having to go out on a limb. So that the entire district, so often in the headlines for the blood spilt on its streets, can experience justice for themselves.
Ultimately, the video depicts a tragic reality because, more than anything, it shows how little a life is worth in some parts of Italy.
text from the book MALACARNE – Married to the Mob by Alberto Giuliani (EDEL Germany)
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