A little over a week ago in the southern Italian town of Rosarno, Maria Concetta Cacciola, a 31-year-old mother of three, poured hydrochloric acid down her throat and died.

Cacciola was a police informant, a strong and courageous woman who took on the world’s most powerful Mafia, the ‘Ndrangheta, and serious questions remain about her death and whether it could have been prevented.

The ‘Ndrangheta from Calabria is characterised by secretive blood ties and a vast global network, which has an annual turnover of more than $A70 billion.

Cacciola is the third Italian woman with intimate knowledge of the ‘Ndrangheta’s internal operations to have died in tragic circumstances in the past two years and their deaths send a chilling message to any man — or woman — who dares to share what they know.

Rosarno is a close-knit rural community of about 15,000 people that made international headlines in January last year when racial violence exploded between locals and African immigrants, who complained about their abysmal working conditions.

It is one of many towns on the southern tip of the Italian mainland dominated by Mafia clans, and family connections run deep.

Cacciola’s father, Michele, is the brother-in-law of Gregorio Bellocco, boss of Rosarno’s powerful Bellocco clan whose illicit activities range from major drug trafficking to extortion.

Her husband, Salvatore Figliuzzi, is serving eight years in prison for Mafia association.

In May this year, Cacciola presented herself to local police not because she was suspected of any crimes herself, but because she wanted a different life for herself and her kids.

“I can’t take living in this hell any more,” she apparently told  police. “I want to tell you everything and change my life.”

Cacciola began sharing details about the clan’s activities with police and anti-Mafia prosecutors in the city of Reggio Calabria that helped investigators uncover two secret underground bunkers used by fugitives to evade capture. Cacciola’s evidence was considered so important she was placed under witness protection and moved away from her home to a secret location. She told police she feared for her life.

But on August 10, Cacciola made a snap decision and suddenly emerged from protection and returned to Rosarno to see her children who had been waiting to join her.  Ten days later she was dead.

Her parents immediately filed a legal complaint raising questions about whether their daughter was pressured by police to collaborate for “altruistic reasons” and an investigation has been launched into her death.

Law enforcement officials and prosecutors have been oddly silent.

But Enrico Fierro, journalist and author of several books on the ‘Ndrangheta, said Cacciola’s death was clearly a victory for the Mafia, whom he said had benefited from changes to the laws in which protection for informants had been watered down.

“This suicide sends a very strong message: whoever abandons the ‘Ndrangheta is alone, whoever betrays them  will have no future and will lose everything — wealth, power and affection,” Fierro said. “This young woman died from loneliness. She made a difficult choice, breaking all ties with her family and her loved ones and in particular with the Mafia, and got no support. She got no support from Calabrian society and no support from the state.  The investigators used her as much as possible and then abandoned her.”

Perhaps she is not the only one.  Tita Buccafusca, 38-year-old wife of Pantaleone Mancuso, a boss from the town of Nicotera, just north of Rosarno, ended her life in April after ingesting sulphuric acid.

She too had become a police informer in what was considered a historic breakthrough, while Lea Garafolo was tortured and killed before her body was dumped in an acid bath in the northern town of Monza in 2009 after she informed on her ex-lover Mafia boss, Carlo Cosco.

Angela Napoli, a Calabrian MP who sits on the Italian Parliament’s Anti-Mafia Commission, said these Calabrian women met their tragic fate because “they were so uncomfortable inside their families in which the men belonged to the ‘Ndrangheta”.

Perhaps those social constraints and family ties that remain particularly strong in the Italian south are the greatest challenge for law enforcement officials. “The authorities well know that the bosses of the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta never give in to their women and do not accept any kind of rebellion from them so they are certainly capable of provoking suicide,” Napoli said.

Journalist Giampaolo Latella, who writes for Corriere della Calabria, summed it up this way. “If you want to ‘punish yourself’ for a mistake, you choose the hangman’s rope. Acid is another thing.

“It is physically and metaphorically a way to shut someone up.”

Peter Fray

Save 50% on a year of Crikey and The Atlantic.

The US election is in a little over a month. It seems that there’s a ridiculous twist in the story, almost every day.

Luckily for new Crikey subscribers, we’ve teamed up with one of America’s best publications, The Atlantic for the election race. Subscribe now to make sense of it all, and you’ll get a year of Crikey (usually $199) and a year’s digital subscription to The Atlantic (usually $70AUD), BOTH for just $129.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey