In southern Italy, the mafia preys on teens
By— March 3, 2017
Thirteen-year-old Jane* lived in Melito Porto Salvo, a village in Calabria, a region that is commonly referred to as Italy’s toe. She was young, confused, and lonely after her parents decided to separate. Like many children in this situation, she struggled to make sense of her new world.
All of that changed when she met 19-year-old Davide Schimizzi in the summer of 2013. Their romance filled an emotional void in her life.
Then, in October 2013, Jane exchanged text messages with Schimizzi’s friend, Antonio Verduci. It was an innocent exchange, but Schimizzi said he saw it as a betrayal.
Court documents reveal that this was the first sign of trouble.
Prosecutors claimed Schimizzi told Jane they could no longer see each other unless she restored her honor and loyalty to him. That could only happen, he said, if she had sex with him and Verduci. Jane was afraid of being alone again so she agreed.
“Davide started kissing me and undressing me,” Jane’s testimony read during court proceedings that began in September. “We went to one of the rooms. Antonio was already there. He watched us and then Davide told him to come into the bed.” The teenager said she felt ashamed. “I felt dumb. I felt used. I also thought now that everything is forgiven, this wouldn’t happen again.”
But she was wrong.
Shortly after this episode, Schimizzi picked up Jane in a car. “I quickly climbed into the car and hid in the back seat because I didn’t want my family to see me,” she explained in her testimony. The car sped off and, when she sat up, she noticed another person in the passenger seat. It was Lorenzo Tripodi, another friend of Schimizzi.
Jane said she got scared and tried to run away, but was stopped. “Why is he here?” she asked. “To have fun together,” Schimizzi said.
Schimizzi stopped the car in a secluded forest. Jane tried for a second time to run away, but was stopped by Schimizzi and Tripodi, she said. Her attempts to fight back were unsuccessful. She said the two of them took turns abusing her.
Jane testified that she continued to be sexually abused by various men in the following months. Then, in February 2014, the situation became even more dangerous. Jane’s abusers had a direct connection to a mafia group that is one of the most powerful criminal organizations in the world.
Meeting the mafia
Known as the ‘Ndrangheta, the mafia group that preyed on Jane is one of the most ferocious in Italy, according to Europe’s law enforcement agency known as Europol. The group’s headquarters is based in Calabria.
Prosecutors and academics claim each arm of the ‘Ndrangheta is autonomous and bound by blood. According to a 2016 book on the group, ‘Ndrangheta: The Global Dimensions of the Most Powerful Italian Mafia, by UK academics Anna Sergi and Anita Lavorgna, the group’s members are united by a common code and they put loyalty and omertà, or a vow of silence, at the top of the list. The people sworn into the clan are male, eligible as a direct blood relation to the boss and only after he has shown promise by committing crimes of blood and honor. In Calabria, prosecutors have said these graduates are then paired off in arranged marriages; many are even forced to marry into other clans. Their marriage vows are a tool to resolve feuds, build business alliances, and maintain the mafia bloodline.
Prosecutors and academics have said this doesn’t mean that women don’t play an influential role in the ‘Ndrangheta. A 2007 book, Women and the Mafia, explained that the women instill values into their children and are responsible for ensuring the longevity of the dynasty. They often help traffic weapons or drugs, support blood feuds, launder the clan’s money, and even become de facto leaders. In modern times, it’s hard to find an arrest warrant related to the ‘Ndrangheta that does not list at least one woman as a defendant. Some women do the job willingly, while others are forced to do it out of fear and a manipulated sense of family loyalty.
But in recent years, an increased number of women and young girls both inside and outside the ‘Ndrangheta have begun testifying against the mob and their criminal activities. Separately, there have also been more reported cases of sexualized violence cases connected to the mafia. One case involved a minor, Jill*, who was raped repeatedly for years. A judge in the city of Reggio Calabria said she confided in a priest and asked for his help, but that the priest told her to stay quiet.
Prosecutors have said the mistreatment of Calabrian women at the hands of the mafia could be happening at a much higher rate than is known, but silence or omertà in the community means other cases aren’t reported.
Fear of crossing the mafia is one explanation as to why people remain silent, but the answer can also be found in parts of Calabrian society. “The thing that makes the ‘Ndrangheta so dangerous is public consensus,” psychologist Enrico Interdonato told me.
Terrorist groups like Hamas are known to generate social approval because they behave like an alternative welfare system. Italian mafia groups have adopted a similar technique and capitalized on an economic crisis that has seen unemployment rates in Calabria climb to 23 percent, and youth unemployment that hit 59 percent in 2015.
Authorities cannot put a figure on the collective worth of the ‘Ndrangheta clans, but estimate it to be in the “billions.” Some of that money covers the costs of running their criminal empire, while the remainder of those funds is recycled in the legal economy—restaurants, the international property market, the stock market, construction and transport companies, renewable energy, online gambling, and car dealerships. Their tentacles from Calabria stretch as far as Australia, New York, and Germany.
Italian prosecutors say the ‘Ndrangheta manage up to 80 percent of Europe’s cocaine trade. The cocaine originates with drug cartels in Central and South American who deal directly with members of the ‘Ndrangheta. Almost half of that supply comes through Europe’s ninth largest port, in the Italian city of Gioia Tauro, a facility that is known to be managed by the ‘Ndrangheta. Authorities say some clans take a cut of around US$1.60 for each of the three million containers that come through the port each year.
“Why doesn’t anyone inside the port [of Gioia Tauro] talk about what goes on in there?” Sergi asks. “Because many people that got a job at the port owe a favor to a mafia family. That is how they get the drugs through. That’s consensus. That’s omertá. It’s not always forced on you out of fear.”
The ‘Ndrangheta has become a “bank” capable of loaning money. They also generate employment in the region, whether or not it is for laundering money. The ‘Ndrangheta clans have opened soccer clubs and radio stations, run farms across the region, and own transport and construction companies as well as print shops, like the one owned by Remingo Iamonte.
Iamonte is a leader of a powerful clan of ‘Ndrangheta based in Melito Porto Salvo. He was convicted in 2013 of being a member of the ‘Ndrangheta and is currently serving time in prison.
His son, Giovanni Iamonte, insists that his father is not a Mafioso—and neither is he. But prosecutors say that he became heavily involved in a web of sexual abuse in February 2014.
One girl’s story
Giovanni Iamonte, 30, was also Jane’s family friend. She grew up with him around, she said, and they would walk their dogs together when she was a child. Iamonte’s father, Remingo, employed Jane’s mother at a print shop in Melito Porto Salvo.
“Giovanni’s father was like a second father to me,” Jane said. “He would also buy me presents.”
But that generosity would come at a price.
One day, Jane said she entered Schimizzi’s car again and was surprised to see her friend, Iamonte. “What are you doing here?” she asked. The men laughed. Iamonte said he had seen photos of her having sex with men.
“You’ll have fun with me now,” he said as he moved to the backseat.
“I do not want to do anything,” Jane replied.
“You don’t want your dad to see these photos and know what you’ve been doing, do you?” Iamonte asked her.
Jane was defiant. “I told him that he can tell him because my dad will understand,” she told the court.
But then Iamonte’s demeanor changed, she said. “He stared at me and looked in my eyes. He looked evil and angry. I was scared. He said there would be consequences if I didn’t do what he wanted. He directly threatened my parents.” She feared for her parent’s safety and that not doing what they said could put her mother’s job at risk.
“I said OK,” Jane said. Then, Iamonte took her jeans off and forced himself on her. She said she was traumatized and shocked.
Jane said she was abused by at least eight men until 2016, when she went to the police. Her testimony, along with phone metadata and copies of messages, led to the men being charged with acts of sexualized violence. They will remain in prison until a verdict is given because of the seriousness of the charge and because it’s connected to the mafia. Five of them are related to the 64 people co-accused in Remingo Iamonte’s case, which declared him a member of the ‘Ndrangheta.
Why didn’t Jane go to the police earlier? Why did she keep seeing Schimizzi and doing whatever he asked? The answer could lie in where Jane’s mother’s works. Iamonte’s print shop employs her mother, thus enabling helping the family put food on the table and paying for Jane’s education. But Jane’s mother’s employment came at a price.
In this case, the price was sex and silence. Jane’s testimony indicates the men preyed not only on her fears and vulnerabilities but also threatened her mother’s job. They controlled her like they control the region of Calabria and try to overpower its innocent, ordinary citizens.
The ‘Ndrangheta feed on the vulnerabilities of people and political, social and economic systems in Calabria, and around the world. They rely on the fear of their name and cruel, sometimes deadly, actions to make sure no one dares to speak out against them.
Meanwhile, the trial continues.
*Jane and Jill’s names have been changed for their protection.