Clinging to his son’s coffin, Vincenzo Agostino solemnly vowed that he would not cut his hair or beard until justice was served. It was in August 1989, five days after two mafia hitmen on motorcycles murdered Antonino Agostino, a police officer, and his wife, Ida, who was five months pregnant.
The couple was fatally wounded in broad daylight on the promenade of Villagrazia di Carini, a town 30 kilometers from Palermo. Vincenzo saw his son dying after the assassins emptied a magazine on him. She saw her daughter-in-law, who was shot in the heart, approach her husband in a vain attempt to comfort him.
Last month a judge published a report revealing that Antonino Agostino was murdered because he was investigating fugitive mobsters. One of the killers, gangster boss Nino Madonia, was sentenced to life imprisonment in March. It was a small step forward, despite the questions still open and that many of those involved in the murder are still on the run.
The sentence has reignited the debate in Italy about the slow legal process and the agony of the relatives of the innocent victims of the mafia. 32 years later, Vincenzo keeps his promise: his long beard now reaches his chest and has become a symbol of the resistance against mafia bosses and the tough crusade for the truth faced by hundreds of relatives of victims of organized crime in Italy.
According to a report by the anti-mafia association Libera, almost 80% of the approximately 600 cases of victims of organized crime have been solved in Italy only partially or are completely open. Most investigations have been closed for lack of evidence, while many others are trapped in endless trials and await legal action.
The discomfort and frustration carried by the relatives of the victims cause various psychological problems, such as depression, panic attacks, suicidal tendencies and post-traumatic stress. The Guardian He has traveled to four regions in southern Italy that have a long history of organized crime and has interviewed parents and children of mafia victims who, decades after the deaths of their loved ones, are demanding that their cases be reopened.
“Your life destroys you”
For more than 30 years, Vincenzo Agostino has tirelessly pursued prosecutors to convince them to reopen the investigation into his son’s death, which has been closed a dozen times. During a previous investigation it was revealed that during the violent war waged by the mafia against the Italian state in those years, Antonino worked as a secret agent tasked with locating fugitive mobsters. His death uncovered the alleged relationship between members of the Italian secret service and mafia bosses, which continues to be a focus of current investigations.
“Today one thing is clear: some prominent member of the state betrayed my son Antonino and informed the mafia of his role as a secret agent,” says Vincenzo. “Who are the disloyal and deceitful institutional representatives who betrayed this country and handed down the death sentences for members of the police and the judiciary? No, it is not yet time to cut my beard.”
In a reconnaissance round in 2016, Vincenzo pointed to a colleague of his son who was involved in the murder. For this reason, at the age of 86, he is forced to live under police protection 24 hours a day.
“Watching your son, your daughter-in-law and your unborn grandson die destroys your life. I carry a wound the size of a crater in my heart,” says Vincenzo. He and his wife, Augusta, commanded the battle to uncover her son’s murderers. Augusta passed away in 2019. On her tombstone, next to that of her son in the Santa Maria di Gesù cemetery in Palermo, is inscribed: “Here lies Augusta, Antonino’s mother, who still awaits truth and justice.”
In another cemetery, about 300 km in the territory of the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta, another father hits his son’s headstone. He asks if he can hear it and wants to know what the sky is like up there. The father’s name is Martino Ceravolo, and he says that he has not known peace since the ‘Ndrangheta mistakenly killed his 19-year-old son Filippo on October 25, 2012 near Soriano Calabro.
“That night Filippo planned to visit his girlfriend, who lived in a small town four kilometers from here,” says Martino, 52, who ran a pastry stand with his son. “His car was not working and he tried to hitchhike. A young man from Soriano Calabro offered to drive him. Unfortunately, he ended up in the wrong car on the wrong night.”
At that time, a violent war raged within the ‘Ndrangheta between the powerful Emanuele clan and the Loiero clan. Filippo couldn’t have known that Domenico Tassone, who offered to drive him, was blacklisted by the rival clan. At 10:00 pm four men surrounded Tassone’s car and began shooting. The bullets aimed at Tassone hit Filippo in the head and chest.
“When I got to the scene of the crime, my whole world collapsed,” says Martino, who takes tranquilizers every day to deal with his panic attacks. “Tassone left the car yelling ‘they wanted to kill me!’ He miraculously survived and Filippo was left lying in a pool of blood. ”
Filippo’s case was closed for lack of evidence, despite prosecutors identifying the four men responsible for the attack, who retain control of the local area. “Those criminals took my son’s life and ours as well,” says Martino.
One of Martino’s daughters suffers from depression, and his wife attempted suicide three years ago after her son’s case was closed once again.
“We have been abandoned without any kind of psychological support,” says Martino. “I have also thought about taking my life. I have thought about setting myself on fire in front of the Ministry of Justice.”
The psychological impact on families can be devastating, especially in cases where the bodies of the victims are never recovered. Close family members are left in constant limbo that leads to severe depression or alcoholism.
“After my father’s death I suffered from anxiety and panic attacks for years, while my mother dealt with depression for the rest of her life,” says Daniela Marcone, 52, Vice President of Libera.
Daniela’s father, Francesco, was shot and wounded on the night of March 31, 1995 on the stairs of his building by a murderer of the local mob from Foggia, Puglia. He was the director of the public tax agency, which had denounced corruption in his office and tax evasion among some companies.
Despite the fact that Marcone’s murder seems straight out of the mob manual, his case remains unsolved. “I know mothers who have contacted the mafia bosses asking that they reveal the location of the body just to give their children a dignified burial.”
Relatives turned detectives
The wait for justice can become so frustrating that the relatives of many victims have become detectives of sorts. When Angelina Landa realized that the Police were not investigating her father’s death, Michele, a 62-year-old security guard allegedly killed by the Neapolitan Camorra, decided to do something herself.
In 2006, the Casalesi clan of the Camorra, which inspired the television series Gomorrah, had gone into the lucrative business of stealing industrial telephone batteries. Michele had been posted to guard a transmitting station near Mondragone, in Campania, which is controlled by the Camorra. His charred body was found on September 5, 2006 inside his little Fiat.
“My brothers and I decided we had to act fast,” says Angelina, 48, an elementary school teacher. “Five days after his disappearance, we jumped over the fence of the warehouse where the police had left his burned car. We found his bones in the ashes. Five days later they still had not removed his remains from the car.”
Investigators closed the case after a few months, citing a lack of evidence.
Code of silence
Another factor involved in the resolution of cases is the omerta, the mafia code of silence. “Gangsters rarely testify against their own, even their rivals,” says Marcone.
“In mafia killings it is difficult to find witnesses among ordinary people, especially in small towns where organized crime groups are deeply rooted and the omerta it is a social phenomenon, “he says.” People are reluctant to speak out because they fear retaliation from the bosses. ”
“The code of silence is the foundation of the strength of the mafia,” says Federico Cafiero de Raho, national prosecutor against the mafia. “Investigations into mafia killings can be very complicated. A murder ordered by the bosses never has a single perpetrator, but rather a series of perpetrators. This makes the investigation very difficult, unless a jailed mobster decides to speak up.”
Paradoxically, sometimes the hope of reopening mafia cases is in the hands of the very people who committed those murders: Arrested mobsters who decide to collaborate with the Prosecutor’s Office in exchange for reductions in sentences. In recent years, these situations have shed new light on many “pending cases.”
“I leaf through the newspapers every day in the hope of finding news about a recent mob fugitive,” says Marcone. “I know it is frustrating, but I never sought revenge, only justice. And until I find it, I will go back to hitting my son’s grave to let him know that I have not given up.”
“Without justice, there is no peace,” he says. “Not for me, not for him.”
Translated by Ignacio Rial Schies