illustration of Elisabetta Tripodi

Elisabetta Tripodi comes across as a straight-talker. She looks straight at you and answers questions in a rapid-fire way until she thinks she has said enough, or you interrupt, or – since we’re having lunch – she remembers to eat. If you ask a leading question and she doesn’t want to be led, she instantly slaps down the lead.

When I suggest that her party, the centre-left Partito Democratico (PD), may be less macho than Italian politics in general – that a predisposition to greater equality might embrace gender as well as income – she says: “No, I wouldn’t say so. Italian politics is masculine, very masculine. As a woman, you have to be twice as good. And that’s especially the case if a woman is good-looking, like Laura Boldrini [president of the lower house of Parliament], who gets a lot of sexist insults because of it; or Cécile Kyenge.” Kyenge, Italy’s Congolese-born minister for integration, was likened last year to an orang-utan by Roberto Calderoli, a leading figure in the rightwing Northern League.

We’re talking about women in Italian politics because it’s one of the contexts in which Tripodi, 47, is often placed. She has been mayor of a town in Calabria, down towards the tip of the Italian boot, since December 2010. Rosarno, population 16,000, is a rural town facing challenges of unemployment and poverty, scourges throughout the south as Italy passes through a deep recession. In January 2010 it briefly stumbled into the global spotlight after riots involving immigrant workers, mainly from Africa, who were protesting over low pay and squalid conditions.

It’s also a place that is heavily occupied by the ’Ndrangheta, Calabria’s Mafia, which is believed to be richer and crueller than either the Sicilian Mafia across the straits of Messina to the west or the Neapolitan Camorra to the north. Tripodi has first-hand experience of this. Soon after her election, increased anti-Mafia activity by the police and the paramilitary carabinieri produced pentiti, or informers, including women of ’Ndrangheta families. One was subsequently killed, her body dissolved in acid. The other, Giuseppina Pesce, daughter of the local clan boss, testified against members of her own family, resulting in prison sentences totalling 600 years. Tripodi sees cause for real hope in this refusal by women to remain mute witnesses to the brutality of their men. “They weren’t willing to go on like that,” she says. “They had concluded that it was better for their children’s future to co-operate with the police and the magistrates. But it’s now possible that the women of the ’Ndrangheta can change its whole course.”

It’s no surprise that Tripodi has a police escort, even if it isn’t quite like the one accorded to anti-Mafia writer Roberto Saviano. When I had lunch with him in 2010, it seemed like there was a squadron of towering carabinieri. The mayor enters the Donna Nela restaurant in the neighbouring town of Polistena with two short, compact men who, having briefly cased the joint and presumably concluded that a table of gaily festive young women offers no threat, sit down to lunch, not with the FT but each other.

Tripodi, who is late following a meeting, joins a family group. Her husband Silvio, a teacher at Rosarno’s high school who brought me to the restaurant, has on my invitation stayed. My wife has stayed to talk to him. Family – benign and malign – is everywhere in the south; it seemed more artificial to break up a benign manifestation of it in Donna Nela’s.

The owner, Giampiero Pecora, a sharp and wisecracking man in his thirties, tells us the specialities: I order a carpaccio of beef sausage while Tripodi goes for “cicci ricci” (pronounced “chichy richy”), a mixed platter of local sausages, served with zeppole, delicious little rounds of fried pasta dough. We both prefer a main course of pasta to one of meat or fish, she chooses fusilli sfiziosi, homemade pasta with piccante sauce; I have struncatura, homemade tagliatelle with an olive and anchovy sauce. The women want only a mouthful of wine; the men support each other in having more than a mouthful of the local house wine, a Terra Grande. Around us, the police, the cheerful young women, the two partners, pursue their different strands of talk while the mayor and I, both leaning forward to hear or be heard, unravel her story.

Tripodi explains how the ’Ndrangheta became more powerful in the 1980s. “When I was growing up as a child I saw these things. The ’Ndrangheta was strong enough then – there were extortions and killings all the time – but it wasn’t as powerful as it is now.” It had, she says, been more obscure, more secretive than the Sicilian Mafia or the Camorra but it grew. In the 1990s, it got a grip of the nearby container port of Gioia Tauro, one of the biggest in Italy and, according to a disputed estimate from the Italian interior ministry, the source of 80 per cent of Europe’s cocaine.

Tripodi continues: “Around Rosarno there are fields and fields of fruit – it’s the fruit basket of Italy – and the ’Ndrangheta established a kind of monopoly on that trade, too. Then they began to move into politics to gain protection for their activities. Bad politics is also at the root of it. It isn’t that the ’Ndrangheta have achieved a consensus of citizens in their favour, but maybe they get 10 per cent, and 10 per cent can be crucial in elections or in passing a measure.”

For her, “This is also an expression of the lack of any system of order, of laws and regulations. For example, in Rosarno the regulations for building are simply ignored. There are rules but no one checks up on them. One of the biggest ancient Greek settlements, Medma, was the original town. The ruins had been excavated by the famous Italian archeologist Paolo Orsi – and they built on top of it.”

It was an abuse of building laws that led to her acquiring bodyguards. Tripodi says she had inherited a housing issue that previous administrations had ducked: the occupation, by the mother of one of the local bosses, of a house that had been built years before in defiance of the city regulations and without the required permits. In 2011, the mayor ordered the house to be taken over and emptied. “Of course I knew I was closing the house of the mother of a boss who is in prison. The magistrate said to me, ‘You know what you’re doing?’

“I decided to do it in part because it was the law – I would have done it for anyone. If I hadn’t done it, that would have shown that, as mayor, I was weak – I didn’t have the strength to do it. Every day after, I felt a bit fearful: but then June and July passed and nothing happened so I said to my husband, ‘They won’t do anything.’ We went on holiday.

“But then this letter arrived, from a boss in prison – and the threat wasn’t direct but it was between the lines – written from a prison in the north but in an envelope of the Rosarno council.” This was meant, presumably, as a sign that a member of the ’Ndrangheta worked at the council.

“The letter said I had taken up a very aggressive attitude, that I had put innocent people in prison and that the house was no different from 50 per cent of the houses in the town in not having the correct permits.” Excerpts of the letter, from Rocco Pesce, one of the top men in the ’Ndrangheta, were quoted in newspaper reports. They revealed a message that at times pleaded for justice, at times expressed an exaggerated regret if any bad consequences should result from Tripodi’s actions. She took the letter to the carabinieri, who judged it a threat. “After that I got an escort, and that certainly affected my liberty of movement and my life. I can’t go in a car myself, or with my husband or kids. I have to have [the bodyguards] with me on holiday. They are there all day till I go home.”

Tripodi was raised and went to high school in Rosarno, where her parents live still. In 1984, she moved north to Pavia to take a degree in jurisprudence. She subsequently qualified as a segretario generale, the official who, in Italian local and regional authorities, is responsible to central government for ensuring that the measures passed by the council conform to national laws. In 1994 she was working in Varese, in rich northern Lombardy, where her husband had a teaching job, but she increasingly found herself thinking of home. “I had a responsibility to go back; if everyone leaves because it’s better elsewhere, what happens to the place? I wanted to see my parents, still here, and for my children [both now teenagers] to be raised here.”

In 1998, the family moved to Rosarno. Tripodi continued to work in towns around the region before, in 2010, her idea of running for the mayoralty of her home town met with an opportunity: elections were to be held following a two-year period in which Rosarno was run by a prefect imposed on the town after the dismissal of the council and the arrest of the previous mayor, Carlo Martelli (of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party) on charges of Mafia connections – a charge that, in Martelli’s case, was later quashed by the court of appeal.

Even so, the decision was difficult to make. “At first, I didn’t want to put my name forward as a candidate. I knew it would be very hard; there had been the riots; there was the problem of the ’Ndrangheta; my mother didn’t want me to do it; my children. Then I thought, ‘If everyone thought this way, and we all complain and do nothing, then nothing changes.’ So I came to see it as my civic duty.”

Her bid was supported by the PD, and she was elected, becoming the third woman in a short period to take mayoral seats in Calabria, following Maria Lanzetta in Monasterace (from 2006) and Carolina Girasole in Isola Capo Rizzuto (from 2008). The Italian press insistently linked, and praised, the “three anti-’Ndrangheta women”.

When we meet, however, Tripodi is the last of the three still in office. In December, Girasole, no longer a mayor, was placed under house arrest. The newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano reported that she was under investigation on an allegation of receiving votes corruptly organised for her by the very ’Ndrangheta she had seemed to oppose. Lanzetta, her mandate also over, is under investigation on a more minor allegation. In each case, the women were caught up in bitter struggles within their parties and council groups: Lanzetta, in a la Repubblica interview last November, said she resigned “after years of isolation, I was left squeezed between the empty words of the institutions and a politics which never cares about real people but only about itself. I include in this the PD, of which I’m a member.”

As I listen to Tripodi, it becomes clear that Calabrian politics – left, right and centre – is a series of snakepits; no one can tell if the allegations made against Girasole and Lanzetta have a basis or have been manufactured by their enemies – whether in the ’Ndrangheta or in their own political circles. The internal feuds are exhausting. In the car taking us to the restaurant, Silvio had spoken of the acrid jealousies that surrounded his wife’s rise; of the criticism she suffers for taking on organised crime, and being praised for it in the media – to some a sign of overweening ambition and egoism, or disturbing the status quo. I ask Tripodi: was it tougher for a woman to take on the ’Ndrangheta? Another dismissal: “You know, the ’Ndrangheta doesn’t care if you’re a man or a woman when you’re involved in trying to govern,” she says.

As for Rosarno’s other dubious claim to fame, Tripodi says that since the rioting, which happened a few months before she took office, “the situation is stable” but she remains irritated by the way it has been reported. “They presented Rosarno as a racist town and it’s not like that. There are some people who are, and there are also many who are tolerant and who assist the immigrants. The immigrants came back when I was elected. They come in October or November, go back in March – that is, when there’s work to be done.

“There was some talk about killing them but nothing happened. There hasn’t been a murder here for the past two years. Actually, a lot of the violence is among the immigrants themselves – because though they are mostly from Africa, they are ethnically diverse. There are people from Ghana and other places where they speak English and then others from francophone countries; some speak Italian, there are courses provided in Italian for them. But they are all men; men without women, without families – who move about – they go to the north to pick apples; come back to Sicily for the oranges. They usually find a place to live in abandoned farm buildings, not in the town.”

Nevertheless, she says, there is a cultural centre in the town and many workers are “well-integrated”. “In fact, there’s a bigger problem sometimes with the people who come from Romania and Bulgaria to work: they come with families, stay all year round, want to settle down: people blame them for taking work from Italians.”

We’ve gulped – or she has – at the pasta between her rapid narrative. I tell the owner we have to go soon. He explodes in (largely) mock anger: we cannot leave without a dessert! It would be an insult! He brings a traditional Christmas cake covered in chocolate, a super-sweet delight.

I ask Tripodi a few final questions about Matteo Renzi, the PD’s new young leader, seen by many as a saviour not just of the party but of Italy. She doesn’t rise to a temptation to laud the new prince: “I hope it will be better, that he’ll succeed.” Then, in a coda, she says: “You can only do a little in office. It is impossible to change here without the involvement of the people. People can’t stand by. They have to be involved.”

Consciously or not, she echoes the words of Paolo Borsellino, one of the two magistrates who took on the Sicilian Mafia in the 1980s and 1990s and were killed for it. Borsellino said the fight against the Mafia “had to be a cultural, moral, even religious movement. Everyone had to be involved.”

Tripodi knows she stands in the line of fire, too. Unless appearances and impressions lie wildly, she is a representative of Italy’s other politics: civic, dedicated to seeking a change, stubborn in its pursuit. No drama, here: just one rough day at a time.

John Lloyd is an FT contributing editor


Donna Nela

Corso Giuseppe Mazzini 23, Polistena, Calabria

Cicci ricci €8.00

Verdure €8.00

Carpaccio x2 €16.00

Fusilli sfiziosi x2 €16.00

Struncatura x2 €16.00

Pandorino artigianale farcito con cioccolata x2 €14.00

Bottle of Terra Grande €12.00

Total (incl service) €96.00

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