CVincenzo Agostino, approaching his son’s coffin, solemnly swore that he would not cut his hair or beard until justice was done. It was August 10, 1989, five days after two mafia hitmen on a motorcycle killed Antonino Agostino, a police officer, and his wife, Ida, who was five months pregnant.
The couple were shot and killed in broad daylight on the seafront in Villagrazia di Carini, a town about 20 miles from Palermo. Vincenzo witnessed his son’s agony when the assassins fired a load of bullets at 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 released a report revealing how Antonino Agostino was killed because he was investigating runaway mobsters. One of the killers, mob boss Nino Madonia, was sentenced to life imprisonment in March. It was a small step forward, despite many unanswered questions and the fact that many of those involved in the assassination are still at large.
The ruling has rekindled the debate in Italy about the slow legal process and the agonizing fight for the judicial closure of the families of innocent victims of the mafia.
Thirty-two years later, Vincenzo has fulfilled his promise: his long beard now reaches his chest and has become a symbol of resistance against mob bosses and for the long search 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 nearly 600 cases of innocent victims of organized crime in Italy have been only partially solved or are completely unsolved. Most of the investigations have been closed due to lack of evidence, while many others are trapped in endless trials and dozens are awaiting legal action.
The anguish and frustration that victims’ families carry with them lead to a number of psychological problems, including depression, panic attacks, suicidal thoughts and post-traumatic stress. The Guardian traveled to four southern Italian regions with a history of organized crime, interviewing parents and children of mob victims who, decades after the murder of their loved one, are demanding the cases be reopened.
For more than 30 years, Vincenzo Agostino has relentlessly pursued prosecutors to convince them to reopen the investigation into his son’s death, which has been closed dozens of times. During an earlier investigation, it was revealed that during the mafia’s violent war 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 mob bosses, which remains a focus of investigation today.
“Today, one thing is clear: some prominent member of the state betrayed my son Antonino and informed the mob of his role as a secret agent,” says Vincenzo. “Who are the disloyal and deceptive institutional representatives who betrayed this country and served death sentences for members of the police and the judiciary? No, this is not the time to cut my beard yet. “
In a 2016 police lineup, Vincenzo chose a colleague of his son who was implicated in the murder. That is why, at 86 years old, he is forced to live under police protection 24 hours a day.
“Seeing his son, daughter-in-law and unborn grandson die destroys his life. I have a wound the size of a crater in my heart, ”says Vincenzo. He and his wife, Augusta, led the battle to uncover their son’s killers. Augusta died in 2019. On her tombstone, together with 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, some 200 miles away, in the ‘Ndrangheta territory of Calabria, another father hits his son’s headstone. He asks if he can hear it and wants to know what it’s like up there in the sky. The father’s name is Martino Ceravolo, and he says that he has not known peace since ‘Ndrangheta. killed his 19-year-old son Filippo by mistake on October 25, 2012 near Soriano Calabro.
“That night, Filippo had planned to visit his girlfriend, who lived in a small town four kilometers from here,” says Martino, 52, who ran a confectionery stall with his son. “His car was not working, so he tried to take an elevator. A young man from Soriano Calabro offered to take him there. Unfortunately, he ended up in the wrong car on the wrong night. “
At that time, a violent war was raging within the ‘Ndrangheta between the powerful Emanuele clan and the Loiero clan. Filippo couldn’t have known that Domenico Tassone, who had offered to drive him, was on the rival clan’s hit list.. At approximately 10 p.m., four men surrounded Tassone’s car and began shooting. Bullets aimed at Tassone struck Filippo in the head and chest.
“When I got to the crime scene, my whole world fell apart,” says Martino, who takes tranquilizers every day to cope with his panic attacks. “Tassone got out of the car yelling, ‘They wanted to kill me!’ He miraculously survived, while Filippo lay on the ground 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 continue to control the local area. “Those criminals took my son’s life, and also ours,” says Martino.
One of Martino’s daughters suffers from depression and his wife tried to commit suicide three years ago after their son’s case was closed once again.
“They have abandoned us without any psychological support,” says Martino. “I have also thought about taking my life. I have thought of setting myself on fire in front of the Ministry of Justice ”.
The psychological impact on families can be devastating, especially in the case of “ambiguous loss”, in which the bodies of the victims are never recovered. Close relatives living in constant limbo can develop severe depression or alcoholism.
“After my father died, 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 killed on the night of March 31, 1995, on the staircase of his apartment building, by a local mob killer in Foggia, Puglia. He was the director of the public tax agency, who had denounced corruption in his office and tax evasion by various firms.
Even though Marcone’s murder was a textbook mob murder, his case remains unsolved. “I know of mothers who have reached out to mob bosses, begging them to reveal the location of the body, just so they can give their son an honorable burial.”
The wait for justice can become so frustrating that the families of many victims have become pseudo-detectives. When Angelina Landa understood that the police were not investigating her father’s death, Michele, a 62-year-old security guard allegedly killed by the Neapolitan CamorraHe decided to take matters into his own hands.
In 2006, the Casalesi clan of the Camorra mafia, which inspired the television series Gomorrah, had gone into the lucrative business of stealing industrial phone batteries. Michele had been assigned to guard a Vodafone relay station near Mondragone in Campania, which was controlled by the Camorra. His charred body was found on September 5, 2006 inside his little Fiat.
“My brothers and I agreed that we had to act soon,” says Angelina, 48, an elementary school teacher. “Five days after his disappearance, we jumped over the fence where the police had moved his burning car. Among the ashes we find his bones. After five days, they still hadn’t removed his remains from the car. “
Investigators closed the case after a few months, citing a lack of evidence.
Another aggravating factor in case resolution is be quiet, the mafia code of silence. “Gangsters rarely testify against their own, including their rivals,” says Marcone.
“In a mafia murder, it is difficult to find witnesses among ordinary people, especially in small towns where organized crime groups are deeply rooted and be quiet it is a social phenomenon, ”he says. “People are reluctant to come forward because they fear retaliation from the bosses.”
“The code of silence is the foundation of the mafia’s strength,” says Federico Cafiero De Raho, a national anti-mafia prosecutor. “Investigations into mob killings can be really complicated. A boss-ordered murder never has a single perpetrator, but rather a chain of perpetrators. This makes the investigation difficult, unless an arrested 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: gangsters who are arrested and decide to collaborate with prosecutors in exchange for reduced sentences. In recent years, these cases have shed light on numerous “unsolved cases”.
“I leaf through the newspaper every day hoping to find news about a recent mob renegade,” says Martino Ceravolo. “I realize that it is frustrating, but I have never sought revenge, only justice. And until I find it, I will continue to touch 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.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism