Bruno Bonfà shows the devastation that the cows have wreaked on his farm: trampled bergamot seedlings, torn down thick branches of hundred-year-old olive trees, destroyed fences. “The cows only come after dark and disappear again at dawn. When the sun is shining, they usually hide in the bushes and in the woods,” explains the 68-year-old. There is no fence that is safe from them – the cops trample down everything that blocks their way. According to Bonfà, the damage caused by the cows in his crops has long been in the millions.

Bonfà’s 70 hectare organic farm is located on a foothill of the Aspromonte mountains in the so-called “Locride”, the area around the small town of Locri in the deepest south of Calabria. Directly below the bergamot and olive groves lies the wide bed of the river La Verde, to the south the Ionian Sea glitters about three kilometers away. But the idyll is deceptive. Bonfà has been, as he says himself, “at war” for years. Or to be more precise: since October 3, 1991, the day on which hitmen from the clans shot his father dead on his farm. He must have accidentally witnessed a kidnapping and had to die as a result. The murder of Bonfà’s father has never been solved. At the time, kidnapping was a lucrative line of business for the ‘Ndrangheta, the association of the Calabrian mafia.

1991 was also the year of a “pax mafiosa”, a mafia peace: the top management had ordered the end of a bloody feud that had been going on for years, which had started in the small town of Cittanova between two mafia families and had claimed thousands of lives over the years. “The feud was at the beginning of the story about the sacred cows of the ‘Ndrangheta,” says lawyer Domenico Antico from Cittanova. Because the mafia war meant that the domestic cows that belonged to the clans suddenly had no owners because they had either been murdered or arrested.

The stray animals broke out of their stables, ran wild – and multiplied uncontrollably. They penetrated the plantations and fields of the local farmers, devastated the cultures – and they also became a problem for road safety. Accidents involving cows, some of them serious, occurred almost every day in Cittanova and the surrounding area. The animals even derailed a train twice. “Fortunately, there were always only injuries and never a death,” says Antico, who had an accident with a cow himself a few years ago and was uninjured. The animals penetrated into the city centers, strolled through the streets, drank from the fountains. A plague.

Nevertheless, hardly anyone dared to drive the animals away or even kill them – because the clans still considered themselves their rightful owners. The cows were considered “untouchable” – and so were soon commonly referred to as “le vacche sacre della ‘ndrangheta”, the sacred cows of the ‘Ndrangheta. How dangerous it was to mess with the animals had been clear since September 8, 2005 at the latest, when retired optometrist Fortunato La Rosa was shot and killed three times. He had lodged a complaint about the cows that had repeatedly devastated his garden, thereby signing his own death sentence. “The cows are a means for the ‘Ndrangheta to demonstrate their control and power over the territory,” says attorney Antico. The message is: Our cows are allowed to do everything, because here we command.

The state with its monopoly on the use of force has looked the other way for decades and left the righteous citizens, who make up more than 99 percent of the population of Calabria, to deal with the problem alone. Although a few cows were caught sporadically, the authorities basically ignored the animals’ existence – or denied it. Until the situation became untenable in 2017. “It was a drought year, the animals moved more than usual in their desperate search for water, they penetrated the historical centers even more frequently, the number of accidents increased – something had to be done,” says Antico.

He, his friend Peppe Morabito and some other residents founded the citizens’ initiative “No Bull” in Cittanova. Lawyer Antico is the group’s spokesman, and 63-year-old Morabito is its president. They wrote to the region’s police chief and organized rallies. The mayors of other municipalities in the area quickly joined the protest. And lo and behold: in January 2018, Reggio’s police chief came to Cittanova in person, together with the heads of the carabinieri, the police and the Corpo Forestale. They listened to the complaints of the population, a task force was set up to kill the cows.

Since then, three teams of police snipers have been hunting the sacred cows. Over 400 animals have now been killed. “Of course it hurts me that the animals are being killed, they are living beings too,” says Morabito. But it is also a health problem: the feral cows are not vaccinated, are never examined by a veterinarian and spread diseases among their domesticated counterparts with whom they have contact. The Ausmerz campaign is therefore also endorsed by the Ministry of Health in Rome. It will probably take a while before the problem is definitely resolved. “We’re not in the flat, open prairies of the Wild West here, but in the inaccessible hills and valleys of the Aspromonte, where the animals can hide very well,” says Morabito.

Nevertheless, the initiative is considered a great success. “We have made a contribution against the widespread resignation in our region, and the state has finally shown that it is present,” says Morabito. “And we demonstrated to the mafia families that the territory does not belong to them, but to the citizens.” The fight against the mafia is also a social and cultural one: “Ultimately, it is about the principle of legality being respected again becomes. This happens in various ways, the police and criminal prosecution of the mafiosi being just one of them. It is also a civil society struggle.”

The struggle of the citizens has indeed gained more and more strength in recent years – parallel to the intensified state repression. The confiscation of assets and estates by the state has proven to be a particularly effective means against the mafia – not only in Calabria: On former mafia estates, a young generation of Calabrians is now cultivating the fields, orange plantations and olive groves, showing that there is also works differently. More and more priests are refusing to accept mafia bosses as godparents for newborn children. Shopkeepers and traders refuse to pay protection money and file a public complaint – only a few years ago only very few had dared to do that.

A lot has changed for the better in recent years, emphasizes lawyer Antico. Today’s ‘Ndrangheta sits at the computer and does financial business, she doesn’t deal with cows. “You know the families, many are still afraid of them.” But Calabria is only marginally interesting for business. The Calabrian home is still important for the clans for their own narrative, as an identity-forming and connecting element. “But they no longer do their billion-euro businesses here, but in northern Italy, in Germany, in Switzerland, in the USA, all over the world.”

For Bruno Bonfà, on the other side of the Aspromonte mountains, this is of course small consolation: for him, the threat from the clans is as relevant as ever. Because he defends himself against the ‘Ndrangheta, because he wants to know the truth about his father’s death and because he is conducting his fight publicly, he has remained a victim of acts of sabotage and intimidation to this day. Still, he doesn’t think about giving up: “It would be a surrender to the clans – and the victory of those who killed my father.”