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The Mammas Of The Italian Mob

Blackmailing, drug dealing, and murder.... if you think the female mafia bosses are softer than their male counterparts, think again.

The mother of godmothers, Antonietta Bagarella (L'Unita)
The mother of godmothers, Antonietta Bagarella (L'Unita)
Paul Badde

VENICE - The click of handcuffs closing reverberates softly at dawn on the morning of June 26 in Naples. No sirens gave the godfather advance warning the police were on their way. The godfather has long blonde hair. The "he" is a she: Raffaella D'Alterio, who's been the boss of the notorious Camorra Pianese-D'Alterio clan since her husband was murdered in 2006.

The raid along the bay at the foot of Mount Vesuvius resulted not only in the arrest of D'Alterio but of 66 other suspected members of the mafia, along with the seizure of bars, supermarkets, sports cars and bank accounts.

Charges against the blonde widow include blackmailing, drug dealing, and forgery as well as criminal activity in the construction and waste disposal sectors – and the godmother who raked in billions used all means including murder to defend her pole position.

Petra Reski is also blonde, also a godmother – but of a very different kind. For 20 years, the German journalist has been a top expert on Italy's mafia. She doesn't live in Palermo but in Venice, where we caught up with her in a little trattoria behind the famous La Fenice opera house.

How did she end up writing about the mafia? "Biographical reasons', she replies. "I come from a large family with roots in East Prussia and Silesia, and after we fled to Western Europe we maintained exceptionally close family ties."

Those ties marked her, she says, so when she read Mario Puzo's novel The Godfather she was interested to see how a family dynamic like that played out among the mafia. At 20, she traveled from her home in Kamen (North Rhine-Westphalia) to Corleone in Sicily to check out the scene -- and was hugely disappointed because she didn't see anything more exciting than a bunch of old guys sitting outside their homes watching whatever went by.

Women run the show

But as her subsequent reporting and books have shown, she didn't let the matter rest there. I ask Reski about women in the mafia. Isn't that a contradiction in terms? Reski laughs. "Not at all. First of all, women run the show in the south of Italy. And it's no different in the mafia."

She continues: "Secondly, they didn't pick the men they're with by chance. It's a clear calculation, and women enjoy calculating. They're no better than men. In fact they are the foundation of the mafia. The mafia men sit in the living room, sleep in a bed, eat at the table – and come home with bloody boots. And the women? People talk about how they keep silent, hide things, lie. How they look the other way. But they never claim that the women don't know anything."

Every big mafia boss has a woman at his side, Reski says – and not a passive victim of the bloody clan wars, either, but a main protagonist. Women transport weapons, plan crimes, deliver messages, and also know how to use the media to advantage.

They manage clan arsenals as naturally "as if they were a chain of hairdressing salons," she says. If there is a threat of police search, they have the weapons cemented inside walls. The mafia is 50% women, according to Reski, if not more. "As in any Italian household, in the mafia the women are the unknown other half."

Just as they do for the Cosa Nostra in Sicily and the Camorra in Naples, women carry mafia culture from generation to generation in Calabria too. The women are behind the blood feuds, keeping the memory of the dead alive, and preparing their sons for life in the "Ndrangheta, as the Calabrian mafia is called. The women of San Luca (Reggio Calabria) are no more the tolerant victims of brutal men than are their Sicilian or Neapolitan sisters. They wear disguises, hide fugitives from justice, plan murders, and says Reski "raise their kids to be time bombs."

The women are the ones who keep the lines of communication open between imprisoned male bosses and the clan, and in so doing may earn themselves the honorary title of "sorella d'omertà" or a "sister" of the mafia code of silence.

To illustrate the women's skill at manipulating media imagery, Reski says: "After her arrest, Teresa Strangio, one of the three sisters of alleged killer Giovanni Strangio, walked down the steps of police headquarters in Reggio Calabria head held high, eyes looking off into the distance – the sorrowful mater dolorosa, in fact the handcuffs gave her an air of martyrdom."

From widow to godmother

In Naples, where the matriarchy is even more pronounced than in the rest of Italy, the role of women in the Camorra is stronger too, Reski says. Which is why nobody was surprised when Raffaella D'Alterio became godmother after the death of her husband. But there have also been female mafia bosses elsewhere. One famous mafiosa in Sicily was Antonietta Bagarella. Another was the wife of one of the best-known mafia bosses, Totò Riina.

Ninetta Riina knew her husband from when they were both children. She was from an old mafia family in Corleone, and her brother was striving to climb Cosa Nostra ranks. Reski recounts how he was murdered by his future brother-in-law. "Ninetta only found out about it after she and Riina were married, but it certainly wouldn't have stopped her from marrying him. A woman like Ninetta from the old mafia nobility doesn't get sentimental about things like that."

So how come all of this isn't already better known? Why is there no "Godmother" movie? "It's simple," Reski replies: Italy's justice system places the family above the law. Even if a woman is married to a mafia killer for 20 years, she is not considered an accomplice. And no wife can be forced to testify against her husband.

That makes women very valuable to the mafia. "I don't know anything about the mafia. I don't know anything about the "Ndrangheta. I only know about my eight children, seven sons and a daughter," said the mother of Sebastiano Nirta, one of the alleged mafia killers accused of gunning down six people in front of the Da Bruno restaurant in Duisburg, Germany.

Are there any gay godfathers? I ask. "There are gay mafiosi," Reski replies. But most are heterosexual. "Remember, Palermo is not Berlin. In Sicily, traditions last longer than elsewhere. But it probably won't be long before there's a gay capo."

And with that she is off, into the maze of Venice's narrow streets.

Read the article in German in Die Welt.

Photo - L'Unita

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Manuel Cortina/ZUMA
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