Feature Articles

December 2007
Donne Di Mafia
(Women of the Mafia)

By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus

Mike La Sorte is a professor emeritus (SUNY) and writes extensively on a variety of subjects.

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"My wife knew I was a thief, but she could never imagine that I was capable of homicide. At times, she would ask about where I got my money from and I would repeat that it was stolen money, but that was it. I did not say, for example, that I robbed a bank, never. When we first got married, she would always ask. Then I convinced her never to ask me to explain anything. Because she was a woman and I did not want her to get involved in my life. I tell her, she tells a friend; because women mutually confide anything can happen. On occasion, when I told her, Listen, I did this or that, she would burst into tears. Either way, I lose!" (Mafioso pentito, i.e., one who turns informer. Catania, Sicily)

     According to mafia tradition, women are precluded from any formal affiliation to a mafia clan. Judge Giovanni Falcone noted, in 1989, that the mafia is an organization "absolutely masculine," a tightly monitored world, accessible only to "real men," a select few. There is no evidence that a woman has ever been inducted through an initiation governed by the recognized set of rituals. Whether a subordinate or supporting role of some nature occurred in the distant past, present evidence indicates a greater degree of participation, albeit in a continuing minor role, or temporary major role. This view of the woman's detachment from the man's world needs to be reexamined and qualified.

     Mafia expert Marina Graziosi advances the question: "In a world of continuing emancipation of Italian women, and the changing female profile in mafioso activities, judges who saw women as unwitting participants in crimes of the mafia are now accusing some female defendants of being an integral part of the mafia enterprise." A growing number of females have been prosecuted for "crimes of the mafia-type." Of the few who have been imprisoned, many are drug addicts.

     It was considered dangerous for women to be knowledgeable of mafia activities. Wives, sisters, and mothers were to be oblivious of the world, remaining innocently outside the orbit of the business of men. They were to be cognizant only with that which had to do with protecting the sanctity of the family. Clan business was not to be hinted at outside of a very tight circle. There was no such thing as mafioso "pillow talk," a blatant violation of the code of absolute secrecy. As one Sicilian mafioso put it, "Women think in a certain manner. All women do, even those married to men who belong to traditional clan families. When a woman becomes emotional over subjects close to her heart, she loses all objectivity. Keeping your own counsel, holding to omertà, is forgotten. If a wife knows something, either the husband is obliged to permanently silence her, or the job is given to someone else."

     The role of a mafia woman is a challenging one, and contains a certain degree of analytic confusion. Some contend that the correct interpretation is to understand that a donna di mafia is not "part of" but rather "belongs to" the mafia system. By "belonging" is meant that she is the "property" of the mafia: Her freedom of movement and expression is circumscribed by mafia norms in that she must share the fate of the man.

     The woman's most important connection to the mafia is through the reproductive function. The wife has the duty of birthing the next generation of mafiosi thereby ensuring the survival of mafia culture, which can only be realized within the "tribe." Testimony of pentiti reveals that offspring of a mafia family face restricted options as they come of age. There are cases of daughters who have been killed by order of their fathers because they sought the right of personal choice, such as marrying a man out of love, rather than accepting the obligation of an arranged marriage to someone of the parents' choosing; or to put it another way, that which complies with mafia expectations. This can be considered the fundamental role that the female has played in the history of the mafia.

     A look at that history also shows female participation in mafia affairs. We discover, for example, women accused of mafia association in the mafia clans of the Madonie mountains of Sicily in the late 1920s. In one roundup, among the 153 accused mafia members and their supporters were seven women. They were taken into custody for assisting fugitives from justice as well as being responsible for collecting the pizzo (extortion) payments and secreting ill-gotten gains.

     During the Palermo maxi trial of 1986, of the 460 defendants, four were women, all on trial for drug trafficking, abetting, and giving false testimony. Maria Grazia Genova, who died at age 81, in 1990, had a long criminal record in the province of Caltanissetta (Sicily), a string of fifty suspected crimes and twenty-two arrests. Another female miscreant, Sorella di Diego, who was called a "man of respect" because of her abilities, began her criminal career in 1927. She was not to be toyed with. In 1949, she engaged in a feud that involved her family, which ended only when "there was no one else to kill." When family members were arrested she would ask for "contributions" from businessmen to pay the lawyers. All were more than eager to give.

     In 1982, at age 74, Angela Russo, also known as nonna eroina (grandma heroin), was arrested, along with her children and daughters-in-law, all suspected of being drug couriers between Palermo and the Italian mainland. She was the principal in her extended family's drug trafficking business. When one of her sons became a pentito, turning against la bossa mafiosa, his own flesh and blood, Angela called him a "disgraceful coward." During one interview, she said, "I have pardoned my son Salvatore, but I doubt that God has. When he gets out of jail that are going to kill him, just like they got to his brother."

     Nonna eroina did not hesitate to boast that she was the boss. "I did not carry packages from one part of Italy to the next. From the beginning I commanded the others." The mafia, she explained, was composed of veri uomini (true men), of the old school, like her father, who lived by a severe set of laws, punishing those who sinned while rewarding those who worked for the good of the group. Things have changed for the worse, she observed. "Today, you hear this guy's a mafioso, that guy's a mafioso. Are they kidding? We have arrived at a point where some nobody who steals a trifle is quickly dubbed 'mafioso.' I don't see any. It's a joke. Where is the mafia? What do they [the authorities] know of mafia? Certainly, in previous generations in Palermo there was. They had rules. You did not kill the sons of innocent mothers. Mafia doesn't kill until it is certain of the facts. Yes, who sins pays, but not before being given a warning. They were true men in those days. My father, Don Peppino, was a vero uomo, and before him everybody trembled with respect--all in the villages of Torrelunga and Brancaccio, and, yes, as far as Bagheria."

     When Nino Cinturino, capomafia of the Calatabiano clan in the province of Catania entered prison, in 1992, his young wife, Maria Filippa Messina, became his temporary replacement and soon demonstrated her talents as a leader. Maria was arrested three years later for mafia association and accused of ordering the killing of a rival clan member and his mother. Her goal, as she put it, was to "clean up the town" by destroying the Laudani cosca, a traditional rival. In the war that followed, involving three cosche, among those taken into custody were three women. One, Maria Filippa, was sentenced to carcere duro (hard time), which meant solitary confinement. She was the first female to suffer that extreme penalty.

     The donne di mafia are not of a piece. Some are passive, some active. Some support criminal activities as lookouts, traffickers and staunch defenders of their outlaw men. Others enter the mafia ranks in a variety of capacities, although not as "made women." And as mothers, the donne di mafia play a socialization role in the raising of children to enter mafia circles as members and wives of members. At the center of the mafia world there are women who belong to the hard-core, multigenerational mafia families, born and raised in that milieu, isolated from other influences, and destined to marry mafiosi of high status. And there are the wives of rank-and-file street soldiers, those passive women who do not question the origins of their husband�s money.

     All women of the mafia are not held to the same standard in regard to their spouses� sources of income. Those who benefit the most from mafia association are part of an elite, the traditional elite, which is organically tied to organized crime, and with the sophistication of elitists. They smoothly interact with the outside world and know how to be accepted into the spheres of influence of the greater society as legitimate persons. Like all elites, marriages in this exclusive society are ones of convenience, which is to say, a joining of two powerful mafia families for purposes of consolidating power and accumulating wealth. In such unions the wife can be considered an equal partner in the mafia mogul husband�s illicit enterprises. This can mean that any of her husband�s loses on conviction for criminal activity can become hers as well, thereby depriving her of a comfortable life style made possible by dirty money.

     To cite one legal case, in Palermo, Francesca Citarda was the wife of capomafia Giovanni Bontate (1946-1988) and daughter of capomafia Matteo Citarda. Both spouses belonged to mafia family lineages. The court found that along with her husband Francesca had played "a role of active participation in armed bands that endangers the security of the State and democratic order." Thus she was not allowed access to the family wealth because "it was in large part of illicit origin, constituted with money from drug trafficking and its subsequent recycling." Mafia justice prevailed when both were later assassinated.

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