Feature Articles

December 2009
'Ndrangheta Women

      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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     The Independent (2 September 1992). "Don Saverio Mammoliti, 50, one of the leading bosses of the 'ndrangheta, is behind bars. He was arrested with his wife, Maria Caterina, whom he married when she was thirteen. Unlike the traditional silent, homebody mafia wives, she allegedly helped run the family 'family business.'"

     There is a history of active participation of women in the Calabrian 'ndrangheta 'ndrine (clans). It continues to the present day, and to a greater degree, given the cultural changes produced by the ongoing modernization of Calabrian society.

     A notable characteristic of the 'ndrine is that they are based essentially on the extended family structure, where 'ndranghetisti are related to one another through blood lines and marriage. The extended family and the criminal family, that is, the 'ndrina, tend to coincide. They are one and the same.

     The 'ndrangheta is divided into autonomous clans without a clear hierarchy of command. With its restricted membership the 'ndrina represents a particularly solid structure of 'ndranghetista criminality, a fundamental feature that gives the 'ndrina a closed system, one difficult to penetrate and defeat. Fewer informers are produced as compared to other organized crime families. Calabrians are less likely to inform on their criminal colleagues with whom they have familial bonds. One factor is that any potential informer can be kept by testifying by being bought off by those to whom he would do harm.

     The composition of the Serraino-Di Giovine clan is instructive in understanding the significance of the roles women play. A central figure was Maria Serraino. She was a participant who took sides in a complex grab for power in the Reggio Calabrian war between the clans Imerti-Condello-Serraino at odds with the De Stefano-Libri-Tegano clans. The Serraino family was composed of two groups of brothers and cousins. In the first group, three of the men were cousins to Maria Serraino. The second involved Maria's five brothers.

     There were women who exercised the ability to control events. Some observers have attributed a very important position to 'ndrina women. In one case where a husband was to be condemned to a lengthy prison sentence unless he cooperated with the authorities, his wife insisted that he should not do so. She preferred to safeguard the others from indictment based on his testimony rather than bring shame and ostracism upon herself and her offspring.

     What emerges is the changing role of the female in the world of the modern 'ndrangheta. This has been attributed to the progressive liberation of women from the more restrictive traditional roles thereby affording them a wider scope of behavior, greater independence and opportunity. Their influence both inside and outside the family has changed. The rural-based 'ndrina women were much more likely to stay in their place, meaning their authority did not extend beyond the husband or to the outside world. Staying out of men's affairs, maintaining a boundary between male and female spheres, was normative behavior. The resulting overlapping of the spheres (to be sure, not to be exaggerated in Calabrian or other parts of southern Italy) has brought women closer to the world of criminality (some perhaps willingly, others not so).This can be seen by the increasing number of women who have been indicted for "mafia association."

     One informer, Antonio Zagari, emphasized the importance of the woman's role in families involved in organized crime. "The 'ndrangheta rules do not anticipate the possibility of having affiliated females. But if a woman demonstrates a certain talent she can become associated with the title of sorella d'omertà, which can be translated "a sister of the conspiracy." She need not swear fidelity to the organization as men must do. This honor is limited to a wife, daughter, sister, a fianc´┐Że." No outsiders: they must be related to uomini d'onore.

     Such participation can turn bloody. 'Ndrina women have been involved in clan feuds in certain provinces of Calabria. Attempts to remain completely neutral when you are part of a crime family seldom succeed. Interclan conflicts can result in lost territory and disruption of family units. In such cases a woman cannot remain passive when a danger to the 'ndrina means also a threat to her family.

     Rita Di Giovine (who came back home to assist her family) gave her account of the clan Serraino-Di Giovine. "All the women were involved [in the war]. I rode in the car with my uncle. I carried messages while others transported guns. Women were the ones who did the important work. All the women had to serve in one capacity or another. The men were in hiding, so what transpired went through the women." An important task of a wife occurs when her husband is imprisoned. She serves as a conduit between him and the clan as well as maintaining a supportive network with families of other detainees. The spouse of a jailed capo is respected for what she represents. His orders that are run through her are taken seriously.

     Growing up in a criminal environment isolates children from the rest of the society. The daughter's upbringing contains a strong criminal focus, often alienating her from everyday life. She could have no contact of any duration with persons outside her tightly-knit extended family. She understands that there are certain persons with whom she cannot frequent. If she does so the consequences could be dire. An engagement had to be supported by the capo 'ndrina. The choice of husband is not solely hers, but is one that is made within the family context. Annunziata Giacobbe chose the wrong man. She was shot, stabbed and left on a rural lane. Another girl who fell in live with a carabiniere (the police were definitely off limits) was killed by her family, the body never recovered.

     Occasions might arise where a woman assumed a larger role. This from an interview with Rita Di Giovine, in 1998, in which she stated that her mother, Maria Serraino, was a narcotrafficker and clan boss. "My mother acted as though my brother ran the clan. In fact, she did. In reality, my mother had the power because I could see that if she decided that a piece of work had to be done, it was done."

     Teresa Gallico (arrested for mafia association) earned the respect of her family and was permitted to participate in clan discussions with her father and brothers. She had a substantial function in the family business. Others, as they say, "carried the club" for their men. If a woman was seen to having a criminal mindset she was likely to be utilized. This is evidenced by the frequency of arrests of females in criminal families.

     An exceptional figure was Teresa Concetta Managò. At 16 she married Francesco Condello, also a youth. Neither one was from a crime family. Francesco got his introduction to the Calabrian underworld when he opened a bar without first asking permission of the Gallico family, which controlled the territory. In 1977, his younger brother, a teenager, was murdered by the Gallicos for some transgression. Rather than tell the police who killed his brother, Francesco would revenge the killing with his own hands. He allied himself with an opposing clan. A war was ignited resulting with forty slain.

     Concetta was to witness her husband's transformation from a law-abiding merchant to a brutal assassin. Francesco became a local hero-the townsfolk praised him for doing the right thing. Soon under suspicion, he went on the lam. His own men were to betray him; he was killed by a car bomb, in 1989. Concetta, now a widow with four minor children, decided to tie herself to the Gallico clan and became the lover of its capo, Domenico Gallico.

     The two consorted openly. (They took moonlit walks on the beach.) She gained Domenico's confidence and sympathy. On her urging, Domenico agreed to track down and eliminate the three men who had ambushed her husband. Her role in the assassinations before clear during a phone conversation with a friend (intercepted by the police) during which she confessed her complicity. She was arrested and turned state's evidence, denouncing her lover, thereby closing the circle.


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