Italian Mafia Sees Rise of Girl Power

Growing up the daughter of a Mafia boss in post-World War II southern Italy, Maria Licciardi probably looked forward to a life of stoic, tight-lipped loyalty to her macho menfolk.

But a quiet gender revolution in the Italian Mafia has seen women shatter the glass ceiling of organized crime, as an increasing number of women take on the top job for some of Italy's major crime clans.

The penetration of women into the highest levels of one of the world's most patriarchal social institutions has caught the eye of Italian media and experts as well as crime statisticians. In 1990, one woman was indicted for Mafia association. By 1995, there were 89 such indictments.

And so, by June 15, when Licciardi was arrested near Naples, the 50-year-old matriarch apparently had risen high enough on the crime pecking order to make it into Italy's dreaded list of 30 most-wanted criminals.

Short, dark-haired and dressed in a simple yellow sundress when the police finally caught up with her, Licciardi — or la Madrina (the Godmother), as she is popularly called — seemed to be a dowdier Mafiosa sister of Erminia Giuliano, who allegedly operated a mob syndicate from Naples.

When she was arrested last December, Giuliano refused to follow the police out of her home until a beautician was summoned to perfect her coiffure and adorn her in a leopard print coat and stiletto heels. This uncompromising sartorial style was much appreciated by the media and local gossips.

Rise of Girl Power

Liccardi and Giuliano — or Celeste as she is known, because of her celestial blue eyes — are just two in a spate of recent arrests in the pantheon of Mafia women, authorities say.

In June 1999, Sicilian police arrested Concetta Scalisi, an alleged "godmother" wanted for three murders, in her hideout on the slopes of Mount Etna, Sicily. She reportedly slashed her hands and belly with broken glass in the hope of being sent to a hospital.

From resilient matriarchs impassively doling out pasta between chanting novenas for the safety of their menfolk, to pistol-packing mamas clinching drug deals, negotiating syndicates and ordering executions, girl power in the Italian mob has come a long way.

The rise of "godmothers" has been especially prominent in the Camorra clans, the Neapolitan version of the Sicilian-based Cosa Nostra, which has been slower to change.

Filling a Power Vacuum

But the power, some experts say, still rests on being married to the mob rather than elbowing the men at the top.

Following a crackdown by the police during the mid-1990s, a number of Mafia bosses are currently in jail. Coupled with the rising rate of inter-gang killings, the Neapolitan Mafia has had a power vacuum that the women have been filling by default.

The daughter of a Mafia boss, Licciardi took control only after her brothers were imprisoned and her husband and a nephew were murdered, investigators say. Giuliano herself became a boss only after the last of her five brothers was put behind bars, they say.

Although the number of Italian women graduating from universities and making their way into the labor force is rising, Alison Jamieson, author of The Antimafia (Palgrave), believes there's an enormous class divide that still cuts Mafia women from real girl power.

"These are not women who have emerged from universities," she said. "These are women who have grown up in the school of hard knocks. Naples is a very industrial area with a huge unemployment population and a lot of poverty. We aren't talking white-collar crime. We're talking about women who have only seen crime as a way of life."

No Wallflowers

What's more, Jamieson distinguishes between what she calls the "the enterprise syndicate" and the "power syndicate."

Women in Italian organized crime, she believes, have made it into the enterprise syndicate where they are fully involved in the enterprise of crime — keeping the books, ordering the violence and organizing the structure.

They have not, as yet, made it into the power syndicate, which entails the actual wielding of violence. And that, says Jamieson, is a big difference. "In the Mafia, power rests on the actual execution of violence."

In her heyday, prosecutors say, Licciardi ordered executions with supreme aplomb. When one of the clans within an alliance she headed disobeyed her orders regarding a heroin consignment last year, it led to deadly gang wars that resulted in nearly 50 deaths in the region surrounding Naples, authorities say.

Certainly Mafia women have proved to be no wallflowers in the world of violence. "Instead of leading the tide of righteous citizens against crime, women turned out to be even more entrenched in Mafia values than men," Clare Longrigg wrote in Mafia Women.

And even when they're forced to bow down before the law, they do it on their own feminist terms.

Minutes before being taken away in handcuffs, Giuliano had a few choice words to say to her daughter. "I'm counting on you now," the Italian media quoted her as saying. "I am relaxed. I have taught you all the true values in life."

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