Italy’s Gangster Grannies Got Guns, Guts, Notoriety

Elmelinda Pagano, wife of alleged Camorra crime syndicate mobster Raffaele Amato, after her arrest. (Salvatore Laporta/ AP)
Arrested: Elmelinda Pagano, wife of alleged Camorra crime syndicate mobster Raffaele Amato. (Salvatore Laporta/ AP)

Godmothers used to be kindly women who were close to your Mom. She brought you the school sneakers your mother didn’t want to get for you, the candy she said you shouldn’t have and the cereal your mother said was too sweet for you. But, oh how things have changed.

These days Godmother’s are fearless, ruthless, killing machines that head Italy’s Camorra crime families. As the state rounds up the male heads of the crime families, women are stepping into the power vacuum with impunity.

“There is a growing number of women who hold executive roles” in the Camorra, Gen. Gaetano Maruccia, commander of the Carabinieri paramilitary police in the Naples area, told The Associated Press. “They are either widows (of mob bosses) or wives of husbands who have been put in prison. They hold the reins.”

Mothers, daughters, sisters and sisters-in-law are “assuming ever-more leading roles,” Stefania Castaldi, a Naples-based prosecutor who investigates organized crime, said in an interview.

This family dimension of the Camorra finds its echo in mainstream Italian society — a family often will entrust its business to a woman relative rather than an outsider.

In 2002, two carloads of women from rival Camorra clans lurched through the streets of Lauro, a town near Naples, first trading insults, and then machine-gun fire and pistol shots until two grandmothers and a 16-year-old girl were dead.

The root of the bloodshed: a turf war fueled by the murder of a clan boss’ cousin. Some of the Camorra “godmothers” rank right up there with the men in commanding clout and obedience, authorities say.

Aspiring male Camorristi must undergo a rite of passage — often carrying out a boss’ order to kill or maim a rival, investigators say. Zaccaria said no such “requirement” applies to female bosses. Still, “they eliminate their enemies, their rivals, in a merciless way.” said Zaccaria.

While Camorra women seem to have no limits in their ascent to power, the women in Sicily’s Cosa Nostra apparently don’t enjoy the same possibilities.

A Milan-based historian, Ombretta Ingrasci, author of a book about women in the Sicilian Mafia, speaks of a “glass ceiling,” possibly because unlike the family-based Camorra, Cosa Nostra’s organization is essentially a men’s club which seeks its members not based on blood ties.

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