Site icon News-EN

In the Italian region of Apulia, women are taking the lead in challenging the local mafia, at great personal risk


LECCE, Italy (AP) — It was a scene straight out of “The Godfather.” On the night of February 1, a bloodied goat’s head with a butcher’s knife stuck through it was left on the threshold of Judge Francesca Mariano’s home in southern Italy, with a note next to it that read “so.”

Mariano had already received threats, including notes written in blood, after issuing arrest warrants against 22 members of a local mafia clan active in the south of Pugliathe heel of the Italian boot.

Puglia is known for its olive groves, cone-shaped whitewashed ‘trulli’ houses and spectacular coastlines that will serve as a backdrop Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni receives the leaders of the Group of Seven for their annual summit this week.

But the region is also home to the Sacra Corona Unita, Italy’s fourth largest organized crime group. It is much less known then The Cosa Nostra of Sicilythe Calabrian ‘ndrangheta or the Camorra around Naplesbut just as effective at infiltrating everything from local businesses to government.

And yet: a remarkable one series of women as Mariano challenges his power structures at great personal risk. They arrest and prosecute clan members, expose their crimes and confiscate their businesses, all the while working to change the local attitudes and cultural norms that have allowed this mafia to establish itself as deep as Puglia’s famous olive trees.

‘I don’t believe anyone who says they’re not afraid. That is not true,” says Marilù Mastrogiovanni, investigative journalist and professor of journalism at the University of Bari, who has written in-depth stories about the mafia infiltration for her blog.

“Courage moves forward despite fear,” she said.

The Sacra Corona Unita, or SCU, is the only organized crime group in Italy whose origins are known: a local criminal founded it in Lecce prison in 1981, in part to push back other mafia groups trying to infiltrate the area.

The name and initiation rituals are connected to the Catholic faith, where the ‘corona’ or crown refers to the beads of a rosary.

Slowly but surely, the SCU wove itself into the fabric of Apulian society, mixing its illegal activities with legitimate businesses. Today it has about thirty clans and about five thousand members, almost all of them men.

Drug trafficking is the main activity,” said Carla Durante, head of the Lecce office of the Anti-Mafia Investigative Directorate, an interagency police force. “That is always accompanied by extortion and usury. And now, as in the whole country, we have infiltration of public administration.”

The SCU takes the billions of euros it earns from drug trafficking money launders through legitimate businessoften in Puglia’s booming tourist industry.

One of the most effective ways to combat this is to confiscate assets owned by the mafia. Durante’s team seizes mafia properties, such as vineyards or farms, which are then turned over to local organizations to be turned into socially useful community centers or projects.

“We have now learned that this is really the most drastic instrument, because taking away assets from the mafiosi means taking away their power,” Durante said. Since 1992, the national agency has confiscated more than 147 million in mafia assets.

But the SCU has in some ways become more effective than the other Italian mafia groups in integrating the local community and gaining social acceptance. In recent years, it has generally avoided headline-grabbing acts of violence in favor of more nuanced forms of intimidation.

“Organized crime is still organized, in the sense that there is a certain consensus about it in Italy,” says Sabrina Matrangola, whose mother, a local politician, was murdered by the mafia in 1984 after campaigning for a coastal park from illegal development.

“And as long as this consensus exists, as long as everyone doesn’t take the right side, and someone isn’t willing to roll up their sleeves to help, these places will always be in danger,” says Matrangola, who now works as an activist at the group Libera, which converts mafia resources to serve the community.

For those who challenge it, the danger remains.

Two weeks after Mariano issued her arrest warrants for a mob crackdown dubbed “Operation Wolf,” the case’s lead prosecutor, Carmen Ruggiero, was nearly slit by one of the suspects.

Pancrazio Carrino, one of 22 people named in the warrant, had expressed his desire to cooperate with Ruggiero’s investigation. But when Ruggiero came to interrogate him in Lecce prison, he had other plans: he had carved a knife from a porcelain toilet bowl in his prison cell and hidden it in a small black plastic bag in his rectum, planning to “cut her jugular vein” during the meeting, according to court documents.

“If I had been as lucid that day as I am today,” Carrino later told investigators, “Carmen Ruggiero would already be history.”

Finally, a suspicious guard searched him before he could strike and found the makeshift knife.

Seven months after the threat, Ruggiero confidently walked into the Lecce prison courtroom for a recent hearing in the case, accompanied by a police escort of three officers.

She is undeterred by the death threats, just like the other women who have challenged the power of the SCU. But they have had to take precautions, including 24-hour security.

Mastrogiovanni, the journalist, moved her young family from her hometown after her posts on her blog “Il Tacco D’Italia” about the infiltration of SCU so angered the local government that at one point the city was defaced with giant posters depicting her work was attacked. One depicted her up to her neck in a hole.

According to the patriarchal culture of the SCU, “a woman should not have a voice,” especially if she uses it to write about the mafia, she said.

Mariano, the judge, also lives under 24-hour police escorts, but believes her role in challenging the SCU extends beyond the halls of the courtroom. In her spare time, Mariano uses her passion for writing books, poetry and plays to try to change attitudes at the grassroots level. She recently performed a play about the mafia at the Apollo Theater in Lecce.

“We must start with communication, which is fundamental to conveying values ​​such as dignity, courage and responsibility,” she said. “The ability to say no, the ability to be outraged by things that are wrong.”

Exit mobile version