Women challenge the mafia in Puglia, Italy


A remarkable group of women are challenging the power structures of the Sacra Corona Unita, Italy’s fourth largest organized crime group in operation in the south of Pugliathe heel of the Italian boot.

They do it at great personal risk, arresting and prosecuting clan members, expose their crimes and seize their businesseswhile at the same time working to change local attitudes.

Here’s a look at some of these women:

Carla Durante

Durante heads the Lecce office of the Direzione Investigativa Anti-Mafia, Italy’s anti-Mafia police force, but her rise through the ranks has faced obstacles from the start.

When she told her Latin teacher in high school that she wanted to be a police officer, the response was typical of the macho ethos of southern Italy at the time: “How vulgar.”

The reception was not much better at Durante’s first job, as a cop in a small mountain town in southern Calabria dominated by the ‘ndrangheta mafia. The locals in Taurinova were hostile to all law enforcement officers and were not afraid to show it.

For example?

“When they set my car on fire,” she says matter-of-factly.

Now back home, Durante is fighting the local Sacra Corona Unita mafia and hitting its leaders where it hurts most: confiscating their flashy properties, farms and front companies that used to be laundering profits from the drug trade.

“We have learned that this is really the most drastic tool, because taking away assets from the mafiosi means taking away their power,” she says.


Marilù Mastrogiovanni

Mastrogiovanni is an investigative journalist and professor of journalism at the University of Bari. For her blog ‘Il Tacco d’Italia’ she has reported extensively on the infiltration of the Sacra Corona Unita mafia into local communities and government services in Puglia.

Her reports so angered the local government in her hometown that at one point the city was plastered with giant posters attacking her work, one of which depicted her up to her neck in a hole. After several threats, she was placed under a police escort and eventually decided to move her family out of town.

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

Is she scared?

‘I don’t believe those who say they’re not afraid. It’s not true,” she says. “Courage moves forward despite fear.”


Rosanna Picoco

Picoco volunteers for the anti-mafia group Libera, an activism inspired by an event from his childhood.

When she was in primary school near Lecce, three bombs exploded at her school one evening. Local shop owners had formed the city’s first anti-extortion association and refused to pay off local gangsters, and the bombs were a stark warning from the Sacra Corona Unita that their children were in danger.

But instead of backing down, the parents did something remarkable that would stay with Picoco forever.

“The next morning, our parents – all of them – accompanied us to school,” she remembers. “In the entire city, no one was silent, and I think this has always marked me: the importance of not turning away, of being on the side of active citizens.”

Picoco is now a volunteer with Libera, a national network of anti-mafia associations that, among other things, legally takes confiscated mafia assets and converts them into socially useful projects and products.

In a Libera store in Mesagne, the town in Puglia where the Sacra Corona Unita was founded, Picoco sells wine made from grapes from vineyards seized by the mafia. The bottles bear the names of mafia victims.


Maria Francesca Mariano

Mariano is a preliminary investigation judge at the Tribunal of Lecce. At the age of 24, she became the youngest female judge in Italy. She is now 55 and lives under a police escort 24 hours a day.

In July 2023, she issued arrest warrants for 22 members of the Lamendola clan of the Sacra Corona Unita organized crime group, on allegations of mafia ties, drug trafficking and other charges.

Then in October she started receiving letters written in blood with death threats and satanic messages. On February 1, a bloodied goat’s head, punctured with a butcher’s knife, was left on her doorstep with a note reading “like this.”

The police added a bulletproof car to their security apparatus.

She still has her day job as a judge, but in her spare time Mariano writes books, plays and poetry about the mafia in Puglia.

“The mafia has a social consensus,” she says. “If we want to untie the phenomenon of organized crime, it is not enough to work in a courtroom. We have to start with the people.”


Carmen Ruggiero

Ruggiero is a prosecutor in Lecce. She leads a prosecution team in the ‘Operation Wolf’ case against the 22 defendants from the Lamendola clan of the Sacra Corona Unita.

She has not given up her efforts after threats to her life, but now appears in the courtroom of the Lecce prison, accompanied by a three-man police escort.

Shortly after Judge Mariano issued her arrest warrants, Ruggiero went to Lecce prison to interrogate one of the defendants who expressed his willingness to cooperate.

Instead, Pancrazio Carrino 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 “sever her jugular vein” during the meeting, according to court documents after the incident.

Carrino told investigators he asked to use the bathroom so he could grab the makeshift knife and hide it in his underwear until he could strike. But a suspicious police officer searched him when he came out and took it away.

“If I had been as clear that day as I am now,” Carrino said later, “Carmen Ruggiero would already be history.”

Ruggiero declined to be interviewed, saying her work speaks for itself.


Sabrina Matrangelo

Matrangelo, daughter of a mafia victim, is now a Libera activist. She was 15 when her mother, Renata Fonte, was murdered as she returned home from a council meeting in the town of Nardò in Apulia.

Fonte, a city councilor for culture, had become an outspoken anti-mafia spokeswoman as she tried to protect 1,000 hectares of parkland along Puglia’s coastline from illegal development.

Gangsters fired three bullets and killed her, but her legacy lives on: thanks to her efforts – and the outrage that erupted after her murder – the park remains a protected area and Fonte’s daughter, Matrangelo, has taken up her cause.

“These places will always be in danger,” Matrangelo said from a vantage point above the sea in the Porto Selvaggio nature reserve.

“And so the battles of those who shed blood for this civil struggle must walk on our feet, and be perpetuated by our daily courage,” she said.

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