Dec 17, 2013

Honorable Women

Source: Chime Original

BY Elena Falco

“It’s unconceivable that my daughter Denise is under protection. Protection from whom? I deserve her hate because I killed her mother, but I don’t deserve such an unfair dishonor.’ The quote is from Carlo Cosco as he confessed to the murder of Lea Garofalo, his former partner and mother of his child.

Lea was born into a family of mobsters and killed in 2009 for breaching the code of silence and collaborating with the police. According to a whistleblower, Lea was strangled with a curtain rope after being deceptively drawn to Milan. She might have been tortured as well by the police looking to extract information. We will never know for sure because her body was burnt. Her remains were found in 2012 in a warehouse close to Milan. A touching public funeral was held four years after her death, in October 2013, attended by her daughter Denise and thousands of people.

Women like Lea are expected to be obedient, modest, and live in the shadow of men. A mafia woman is always someone’s mother, sister, daughter, wife, and her body and existence can be disposed of according to the family’s plans. Even if the woman is educated, skilled at keeping private dangerous family secrets, and exuding an air of power, she will be disposed of. Sometimes the only way women entangled in the mafia find to reclaim power is by taking their own lives. The most recent case is that of Maria Concetta Cacciola, who killed herself in 2010, drinking hydrochloric acid, which is used in cleaning supplies – they call it the housewife’s acid.

A mob woman serves to create alliances between families, as the story of Roberto Pannunzi illustrates. Born in Canada from Italian parents, Pannunzi was the most powerful drug dealer in the world, able to move as much as 3,000 kilos of cocaine from one side of the Atlantic Ocean to the other.

Undetected, he was arrested last summer in Colombia. Pannunzi had considerably developed his power by marrying well. As anti-mafia writer Roberto Saviano wrote in his book “ZeroZeroZero”: “[Roberto Pannunzi] marries Adriana Diano, who belongs to one of the most powerful families in Siderno [the capital city of the Calabrian mafia]. Even if they separated shortly afterwards, getting married, mixing the blood, is always something far more binding than a simple contract.”

These practices are not uncommon in present day Italy. Arranged marriages can clean the family name, seal deals and settle disputes. If a conflict becomes unbearable, a women is offered to settle down the dispute: it’s been reported that the virginal blood lost during the first wedding night is poured to symbolically conclude a mafia war.

In the mob, women are under tight surveillance. Even a short skirt or a revealing cleavage can stir violence. Professor Ombretta Ingrascì, author of “Women of Honor,” explains “The rules that constitute the code of honor can be ignored by males, while, for women, breaches can lead to very harsh punishments. In some cases, disappeared women have turned out to have been killed for having extra-marital affairs.”

Gender stereotypes in the mafia have long influenced the justice system as well, concretely crippling the fight against the mob. Women used to be seen by judges exclusively as accessories to men, incapable of acting or holding any kind of useful information. As Lea’s story and many others show, it is essential to recognize this is not the case. Nowadays women not only know a lot about family business, but are also more involved in it – even if always under their male counterparts’ control. New generations of educated girls are becoming mafia’s lawyers and accountants, adding up to their traditional business roles as message-carriers from and to men in prison. In recent times, this phenomenon has fed the Italian press headlines with a stereotype opposite to the one of ethereal Madonna, but equally deceiving: the lady gangster with a gun in her suspender. While it is true that more and more women are arrested for association in mob activities, data show the percentage of convictions is still low (around 2% of the total.) This hardly agrees with the ‘pink mafia’ craze of the early 2000s, nourished by news such as the arrest of Celeste Giuliano, nicknamed Lady Camorra. A violent ‘woman of honor’ that, when arrested, was reportedly “wearing a leopard dress worth several millions [of lire]”, and came out of her hiding place already handcuffed and is quoted as having said “first, I have to style my hair.” Incidentally, this kind of scene is unlikely to be the norm: to be seen as equal and as respected as men, women have to act like one. Many could even play boss exclusively ad interim, until the man in charge came out of prison, or could go back to attending business as usual.

The everyday reality of a mafia woman is, unglamorously, the life of a – even if sometimes very sophisticated – tool. Together with constituting peace offers, gifts, and criminal princess regents, they are invested with the holy duty of their children’s education. Mothers in the mafia introduce future bosses to mafia culture, rules, and values, as well as shape their feelings with emotional blackmailing. Angela Napoli, former member of the Commissione Parlamentare Antimafia, adds: “women in Mafia families are responsible for establishing the criminal mindset within their own families. They instigate men to seek revenge, and show gratitude for the financial benefits obtained through illegal activities.” In his book ‘Women and the Mafia,’ Giovanni Fiandaca provocatively asserts that such behavior should be punished as instigation to crime. “No woman belonging to a family from the Mafia has ever been arrested for instigation to crime,” continues Napoli. “It’s not easy for the detectives to ascertain that the felony has actually been committed.” One thing can be done, though: “we should invest in taking children out of their parents’ custody if they have been convicted for Mafia crimes,” says Fiacanda.

The everyday reality of a mafia woman is, unglamorously, the life of a – even if sometimes very sophisticated – tool.

But rebel women are now educating others against the mafia culture outside of the enclosed context of the criminal family. This is a culturally sensitive point: mafia historians point out chorally the strong bond between mafia and non-criminal society. Mafia, in Italy relies heavily on the control of the territory, to a degree that wouldn’t be achievable without the support of society. The lack of a sense of state, the tendency to look for shortcuts and disrespect for the rule of law translate into political indifference granting the mob enough ground to flourish. For this reason, the fight against the mafia is carried on by the police, but also with the help of a small army of educators and the support of some extraordinary women, who decided that instead of raising criminals, they would prevent others from becoming one.

A particularly emblematic story originated in the village of Partanna, in Sicily, in 1985. It involves two strong women from the same family who had opposite fates and are both nowadays celebrated as heroes by the anti-mafia movement. One of them is Piera Aiello: coming from an honest family of peasants, she married Nicola Atria, son of the boss in her area. She claims she only knew him as a respectable man, but saw as early as during their engagement period the unwelcomed privileges she received for being Atria’s daughter-in-law. Growing increasingly uncomfortable with her husband’s family she decided to reach out to the police. But it wasn’t until her husband Nicola was shot in front of her in their own restaurant that she fully collaborated with the police. Immediately, she went to Rome to talk to anti-mafia judge Paolo Borsellino, accompanied by her 16 year-old niece Rita, with whom she shared a strong bond and who was to become the second hero of the story. Piera revealed the names of all the Mafiosi in the surrounding villages, leading to the immediate arrest of more than ten people, including her husband’s murderers. Rita’s testimony also led to investigating local government in their relationship with organized crime.

By then, young Rita had came to see Judge Borsellino as her new family and Piera’s niece couldn’t bear “Uncle Paolo’s” death in a bombing in 1992. She committed suicide shortly afterwards, as others had before her. Some pieces of writing she left behind are still read in schools to students her age during citizenship education lessons. Her memory is even celebrated in a theatre play, Picciridda (“the small one”), regularly performed by and for teenagers, in an attempt of turning her into a positive role model.

As for Piera, she struggled for years in a nameless life as a protected witness, dealing with a new identity, the forced secrecy about her past, and the fear of revenge. She now leads a normal life in a secret place. Former president of the charity “Rita Atria,” involved in anti-mafia campaigning, she recently published a book, Maledetta mafia (Unholy mafia.) As when fighting a system based on the law of silence, the infamous Omertà, telling is half the battle.

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