The wives, mothers, daughters and sisters in the Italian mafia aren’t often thought of as leaders within the organization. But women have played vital roles throughout its history and have done anything—from keeping secrets, to murder—in the name of the family.
American investigative journalist Barbie Latza Nadeau, who’s lived in Rome, Italy, since 1996, and author of “The Godmother: Murder, Vengeance, and the Bloody Struggle of Mafia Women” spoke with A&E True Crime about how women rose to power within Italy’s mafia, what roles they have and how organized crime continues to have a ruinous effect on Italian society.
The main figure in the book is Assunta ‘Pupetta’ Maresca, a convicted murderer and mafia boss who died at age 86 in December 2021. You spent time interviewing her in her home near Naples. What kind of woman was she?
She was a cold-blooded killer and a cunning liar, a manipulator in the worst sense. But if you can look beyond that, she was a nice lady. She was grandmotherly. She killed a man, [her husband’s killer], and obviously, that was wrong. But it took … a lot of courage. She first went to the police, but they told her, ‘Oh, it’s a family matter. Deal with it.’ So she did.
Which other mafia women did you interview?
I embedded with three women who just got out of prison for Camorra crimes, thinking they wanted to be rehabilitated. [Camorra is one of three main mafia groups in Italy; the others are ‘Ndrangheta and Cosa Nostra] But they wanted to get back in the game, and all ended up going back to prison for drug charges.
I interviewed about a dozen people, including a ‘turncoat’ with the Casamonica clan, [a mafia group in Rome], under protection, and Alessandra Cerretti, an anti-mafia prosecutor and an amazing woman.
What is the thinking of women who want to be in the mafia game?
Pupetta was genuinely earnest about the role of the Camorra in society. She would say, ‘My friends and family and associates do a lot of good for people because the government doesn’t take care of things.’ It’s the whole Robin Hood thing. The Italian government has its issues—a lot of corruption, inefficiency—and there are a hundred different parties. You’re never going to have a cohesive government, there are always going to be these cracks. To a large extent, and maybe the Camorra more than others, [mafia members] really feel they are providing a service to the greater society.
What is the role of a mafia woman?
The mother figure is crucially important. Your whole job is to teach your children wrong from right. Things like, ‘It’s OK to get revenge, don’t turn the other cheek.’ Your whole job is to raise children to be bad. You tell them to accept that dad in prison ‘because he was protecting us—he used guns to protect us, he sold drugs to help people.’ The wife is the confidante. She keeps secrets.
Mafia women primarily supported the mafia system behind the scenes until the 1970s, when they started publicly defending their men. In the early 1990s, they started to become actual criminals. What caused this evolution?
For so long, the Italian judicial system didn’t think women were smart enough to actually commit the crimes. Women flew under the radar for a long time. When you look at women arrested in the last decade, their criminal history is shocking. The anti-mafia investigators didn’t give them enough credit.
There was a strong push in the 1990s to clamp down on organized crime and a lot more men were put in prison. That created a vacuum, where women stepped into those roles.
How do women climb the criminal ladder in the mafia?
They are not members in the sense of being initiated, and so I think it’s easier for them to climb the ladder, in some ways.
If you’re a young man trying to rise along a crime syndicate, you have to go through certain steps. For a woman, if her husband or brother is dead or in prison, she’s the heir of the family because she’s the highest-ranking member. Whether she’s fully respected the same way, it’s hard to know.
You describe the mafia as a male-dominated system where women can order people to be killed, but can’t divorce their husbands without being killed themselves. How do the women reconcile themselves to that?
The same way women in the legal society do. I do think in Italy, as a strong woman, you compromise. [Mafia women] can’t cheat on their husbands without being murdered, but he can sleep with whomever he wants. She reconciles that because society demands it of her. She doesn’t buck the system.
In the illegal society, that’s not a choice. She either ends up in a police car or in a coffin.
What was the goal of this book?
It’s not to glamorize the bad women. My book doesn’t have [a woman like] Carmela Soprano, because she doesn’t exist. There is no mafia woman that fits that profile. I think it’s important to tell a story about the damage that organized crime does to this beautiful country. We should talk about buried toxic waste and companies that put beach sand in cement, [both among mafia criminal activities], so buildings collapse whenever there is an earthquake. That’s the story I was trying to tell through the women, to explain and shine a light on the reality of what organized crime does to this society. But also, why did men get all the credit? Women are bad, too. Women are smart and successful in their enterprise, even if it’s a bad one.
Is there something that surprised you while reporting for this book?
I was surprised by how much I liked these women and appreciated their struggle. I wanted to think these are bad people. But when you scratch the surface of that, you realize that their choices are few and dangerous.
These women are climbing and clawing their way to the higher echelons [of organized crime] and are bucking a system that is hard to break through. There is a sense of empowerment to that. It’s a man’s world, a creepy old boys’ club. I was surprised that I couldn’t help but appreciate their success, even as you know how wrong that success is.
What do you think Pupetta Maresca would have said about your book?
I think she would have loved it in some sense. She definitely would have loved being on the cover. I am so glad she’s dead. This woman is going to haunt me forever, but at least she can’t come get me.