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Meet the Women Bringing Down the Mob

We spoke to Anna Carrino – a former mafia wife currently in witness protection – who's been instrumental in the battle against Naples' Casalesi clan.

by Flaminia Giambalvo, Photos: Guido Gazzilli
27 November 2014, 1:36pm

Lea Garofalo, who was abducted, tortured and killed by her mobster husband in 2009 for snitching on the clan (Photo ​via

​ "He told me I was free to leave, but that if I dared to take the children with me he'd bury me alive in cement," says mafia informant Anna Carrino, the former wife of one of the Neapolitan mob's top bosses. Anna spent nearly 30 years by the side of Francesco Bidognetti, AKA "Midnight Fatty", one of four men who ruled over a town north of Naples.

For ten of those years, Anna took care of "the family business" and acted as Bidognetti's messenger. She was the only one able to decipher the boss's coded messages through the thick security glass that separated them on her visits to the Carcere di L'Aquila prison, where he's been incarcerated since 1993. So the former Mrs Bidognetti was clearly more than just the silent wife of one of Naples' Godfathers, though she now prefers to downplay this role.

Two bodyguards escort me to my meeting with Anna. As we enter the secret location, one – without saying a word – pulls out his badge and shows it to the officer guarding the front desk. In complete silence, he points us towards the door that Anna and her bodyguards are waiting behind. Any mention of her name could put us all in danger.

Sat in a dusty interrogation room, Anna – a blonde, middle-aged Neapolitan woman – tells me why she decided to turn state's witness. Her loyalty towards the clan began to waver in 2002, she says, when she learned about her husband's affair with a woman everyone knew was "no good".

"Who was I, then? His maid?" she says, indignantly.

A number of arrests followed, before a power grab by her eldest daughter, Katia, brought Anna to breaking point. So, on a cold November morning in 2007, she left.

Anna Carrino's choice to become a pentita (a Mafia informant) was an exceptionally tough blow to her clan, the infamous Casalesi. In his book, Gomorrah, Italian journalist Roberto Saviano – the first to expose the clan's inner workings – describes how, for over 30 years, the Casalesi have been holding what amounts to a military dictatorship over northern Naples, controlling everything from the heroin trade to the region's construction industry, all entirely undisturbed. Until recently.

Civita Di Russo

"The moment the boss's wife becomes an informant is a telling one," says Civita Di Russo, a lawyer who represents Carrino and 20 other Casalesi members who've turned state witnesses. "It's almost ominous; if you're not able to keep a grip on those who live under your roof, how do you expect to keep control over a clan?" she adds.

A few months after Carrino began working as an informant, dozens of other members followed suit, officially marking the decline of the Casalesi.

In certain families the stain of betrayal must be washed with blood, and the Casalesi clan is no different, acting fast to assert itself. First, in 2008, Gianluca – Anna's youngest son – tried to kill his aunt and cousin. Then the family turned their attention to Anna. "I expected it and am still expecting it," she says, her gaze beginning to wander. "The Casalesi are not like other mafia families – they never forget."

When Anna left the town of Casal Di Principe, the fiefdom of the Casalesi, it was rare for a woman to become an informant. Now, everything's changed; a gender revolution is taking place within Italy's criminal empires. On one hand, an increasing number of women are moving into the clans' seats of power. On the other, many women born into mafia families are no longer happy to trade their freedom for power and protection. So they rebel. They break the sacred covenant of silence demanded by their men and imposed upon them by tradition. Many do it to offer their children a better life; others simply want to escape the tight boundaries of the clan.

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Plenty, however, have paid the price for rebellion with their lives. Over 150 female informants have been killed by the mafia throughout the past century, according to "Dishounoured", a report produced by the Italian NGO daSud in 2012. The murder of 35-year-old Lea Garofalo – who, in 2009, was abducted, tortured and killed by her mobster husband for snitching on the clan – shocked the nation.

Similarly, the tragic story of 31-year-old Maria Concetta Cacciola – who, in 2012, was found dead in her mobster parents' Rosarno home after allegedly drinking muriatic acid the same week she was planning to escape – became a symbol of the fight against the mafia.

After she entered the state witness programme, Anna was transferred to a top secret location, where she leads a new life. Former queen of the underworld, she now works three jobs as a cleaner, carer and nanny, each under a different identity. She doesn't regret her choice, though she wells up every time she mentions Teresa, her youngest daughter, who she left behind.

Anna's lawyer, di Russo, a fierce Mediterranean woman, is also present during the interview. As we walked into the room, Civita and Anna greeted each other like old friends. "Teresa gave birth today!" Anna told Civita excitedly. "I'm a grandma!"

I realised then that Civita's role stretches far beyond that of a regular defence attorney. "I'm her cummare [best friend]," she jokes later, as we sip coffee in her lavish Rome apartment.

Then she pauses, her voice dropping: "My clients tell me everything; things they wouldn't even confess to their wives or mistresses." She stares at me, her expression stone cold – the same way I'd imagine she looks at a client when they describe, in detail, how it feels to melt someone in acid. "It's tough," she adds, taking a sip of her espresso and looking away.

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The idea of encouraging former mobsters to snitch on their clans by granting them protection and shorter sentences was introduced in the 1980s by Giovanni Falcone, Italy's best known anti-mafia judge. It has been, by far, the most successful way of investigating the Mafia – an organisation founded upon the principle of silence, or omertà.

It's only through the testimonies of the first pentito, Tommaso Buscetta, that investigators were able to prove the existence of these clans at all. He revealed the inner workings of the Porta Nuova family, leading to the arrest of nearly 350 clan members. Buscetta's accounts led to the first ​maxi trial for mafia and the first life sentences handed out for mafia activities. Today, it's virtually unthinkable that an Italian mafia trial could be undertaken without the testimony of an informant.

Civita has been working with informants for over 20 years, living under protection for half of that spell. But as the first woman to act as defence counsel for mafia clans – the original "male only" societies – her job has never been straightforward. In fact, her first client – an old school Sicilian godfather – told her on their first meeting: "I will never repent with a woman as my attorney."

"He was truly offended by the thought of a woman taking on his defence," says Civita, smiling at the thought.

Now, things are different: her male clients trust Civita with their lives. More importantly, she now defends an increasing number of women, with whom she often prefers to work.

"Male and female informants are different in only one fundamental way: men become informants mostly to get a reduction on their sentence, while the vast majority of women do it to save their children," she explains. 

Barbara Sargenti

The testimonies of women have been decisive in piercing the thick wall of silence that exists around the mafia, but it's only over the past decade that their role within the organisation has come to the fore. Up until 1992 there was only one registered case of a woman arrested for mafia activities. "Now, when we apprehend a clan, about a third of the people arrested are women," says Barbara Sargenti, a prosecutor who spent 15 years investigating the Camorra, the Neapolitan branch of the Sicilian-based mafia.

Women have always been part of mafia clans, albeit traditionally with secondary roles, such as managing drug smuggling and prostitution rings or extorting shop owners for protection money, known as pizzo. But they were never convicted for these crimes. Judges were influenced by the stereotype of the southern Italian family – in which women are controlled by their men – and deemed them "unable to commit crime autonomously".

As the perception of women's role in society changed, investigators began to understand that they weren't merely "bringing tea and coffee to their mobster husbands and their friends, but sitting around the table, cutting the coke and splitting the cash", says Sargenti, adding: "There are also a growing number of women who hold executive roles." 

Sat at her desk, she explains how the widespread mafia arrests during the 80s and 90s decimated the clans. So, with most qualified males either in jail or forced to become fugitives, women began to climb into the mafia's seats of power.

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During her time as a prosecutor in Naples, Sargenti witnessed firsthand the rise of "godmothers". She tells me about her experience investigating Maria Licciardi, a woman described as "The Princess" by her fellow camorristi. Licciardi was the victor in a long-running blood feud, during which nearly 20 people were killed between 2006 and 2007. For the following three years she was at the helm of the only clan that exercised control over the entire city of Naples.

"She was undeniably one of the greatest criminal minds within her clan," says Sargenti, who oversaw the arrest of several of the clan's members, including its former boss Vincenzo Licciardi, Maria's brother. When she speaks about Maria, Sargenti seems to be truly fascinated by her cunningness – perhaps because she's the one who got away.

"She knew who to trust," says Barbara. "Of all the informants that came out of her clan, no one was able to pin anything more than single, minor crimes on her, such as extortion and bribing of informants." That's why, in 2010, Maria Licciardi walked free.

The new power women exercise within the mafia makes their testimonies all the more decisive when they choose to become informants. Anna Carrino was mainly able to disclose fundamental information about the Casalesi's operations because she held an active role within the clan. "Fifteen years ago it was virtually unthinkable that information provided by a woman could lead to the demise of an entire clan," says Civita.

The mafia is still one of Italy's key power brokers. Its annual profits are estimated at around £110 billion by the FBI – 9 percent of the country's GDP. Its strength lies in the popularity it enjoys among many ordinary Italians. In the pockets of Italy abandoned by the state, clans build their fiefdoms. They offer people work and protection. To some Italians, the mafia isn't merely a criminal organisation, but an alternative way of delivering justice. It's an inextricable part of their social fabric – a code of values to which any man or woman "of honour" should live and die by. They call it "the system". To those who accept the mafia as such, silence is the true measure of honour.

Angela Corica

"Silence keeps people complicit," says Angela Corica, a journalist who's received several death threats for reporting on mafia operations in her hometown. Sat in the garden of a cafe in Rome, Angela, a tough southern Italian woman, explains why, two years ago, she felt she had no other choice but to leave.

Angela was raised in the sleepy village of Cinque Frondi, a stronghold for the local mafia. Growing up, she didn't understand why there were people to whom the utmost respect was due, but whose names could never be mentioned. She read about murders whose perpetrators were unknown and whose victims were quickly forgotten about. "You couldn't talk about the mafia, yet it was under everyone's nose," she recalls. "I'm not strictly talking about clan members; it's the mentality which was pervasive."

Until Angela began reporting on it, "the system" in Cinque Frondi worked undisturbed. She was the first to write about the deals being made between local politicians and the mafia. Soon enough, her work was noticed: five gun shots to her car, just as a warning. The shots didn't particularly bother Angela at the time – she was young, determined and a little reckless.

"I wasn't afraid – why should I let them win?" she says, tilting her head upwards, defiant. She eventually left Cinque Frondi following a management change in her paper, with the new editor reportedly asking writers to "avoid focusing on issues relating to local politics and mafia".

After the initial attack, many of her friends kept a distance from her. They called her names and said she was going crazy. "People said I wasn't right in the head," she tells me, her light green eyes wide open. "An organisation, or even a society, which cedes this level of power to men will always treat women this way."

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Things are now changing in southern Italy. On the 22nd of September, over 5,000 people poured onto the streets of Naples to protest against the Casalesi's illegal dumping of millions of tons of toxic waste in the area – potentially condemning entire generations to die from cancer.

In the 80s, Camorra clans took over the waste disposal business. Instead of paying high sums of money to have the garbage removed legally, mobsters dumped tons of waste – some of which was radioactive – in fields, rivers, wells and lakes. In these areas, "there have been an exceeding number of children who have contracted cancer in their first year of life", according to a report published this August by ISS, Italy's leading public health research centre. The protests, which are becoming increasingly frequent, have come to symbolise the demise of the Casalesi.

The charm of the mafia lies in the false sense of security it provides to those who live by its rules. Women exchange their freedom in favour of a comfortable life. Similarly, deprived neighbourhoods pledge their loyalty to clans that offer them protection. But, eventually, the price for the mob's favours becomes too high to pay. Resentment brews, like a marriage turning sour.

Anna Carrino never met her father and hardly saw her mother, who had to work long hours to provide for the family. By the age of 13 she was alone in the world. That's when she met Francesco Bidognetti, 15 years her elder and already a high flyer in the Camorra circles. "I thought he was Prince Charming," she says.

Francesco gave her the family she never had, as well as more money than she could ever spend. "I put up with a lot, for many years, in name of that wealth," she says, biting her lower lip, the past 30 years flashing before her eyes – m emories of a life lived in fear of man she was desperate to love, but who probably never wanted more than her unconditional obedience. The affairs, the murders and the desperation of those around her – the price for his protection became too high to bear. 

So, on that cold November morning in 2007, Anna left, and the clan began to shudder.

More stories about the mafia:

Activists Are Trying to Save the W​orld's Fish from Mafia Bastards

Carnival Day in Naples'​ Mafia-Run Slums

This Italian Priest Has Spent 20​ Years Getting on the Mafia's Tits

Tagged:
women
Mafia
Naples
southern italy
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Francesco Bidognetti
Flaminia Giambalvo
Anna Carrino
pentita
Casalesi
Civita Di Russo
Lea Garofalo
Maria Concetta Cacciola
Barbara Sargenti
Maria Licciardi