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In the Italian region of Puglia, women take the initiative to challenge the local mafia, at great personal risk

LECCE, Italy — It was a scene straight out of “The Godfather.” On the night of February 1, a bloody goat’s head pierced by a butcher’s knife was left on the doorstep of judge Francesca Mariano’s home in southern Italy, with a note next to it saying ” like that “.

Mariano had previously received threats, including notes written in blood, after issuing arrest warrants for 22 members of a local mafia clan operating in southern Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot.

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

But the region is also home to Sacra Corona Unita, Italy’s fourth-largest organized crime group. It is much less well known than Sicily’s Cosa Nostra, the Calabrian ‘ndrangheta or the Camorra around Naples, but just as effective at infiltrating everything from local businesses to the government.

And yet, a remarkable number of women like Mariano are challenging power structures at great personal risk. They arrest and prosecute clan members, expose their crimes and confiscate their businesses, all while working to change local attitudes and cultural norms that have allowed this mafia to take root as deep as Puglia’s famous olive trees.

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“I don’t believe anyone who says they’re not afraid. This is not true,” said Marilù Mastrogiovanni, an investigative journalist and professor of journalism at the University of Bari, who has written in-depth articles on mafia infiltration on his blog.

“Courage advances 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 repel other mafia groups that were trying to s infiltrate the region.

Its name and initiation rites are linked to the Catholic faith, with the “crown” or crown, referring to the beads of a rosary.

Slowly but surely, the SCU integrated itself into the social fabric of Puglia, mixing its illicit activities with legitimate businesses. Today it has around 30 clans and some 5,000 members, almost all of them men.

“Drug trafficking is the main activity,” said Carla Durante, head of the Lecce office of the Anti-Mafia Investigations Directorate, an interagency police force. “This is always accompanied by extortion, usury. And now, like everywhere in the country, we are infiltrated into public administration.”

The SCU takes the billions of euros it earns from drug trafficking and launders it through legitimate activities, often as part of Puglia’s booming tourism sector.

One of the most effective ways to combat this scourge has been to confiscate property belonging to the mob. Durante’s team sequesters mafia properties, such as vineyards or farms, which are then turned over to local organizations to be transformed into socially useful community centers or projects.

“We have now learned that this is truly the most incisive tool, because taking away assets from mobsters means stripping them of their power,” Durante said. Since 1992, the National Office has confiscated more than 147 million in mafia assets.

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

“Organized crime is still organized, in the sense that it enjoys a certain consensus in Italy,” said Sabrina Matrangola, whose mother, a local politician, was killed by a mob in 1984 after campaigning to preserve a coastal park from illicit development.

“And as long as there is that consensus, as long as everyone doesn’t choose the right side and someone is willing to roll up their sleeves to help, these places will always be in danger,” Matrangola said, who now works as an activist for the Libera Group, which converts mafia assets to serve the community.

For those who dispute it, the danger persists.

Two weeks after Mariano sent out his arrest warrants for a mob crackdown dubbed “Operation Wolf,” the lead prosecutor on the case, Carmen Ruggiero, nearly had her throat slit by one of the suspects.

Pancrazio Carrino, one of the 22 people named in the arrest warrant, had expressed his desire to collaborate in Ruggiero’s investigation. But when Ruggiero showed up for questioning at Lecce prison, he had other plans: he had chiseled a knife from a porcelain toilet bowl in his cell and hid it in a small plastic bag black into his rectum, intending to “cut” his jugular” 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.”

Eventually, 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 was undeterred by the death threats, as were other women who challenged the power of the SCU. But they had to take precautions, including providing 24-hour security.

Mastrogiovanni, the journalist, moved her young family out of her hometown after her reporting on her blog “Il Tacco D’Italia” about SCU infiltration so angered the local government that at one point the town was covered with giant posters attacking his work. One of them showed 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 says.

Mariano, the judge, also lives with 24-hour police escorts, but believes her work challenging the SCU extends beyond the corridors of the courtroom. In his spare time, Mariano uses his passion for writing books, poetry and plays to try to change attitudes at the local level. Recently she staged a play about the crowd at the Apollo Theater in Lecce.

“We must start with communication, which is fundamental to transmit values ​​of dignity, courage and responsibility,” she said. “The ability to say no, the ability to be indignant when things go wrong.”