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Cop, judge, journalist, activist, prosecutor, volunteer: women challenge the mafia in Puglia, Italy

A notable group of women are challenging the power structures of Sacra Corona Unita, Italy’s fourth largest organized crime group operating in southern Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot.

They do so at great risk to themselves, arresting and prosecuting members of their clans, exposing their crimes and confiscating their businesses, all while working to change local attitudes.

Here’s a look at some of the women:

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

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

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

“When they burned my car,” she said matter-of-factly.

Back home, Durante battles the local Sacra Corona Unita mafia and hits its leaders where it hurts most: by confiscating their ostentatious properties, farms and front companies used to launder the profits of drug trafficking.

“We learned that it’s really the most incisive tool, because taking away assets from mobsters means stripping them of their power,” she says.

Mastrogiovanni is an investigative journalist and professor of journalism at the University of Bari. She has extensively covered the infiltration of the Sacra Corona Unita mafia into local Puglia communities and public administrations for her blog “Il Tacco d’Italia”.

Her reporting so angered the local government in her hometown that at one point the town was covered in giant posters attacking her work, one depicting her up to her neck in a hole. After various threats, she was placed under police escort and eventually decided to move her family out of town.

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

“I don’t believe anyone who says they’re not afraid. That’s not true,” she said. “Courage advances despite fear.”

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

While she was in primary school near Lecce, three bombs exploded one night at her school. Local merchants had formed the city’s first anti-racketeering association, refusing to pay local mobsters, and the bombs were a clear warning from the Sacra Corona Unita that their children were at risk.

But instead of backing down, the parents did something remarkable that stuck in Picoco’s memory forever.

“The next morning, our parents, all of them, accompanied us to school,” she remembers. “Across the city, no one remained silent, and I think that always stuck with me: the importance of not turning away, of being on the side of active citizens.”

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

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

Mariano is a preliminary investigating judge at the Lecce Court. At 24, she became the youngest female judge in Italy. Now aged 55, she lives under police escort 24 hours a day.

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

Then, in October, she began receiving letters written in blood containing death threats and satanic messages. On February 1, a bloody goat’s head skewered with a butcher’s knife was left on his doorstep with a note saying “like this.”

The police added a bulletproof car to their security system.

She still does her day job as a judge, but in her free time Mariano writes books, plays and poetry about the Apulian mafia.

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

Ruggiero is Lecce prosecutor. 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 relented in her efforts following the death threats, but is now appearing before the Lecce prison court accompanied by a police escort of three men.

Shortly after Judge Mariano issued the arrest warrants, Ruggiero went to Lecce prison to question one of the defendants who had expressed a desire to collaborate.

Instead, Pancrazio Carrino had sharpened a knife from a porcelain toilet bowl in his prison cell and hid it in a small black plastic bag in his rectum, planning to “cut his jugular” during the meeting , according to court documents following the incident.

Carrino told investigators he asked to use the restroom so he could retrieve the makeshift knife and hide it in his underwear until he could strike. But a suspicious police officer searched him on his way out and took him away.

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

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

Daughter of a mafia victim, Matrangelo is now a Libera activist. She was 15 when her mother, Renata Fonte, was murdered on her way home from a city council meeting in Nardò, Puglia.

Fonte, a city councilor responsible for culture, had become a vocal anti-mafia spokesperson as she tried to protect 1,000 hectares of parks along the Puglia coast from illegal development.

Mafiosi shot three times 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, defended its cause.

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

“So the struggles of those who shed blood for these civil struggles must walk on our legs, must be perpetuated by our daily courage,” she said.