Marilu Mastrogiovanni poses in front of a murales dedicated to...

Marilu Mastrogiovanni poses in front of a murales dedicated to Gloria Anzaldua, an American scholar of Chicana feminism, cultural theory, and queer theory, during an interview at the Bari's university, Monday, May 20, 2024. Investigative journalist, Professor of Investigative Journalism, has reported extensively on the infiltration of the Sacra Corona Unita in the local community and city hall for her blog "Tacco d'Italia." Her reports so angered the local government that they plastered the town with giant posters attacking her work and one depicted her up to her neck in a hole in the ground. After various threats, she was put under police escort and eventually decided to move her family to Bari where she now teaches investigative journalism in the Master in Journalism course at the University of Bari. Credit: AP/Alessandra Tarantino

A remarkable group of women is challenging the power structures of the Sacra Corona Unita, Italy’s fourth main organized crime group that operates in southern Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot.

They are doing it at great personal risk, arresting and prosecuting clan members, exposing their crimes and confiscating their businesses, all while working to change local attitudes.

Here is a look at some of these women:

Carla Durante

Durante heads of the Lecce office of the Direzione Investigativa Anti-Mafia, Italy’s inter-agency anti-mafia police force, but her rise in the ranks was met with 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 macho ethos of southern Italy at the time: “How vulgar.”

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

Rosanna Picoco, a volunteer for Libera, an association against Mafia...

Rosanna Picoco, a volunteer for Libera, an association against Mafia and criminal organisations, poses during an interview in one of the association shop in Mesagne, Italy, Monday, May 20, 2024. Picoco shows a bottle of a wine dedicated to Marcella di Levrano a young woman killed by Sacra Corona Unita in 1990. As a child bombs were left in her school overnight by the SCU as a threat to local store owners who had children in the school and were refusing to pay of the local mafia. All the parents agreed they would bring their children to school the next day as though nothing had happened. This instilled in her the idea that citizens have to be active and participate in opposing the mafia, not just quietly turn away. Credit: AP/Alessandra Tarantino

For example?

“When they torched my car,” she says matter-of-factly.

Now back home, Durante is battling the local Sacra Corona Unita mafia, and hitting its leaders where it hurts most: confiscating their ostentatious properties, farms and front companies used to launder drug trafficking profits.

“We have learned that this is really the most incisive tool, because taking assets away from mafiosi means disempowering them,” she says.

Prosecuting Magistrate Carmen Ruggiero sits in the in bunker hall...

Prosecuting Magistrate Carmen Ruggiero sits in the in bunker hall of Lecce, Italy before the start of an audience Wednesday, May 22, 2024. In the past few months, Carmen Ruggiero, the prosecutor leading the team against a clan in a case known as "Operation Wol." was threatened by a jailed mafioso. Credit: AP/Alessandra Tarantino


Marilù Mastrogiovanni

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

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

According to the patriarchal culture of the Sacra Corona Unita, “a woman shouldn’t have a voice,” all the more if she uses it to write about the mafia, she said.

Is she afraid?

“I don’t believe those who say they aren’t afraid. It is not true,” she says. “Courage is going forward in spite of fear.”


Rosanna Picoco

Picoco volunteers for the anti-mafia group Libera, activism that was inspired by a childhood event.

When she was in elementary school near Lecce, three bombs exploded in her school one night. Local store owners had created the first anti-racketing association in town, refusing to pay off 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 stayed with Picoco forever.

“The next morning our parents — all of them — accompanied us to school,” she recalls. “In the whole town, no one remained silent, and I think this has always marked me: The importance of not turning away, of being on the side of being active citizens.”

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

At a Libera store in Mesagne, the Puglia town where the 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.


Maria Francesca Mariano

Mariano is the preliminary investigations judge at the Tribunal of Lecce. At the age of 24, she became the youngest woman judge in Italy. Now 55, she lives under a 24-hour police escort.

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

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

Police added a bullet-proof car to her security apparatus.

She still has her day job as a judge but in her down time, Mariano writes books, plays and poetry about the mafia in Puglia.

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


Carmen Ruggiero

Ruggiero is a Lecce prosecutor. She leads a prosecution team in the case of “Operation Wolf” against the 22 defendants from the Lamendola clan of the Sacra Corona Unita.

She has not relented in her efforts following threats on her life but now appears in the Lecce prison courtroom accompanied by a three-man police escort.

Shortly after Judge Mariano sent out her arrest warrants, Ruggiero went to the Lecce prison to question one of the defendants who had signaled his desire to collaborate.

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

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

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

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

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