Mummy runs the Mob

The popular view of women in organised crime is of gangsters' molls, ignorant of `the business'. The reality, as the authorities are discovering, is very different.

Last week Marisa Merico, 27, daughter of an Italian Mafia boss and an English mother, was released from prison in Italy after serving 16 months of a six-year sentence for money laundering.

Marisa had spent three years in Durham prison before being extradited to Italy. "They waited until the morning of her birthday to do it; they did that on purpose, the bastards," said her mother, Patricia Di Giovine, who lives in Blackpool and has been looking after Marisa's daughter Lara. Patricia was tried with her daughter four years ago, but was acquitted of any Mafia association. She recently needed to undergo heart surgery, as a result of stress.

In prison, Marisa was considered an escape risk: "When she went to the toilet they had three guards outside the door, and there wasn't even a window. They thought her father was going to come and pick her up in a helicopter."

The prison service's fears were not entirely unfounded. Emilio Di Giovine, Marisa's father, is a convicted drug and arms trafficker for the Calabrian Mafia, the Ndrangheta. He became notorious after a dramatic escape from a Portuguese prison, when his gang used ground-to-air missiles to blast him out of jail, and picked him up by helicopter.

Emilio Di Giovine was the eldest son of a Calabrian crime family that moved to Milan and took control of the heroin trade in one part of the city. But it was his mother who masterminded the family's operations. Under her leadership, her 12 children made millions to fund the clan in the long-running Calabrian Mafia wars.

Blackpool-born Patricia Reilly met Emilio Di Giovine one summer in the Seventies, while she was on holiday. They married, and Patricia travelled frequently to Italy to visit Emilio's family. Soon after their daughter was born, Emilio ran off with his 19-year-old mistress. (When he later dumped the mistress, the two women became friends.) Patricia brought her daughter home and raised her in Blackpool. Despite this history, Patricia expresses no bitterness towards Emilio - she stayed in contact with the Di Giovine family, and Marisa spent a lot of time as a teenager in Milan with her father's extended family.

In 1993, one of Emilio's sisters was arrested in northern Italy after being found in possession of 1,000 tablets of ecstasy. Rita Di Giovine had been working for the family since she was 12, when she was taken out of school to help her parents to unpack cocaine hidden in the panels of imported cars, and to stuff parcels of heroin into bottles of shampoo. By the age of 33, Rita had three children by different fathers; she had been in jail several times herself and had been working for her brothers, transporting large sums of cash and quantities of drugs. Part of her job was to bribe local police to overlook the family's activities, and in some cases to recruit them, enlisting them to give the family information on any investigations or imminent arrests. Rita's son had begun dealing heroin for the family when he was 15, and himself became an addict. By the time she was arrested, Rita had had enough. Exhausted and angry with her brothers, mired in debts and addicted to amphetamines, she decided that rather than carry on working for the family business, she would destroy it.

Soon after her arrest in March 1993, Rita Di Giovine agreed to give evidence against her family in return for state protection. Over the following months, police picked up her brothers, her mother and stepfather, her son, and her ex-husband. Eventually the trail led to England, to Patricia Di Giovine and her daughter Marisa, who were arrested and charged with laundering money for the Mafia. Marisa had been apprehended after making a series of deposits in a London bank, and putting in a bid for a massive house in Yorkshire.

Marisa was given four years. Speaking from prison in northern Italy, she told a Channel 5 documentary team: "I didn't set out to clean money, you know. I just, my father asked me to do something and I would. He'd say, `well, here's an apartment, I want this, I want you to have this in your name', and I'd go and sign with the lawyer."

Marisa claimed that she never asked her father what the money was for: "It wasn't for me to ask or, you know, sit down and say `Well, look what's going on here'. I would never dream of doing that. It just wasn't my place." She did, however, provide an explanation that exactly fits the Italian model of family values: "I was getting married, and I was pregnant at the time. So maybe within himself he thought, well, she's not a little girl any more. He wanted to put something away for us. When I opened this account, he told me it was for my brothers and sisters."

Marisa was released on a technicality and is now staying with her in- laws in Milan awaiting the prosecution's appeal. Her husband Bruno is currently serving a prison sentence for drug trafficking. Just before Christmas, Marisa wrote from prison to tell him their marriage was over.

Marisa claims she never asked her father why he wanted her to open a bank account in England, but she does acknowledge that the image of women as silent and obedient is false. "It is a well known fact that women have a lot of influence over men in a lot of ways. Behind every powerful man there is a woman that's helping them."

Rita Di Giovine's testimony revealed that, contrary to popular belief, the Italian Mafia employs many women in active roles. In an interview, she said, "My mother was the boss of the family. She was the one who gave the orders, even if my brother [Emilio] was the boss in name. She decided who was to do what, but she did it all in a way that my brother wouldn't notice she was running the family, not him."

In the past six or seven years, police have begun to target women in their investigations, and the number of arrests has risen rapidly. In 1990, just one woman was indicted for Mafia association. According to a government report, by 1995 the number of women charged for Mafia crimes had risen to 89. In the last year, a number of women have been arrested in western Sicily - said to be home to the most traditional and chauvinist Mafia - and charged with running Mafia enterprises.

State witnesses such as Rita Di Giovine have shown that women not only knew what went on inside organised crime families, but took an active role, getting involved in everything from organising a prison break-out to ordering hits.

The belief that women were not involved in organised crime was sanctioned by a 1983 judgement in a Palermo court, where the judge ruled that women were not clever enough to negotiate the "difficult world of business". This view, of course, greatly assisted the Mafia. Since women were virtually invisible to the judiciary, the Mafia employed them in a variety of key roles. One Calabrian examining magistrate said ruefully: "If only we had followed the women, we could have solved many more crimes."

The myth that women had no role in the Mafia has been perpetuated by Mario Puzo's novel The Godfather, which, via Francis Ford Coppola's film, became the standard reference work on the Italian-American Mafia. Aspiring mafiosi, increasingly remote from their cultural roots, watch Mafia movies for guidance on how to behave. A US policeman has said that every time he raids a Mafia house, he finds a full shelf of Mafia movies on video.

Puzo's account of women in criminal circles was of sexually voracious, greedy harridans, who have no understanding of Mafia politics. Intriguingly, the author recently revealed that he had based the character of Don Vito Corleone on his mother: "Whenever the Godfather opened his mouth, in my own mind I heard the voice of my mother. I heard her wisdom, her ruthlessness, and her unconquerable love for her family and for life itself, qualities not valued in women at the time. The Don's courage and loyalty came from her; his humanity came from her." Stirring words, but the damage was done: the distorted image of Mafia women in The Godfather informed popular prejudice for years.

It was not until Italian law offered state witnesses protection that the true extent of women's role in organised crime emerged. Rita Di Giovine is not the only woman to have blown apart the Mafia's cover of silence. Since 1990, a series of Italian women have agreed to give evidence against the Mafia clans in return for protection and the chance of a new start in life under a secret identity. One young Sicilian widow and state witness, Piera Aiello, said: "The wives of mafiosi always know everything. If they were to talk, it would be end of Cosa Nostra." Now that the judiciary is waking up to the idea that women play an active role in organised crime, these defectors are becoming a key weapon in the fight against the Mafia.

The Di Giovine family, a massively successful crime syndicate, was devastated by Rita's betrayal. During the trial, her mother screamed abuse at her across the courtroom and called her a liar. Patricia describes her sister- in-law as a thief who popped slimming pills and slept around. She still wants to know why Rita turned against them. "I dreamed about her the other day. I dreamed I was with her in a car," she said. "I wanted to ask her why she did it, why she shopped everybody. There were stickers all over the car windows, so many she could hardly see out. Then I realised she had the stickers so she could hide behind them, so nobody could see her."

`Mafia Women', Channel 5, 28 June, 7pm. `Mafia Women' by Clare Longrigg is published by Vintage on 2 July, priced pounds 6.99

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