Caught after two years on the run, the woman who heads Naples' Mafia

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The Independent Online

The woman stopped in a utility van by Neapolitan police in the anonymous urban sprawl behind the city looked like a southern Italian housewife who had seen better days.

Short, fiftyish, with auburn hair, she wore a simple yellow sundress and a coloured plastic watch on her wrist. Her ID card carried her own photo but someone else's name and details. Yet the dedicated police squad who had trailed her for months knew better.

Maria Licciardi was ­ until her arrest, made public at the weekend ­ the undisputed head of the Secondigliano Alliance, a collection of some of the most ruthless Mafia clans in Naples. Police had her on the list of their 30 most wanted criminals.

Fifty-year-old Licciardi, who grew up in one of the most ferocious families of the Camorra, had been on the run for two years after a warrant for her arrest was issued. She skipped the country, hiding out in Eastern Europe as other family members had done before her, but returned last year to have hands-on control of the clan's drugs, arms and extortion businesses. Police officers who have been on her trail for eight months say she changed house frequently and counted on a huge protection network.

She was the baby daughter of a respected mobster and was spoilt by her three older brothers, who went on to lucrative criminal careers. However, the luck of the Licciardi began to turn in the early Nineties. Maria's brother Gennaro was arrested and died in jail of septicaemia in 1993.

After his death, the family's booming activities in drugs and arms trading were absorbed into the Secondigliano Alliance, where they had a leading role. But when other brothers Pietro and Vicenzo were also picked up, Maria was the only one who could take over. And so she did. Police say she took to it like a duck to water, earning herself the name "The Queen of Secondigliano". She co-ordinated the clans and patched up didssputes between members, a mediatory role normally taken by older male bosses, and allegedly ordered a host of murders in recent years.

Pentiti, Mafia members-turned-informers, have described her role in police statements. One said she had had the wife of a boss killed with a Kalashnikov because "the two women had squabbled over a trifle", another said she was the strategist who decided that the only way to combat Mafia turncoats was to buy them back. They said that during 1997-98, to neutralise a turncoat, Cosentino Sarno, and get him to retract, Licciardi simply offered him £180,000 cash and hefty life insurance policies for his family.