'La prima donna boss' Vitale tells court of her Mafia family life

Giusy, pronounced "Juicy", Vitale, played her part with conviction. The Mafia was her family's life. Her brothers, Leonardo and Vito, were among the rising stars of the Palermo underworld, spoken of in hushed tones as the likely heirs to capo di capi Bernardo "The Tractor" Provenzano, who has been on the run for more than 40 years.

But Vitale is now a collaborator with justice, and the 33-year-old has been telling a court in Rome what it is like to grow up in such a family. "Life for me was with my brothers," she said. "It was impossible to have any relationship with people of my own age. I had absolutely no idea of how to live a different life."

At 13 she was forced to leave school because her family needed her services as a "postie", carrying messages to and from relatives in prison. "Leonardo was jealous," she explained. "I'd reached the third year of middle school but he wouldn't let me go any further."

The macho culture of the Mafia has historically kept its women confined to the kitchen and the bedroom. But when Leonardo and Vito were both given long jail sentences for murder, they turned to Giusy to keep the family firm rolling. She became the godmother of the clan. And when an underling of the Tractor's called Salvatore Riina (no relation to the celebrated jailed Mafia boss of the same name) stepped out of line, she knew what she had to do. She arranged for another hoodlum, Francesco Pezzino, to kill him.

What let Giusy down was a failing so clichéd you would say her hard-bitten relatives had made it up if it didn't come from her own lips: she had a soft heart and an amorous nature. When Salvatore Riina was being shot dead in a garage, Giusy Vitale was miles away, she swore blind, innocently stuffing herself in a pizzeria. But police wiretaps tell a different story: in fact she was at home, just round the corner from the murder site - breathing sweet nothings down the telephone line to her lover Campione Ciriello, Christian Democrat and aspiring Sicilian politician, while her husband was downstairs. The police have recordings of 24 conversations between the furtive lovers on the day of the murder.

In 1998 Vitale was given life for ordering Riina's murder and it was in jail that she decided to turn her coat. As she explained to the judge in the heavily armoured court in Rome, "I did it to give a life to my two babies." She went on: "While I was in jail, they brought my son, who is now 12, to see me. He was about six then and I remember that he asked me why I had been arrested. In particular I remember he said, 'Mamma, what is the Mafia?' I didn't know what to say.

"I took him in my arms, then I set him down and tried to say something. I told him that the Mafia is an awful thing, and that when he was big I would try to explain." As Vitale remembers it today, that was the innocent question that got her thinking about her life so far.

"My son said to me, 'Mamma, keep going, I'm with you'. I made my choice for him and for my daughter to break my ties with the past." Giusy Vitale, who left jail in 2002, today lives outside Sicily under Italy's witness protection programme, and is making a new life for herself with her children.

But it's not easy. During the recent court hearing, her jailed brother Leonardo, who participated in the hearing by video link from Sicily, repeatedly described her as a "poisonous insect". At the start of the hearing, he declared:"I've learned that a certain blood relative of mine is collaborating with justice. We disown her, whether she's alive or dead. And we hope it will be the latter - as soon as possible."

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