Mafia wives: Married to the Mob

Ann Hathaway is back in Britain after Italian judges gave her a suspended jail term, but the tale has thrown the spotlight on to a new breed of criminal: the Mafia Godmother. By Peter Popham reports

In the end the Palermo prosecutors decided to give Ann Hathaway the benefit of the doubt: she was just short of money, as she had told them. The wire taps of conversations between the Rochdale-born wife of Antonio Rinzivillo, a notorious Sicilian gangster with numerous murders under his belt, and some of her husband's fellow-criminals, revealed her asking them for funds. The prosecutors put two and two together and decided that here was another of the "bosses in skirts", the active-service Mafia Godmothers who have suddenly begun cropping up in Palermo over the past few years, taking over the running of the business once their husbands or brothers go to jail.

Perhaps she was and perhaps she wasn't. Luckily for her and for her daughters, aged five and 19, the prosecutors chose to take her at her word. Hathaway's trial for Mafia association, which could have seen her sent to jail in Italy for the rest of her life, instead concluded with a plea bargain, a two-year suspended sentence and a speedy return to Lancashire, where she was greeted at the airport by ecstatic family and friends.

Hathaway, now aged 44, met Rinzivillo when she went to Italy as a cabaret dancer. They married in 1987 in Rochdale register office. The grainy snap that survives shows the pair of them beaming out cheek to cheek, she in a sort of half-veil, he with teeth bared in lupine fashion, a dead ringer for the youthful Al Pacino. Then they headed back south and settled in Sicily, where she learned to speak a Sicilian-inflected Italian, though always with a strong Rochdale twang. How soon she discovered her Latin lover's true profession is unclear - but the fidelity with which she has stood by him through the 10 years in which they lived together, as well as the many more during which he was in jail, suggests she digested the code of omertà well. Or perhaps it was just Lancashire grit - or true love. When Italian reporters asked her, on her release from Agrigento prison last week, if she would do it all over again, knowing what she knows now, she retorted: "Certainly I'd do it again. I adore my husband. He's the daughter of my two girls."

How deeply Hathaway was implicated in the family business may never be known for certain. But her case throws into focus the extraordinary ways in which the Sicilian Mafia, the most conservative and macho-ridden institution in an island that has never been a citadel of women's lib, has been forced to change with the times.

All the Mafia bosses, both those in jail and those still at work outside, are men. When they become decrepit or go to jail for life they will hand over to their oldest or brightest or most brutal son. None of the daughters will ever get a look in. The killings, the extortions, the torture of victims and collaborators, the dissolving in acid of the remains of those they have murdered, the planning and scheming and hobnobbing with pliable politicians and businessmen: men, men, men and only men as far as the eye can see. Mamma is in the kitchen cooking as usual, watching over the bambini, keeping the home spick and span. Traditionally, part of the Mafia code is to keep the wives and mothers out of the loop of confidences for their own safety and because the mother, in these devoutly Catholic zones, is the Madonna, the pure being; one reason, experts say, why mobsters take mistresses is to have a woman they feel free to confide in.

That at least is the stereotype. But slowly, even in mob households in the sinister villages south of Palermo, the Cosa Nostra heartland, the mores of society are on the move.

Ombretta Ingrasci, author of a new book on women and the Mafia published in Italy this month with the title Donne d'onore (Women of Honour), said: "The role of women in the Mafia has changed a lot in the past 30 years - and in the past 15 years in particular. Women are much more active in criminal organisations in various sectors, and in particular in drug trafficking."

Girls began to get an education, whether their fathers liked it or not. So the first tasks that began to come the way of Mafia wives was book-keeping, unglamorous, un-bloody, but vital for the success of the gang. Keeping the accounts had nothing to do with the harsh, business end of the mobsters' life; but it meant that women knew all the most important secrets, and who owed what to whom.

Women also became vital as messengers, able to move around with far more freedom, even in times of heightened police activity, than the menfolk, far more secure than any telephone or postal service. Of course, giving women messages to transmit meant you had to confide in them; as with the accountancy chores, steadily they became privy to the mob's deepest secrets. Nothing was said, nothing in the code was explicitly changed, but steadily, stealthily, the women of the gangs gained power.

Then came the blitzkrieg. The Mafia was in violent flux during the 1980s. As the Italian state began to take the organised crime menace seriously for the first time, staging a succession of "maxi-trials" involving hundreds of gangsters, the very survival of the crime families came into question. Under the bloodthirsty leadership of Toto Riina the Mafia struck back with outrageous violence, detonating huge car bombs, taking on and butchering one high-profile target after another. The climax came in 1992, when they killed the two investigating magistrates who had done most to bring the Mafia to its knees: first Giovanni Falcone in May, then in July his close colleague Paolo Borsellino.

But Riina had fatally over-reached himself. He had declared war on the Italian state - and after years of seedy deals and compromises with the gangs, the state finally answered in kind. Dozens of high-profile arrests followed, including that of Riina himself, who had evaded justice for more than a generation.

Now the danger of collapse stared even the most feared of the Corleone gangs in the face. And now the women were ready to step into the breach. There was nothing in the code of honour to justify it. And no sign was given to the outside world that women had taken effective power. Yet here and there - as prosecutors and investigators slowly began to discover - it started to happen. With the bosses and many of their underlings in jail, with those who had evaded the police in flight and the whole organisation in shambles, the women were sometimes the only people left to hold it all together: women such as Giuseppina Vitale, who took over the Vitale gang, Catena Cammarata, who took over the Riesi family, and many others, some of whom we may never learn about.

Yet the limitations remain, according to Dr Ingrasci. "All the women who are involved in Mafia gangs at a high level are in the role of substitutes for husbands or brothers who are in prison or on the run," she pointed out. "They take up an important role in the organisation when there is a vacuum. It's a recognition by the gangs that these women are useful, they know everything about the gang's activities and they provide continuity in the gang's criminal work. They have what I call delegate or substitute power, especially in the 'Ndrangheta', the Mafia of the region of Calabria. In the case of Cosa Nostra, after the crackdown on the Sicilian Mafia in 1992 many bosses were put in jail and many of their wives became more important then. This was a moment of transformation, because many of the clans were breaking up, losing their soldiers. Giuseppina Vitale, the sister of Vito Vitale, is an example: one of her brothers was on the run and one in jail, and as a result she took over their roles."

But the Godmothers' rise to power does not portend real structural change. "In my view, there are limits to the transformation the gangs have undergone. Despite the changes that have occurred, there are no women who are Mafia leaders in their own right, by virtue of their own leadership qualities; their position in power must always be legitimised by the family. They always support their men. The Mafia remains a profoundly macho society, and women are still exploited within it. There has been no transformation of the macho code of the Mafia; what's happened in my view is a process of pseudo- emancipation."

The only time the real transformation occurs, according to Dr Ingrasci, is when the women turn traitor: when someone such as Giuseppina Vitale, in jail for her second stretch, weighs up the claims of omertà against the claims of her children on the far side of the jail walls - and turns state's evidence so she can be a mother again. "These are the examples of real female liberation," says Dr Ingrasci. "By turning state's evidence they reject the male-dominated Mafia system."

The traditional Mafia wife

Ninetta Bagarella, the wife of Toto Riina, the Corleone 'capo di capi' serving life for numerous murders, is perhaps the most famous living example of the traditional Mafia wife. The sister of Leoluca Bagarella, another gangster, she met her future husband when he was on the run and lived in hiding with him for 25 years, bearing him four children. She acted as a go-between for different branches of the Corleone clan, and for that became the first woman threatened with being sent into internal exile. After her husband was jailed, she told an Italian news magazine: "He was the best of possible fathers, a victim of the prejudice of a hostile society." Two of her sons are serving long jail terms for Mafia offences.

The boss turned supergrass

Giuseppina Vitale was born into one of the most prominent criminal families in Palermo. The hopes of her brothers, Leonardo and Vito, for criminal glory were shattered when they were sent to jail for long terms in the 1990s. With both brothers inside, Giuseppina became the first woman to head a big-time Palermo gang. But she overplayed her hand and was arrested and jailed for Mafia offences. During a second jail term in 2002 she took the momentous decision to become a collaborator. She also sued for divorce, and pledged her love for a new man, a supergrass like herself. Leonardo said: "We disown her whether she is living or dead - and we hope the latter."

The loyal 'soldier'

Rosalia Basile, the wife of a gang member responsible for one of the worst outrages of the early 1990s, became notorious in 1995 for publicly trashing her husband in court. Vincenzo Scarantino was a "soldier" in the blowing apart by a powerful car bomb of the prosecutor Paolo Borsellino. Scarantino was arrested for the murder along with the then capo di capi Toto Riina and others, but turned state's evidence in jail. In court, his wife confronted him, claimed he had been pressured into collaborating by the prosecutors, and then told the world that he was gay - the worst crime of them all in the Mafia book.

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