The godmothers calling the shots in the Naples mafia

With their menfolk being rounded up, the women of the Camorra crime syndicate are taking charge

They go by such nicknames as "Fat Cat" and "Tomboy". Their simmering power struggles once drove them into the streets, guns blazing. They rule their crime families with steely determination, and also raise the children and stir the pasta. Move over, Don Corleone. Godmothers are rising in the ranks of the Camorra, the Naples crime syndicate.

Women have long played a strong role in Camorra crime families, muscling, sometimes murdering, their way to the top. Their influence stretches back as far as the 1950s when a pregnant former beauty queen dubbed "Pupetta" (Little Doll) shot dead the man who had ordered a hit on her husband, and allegedly settled into a life of crime.

Now, as the state steps up its war against the Camorra, rounding up scores of mobsters, the women are taking over from their men.

"There is a growing number of women who hold executive roles in the Camorra," General Gaetano Maruccia, commander of the Carabinieri paramilitary police in the Naples area, said. "They are either widows [of mob bosses] or wives of husbands who have been put in prison. They hold the reins."

Mothers, daughters, sisters and sisters-in-law are "assuming ever-more leading roles", Stefania Castaldi, a Naples-based prosecutor who investigates organised crime, said in an interview.

Camorra women still perform the more "traditional" roles of cutting and repackaging cocaine and heroin in their kitchens or tidying up the hideouts of fugitive bosses, but others are wielding power on the streets. They shake down merchants in extortion rackets and increasingly direct drug trafficking worth millions of dollars, Ms Castaldi said.

In one of the most lurid episodes, in 2002, two carloads of women from rival Camorra clans lurched through the streets of Lauro, a town near Naples, first trading insults, and then machine-gun fire and pistol shots until two grandmothers and a 16-year-old girl were dead. The root of the bloodshed: a turf war fuelled by the murder of a clan boss's cousin. Some of the Camorra "godmothers" rank right up there with the men in commanding clout and obedience, authorities say.

Among them is Maria Licciardi, one of the victors of the long-running blood feud between the Di Lauro and Secondigliano Alliance that left Naples littered nearly daily with bodies a few years back.

"Signora Licciardi is a true madrina [godmother], absolutely," said Ms Castaldi. "She was the sister of a boss, and she sat at the table with other bosses. She made decisions with them; she was right at their level." Authorities are now investigating whether one of those decisions was an order to execute as many as 30 of her rivals.

Licciardi, a petite woman known by allies and enemies alike as "a piccirella" (the little one), was arrested in 2001 after she was stopped while driving her car near Naples. On the run since 1999, Licciardi has figured on the list of Italy's 30 most wanted criminals. She is one of a handful of female mobsters who are considered so top-level they are held in the country's highest-security prison regimes.

"She's in prison, but she still commands. Prisons don't represent a barrier for the Camorra," said Anna Maria Zaccaria, a sociologist at Naples Federico II University, who is researching women's roles in the syndicate.

In July, Carabinieri swept up 11 women for drug trafficking in a raid on Naples' Sarno crime clan. In another blitz, a mother and her two grown-up daughters were arrested on charges related to organised crime, including extortion.

The Camorra woman still takes a traditional role in the matriarchal Neapolitan society, said Ms Zaccaria. "She is in charge of household spending, the raising of children."

But these skills can translate into setting the interest rates for loan-sharking or doling out weekly payments to neighbourhood kids to watch out for police raids. Raising offspring means steeping children in a life of crime and arranging the marriages of sons and daughters to spin a web of new or stronger ties with rival clans.

"They're very determined, very good at mapping out strategy, even sharper than their men," General Maruccia said.

Even when Camorra women don't pack a pistol, they seem to pump their offspring with pride for bloody deeds that further their crime family's prestige. Take Concetta Prestieri, matriarch of a family in the powerful Di Lauro clan. In 1981 the clan eliminated a rival by "bringing him into a basement, torturing him, killing him and cutting him into pieces", according to Ms Castaldi, the Naples prosecutor. After the killing, the participants gathered in Prestieri's kitchen. "All the while, as they recounted the deed, the signora cooked up some spaghetti and served it at the table."