Women of honour: The godmothers of the Italian mafia

A new book tells the true stories of the most notorious matriarchs in organised crime

Pupetta Maresca on her wedding day. When her husband, Pasquale Simonetti, was killed by Antonio Esposito, Pupetta targeted the killer. Photograph: Getty Images

Pupetta Maresca on her wedding day. When her husband, Pasquale Simonetti, was killed by Antonio Esposito, Pupetta targeted the killer. Photograph: Getty Images


While Elena Ferrante’s quartet of books, which began with My Brilliant Friend, opened up the closed, and often violent histories of Naples through fiction, Women of Honour is a factual account of women in the Italian mafia organisations of the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, Calabrian ’Ndràngheta and Neopolitan Camorra.

Two extracted stories from the new book by Milka Kahn and Anne Véron show lives either shadowed by a lack of education and abuse, or rising to power through violence.

“Within the mafia, men are rarely at home, with most in hiding or in prison, and hence spending little time with their children. It is the women of the family who must pass mafia culture down the generations, instilling criminal values in their children and building a heroic picture of the absent father.

Similarly, when these discreet women find themselves widowed, they do not turn to conventional justice, but rather remain within the secretive world of the mafia family, urging their sons towards ‘vendetta’, revenge.

As such, a mafia woman whose husband has been assassinated will have kept his bloodstained shirt as a gift to her son on his 18th birthday so that he will perpetuate the vendetta . . .”

Giusy Pesce: Wind of Revolt

Giuseppina Pesce following her arrest in 2010
Giuseppina Pesce following her arrest in 2010

“When the police came to arrest Giuseppina Pesce during the night of April 27th-28th, 2010, her nine-year-old son Gaetano was pretending to be asleep: ‘They told me that you’d gone to hospital for an operation, like Papa, but I’d realised that they were taking you to prison.’

“On that occasion, ‘Operation All Inside’ ended with the arrest of 40 people from the Pesce mafia clan, one of the most powerful on the plain of Gioa Tauro in Reggio di Calabria province.

“Among them was Giuseppina ‘Giusy’ Pesce, aged 31, mother of three and niece of the main boss, as well as her mother, Angela Ferraro, her sister Marina and brother Francesco, together with a huge number of uncles and cousins. Her father and husband, meanwhile, had already been incarcerated for years, convicted of illegal mafia association and drug smuggling [ . . .]

“Giusy soon realised what it meant to be called Pesce in Rosarno: ‘I have always known, since I was a child.’ She was the oldest daughter of the four children of Salvatore Pesce, known as ‘u Babbù’ (the halfwit), and Angela Ferraro. Her father had been alternating spells in prison with time on the run since Giusy’s birth on September 24th, 1979, in Gioia Tauro.

“He was not the only family member to disappear regularly and for long periods; on holidays she would often go to visit her uncle Antonio, nicknamed ‘Testuni’ (stubborn) and Don Peppino’s designated successor, at the country house where he was in hiding.

“When Don Peppino died in 1992, Giusy was 13, had hardly finished school and wanted to continue her studies at the high school as her teachers had advised. But there was no such secondary school in Rosarno and daughters within the Pesce clan were not allowed to study outside the village. Giusy duly ended her education.

“It was around this time that she met her future husband, Rocco Palaia, a young man of 20 who worked for the Sardignoli cousins; as a sinister forewarning, they met in the village cemetery on the Day of the Dead. Giusy was quickly disenchanted: ‘After only three weeks together, he gave me a first slap [. . .] After the birth of our first child, my husband began to treat me and our daughter badly,’ Giusy later told magistrates. ‘He neither respected my role as mother nor his as father: he didn’t work and didn’t take care of us. It was my father-in-law who took care of paying the rent . . . He used to hit me when I said what I thought . . . I tried to leave him several times but my family stopped me.’

“While her husband was in prison and Giusy had no means of supporting her family, her father decided to open a supermarket and to employ Giusy as a cashier. After the supermarket’s rapid collapse into bankruptcy she then found work in a factory owned by her father-in-law producing crystallised fruits. It was there, in 2010, that she met a man and fell in love.

“But Giusy was all too aware of the ‘code of honour’: women who betray the family pay for it with their lives [. . .] There was only one possible outcome: death. Giusy, too, knew what would now inevitably happen: ‘As long as my brother is alive I am condemned to death, because he’s the one who has to carry out the sentence for betrayal,’ she told the magistrates.

“Her arrest in the course of Operation All Inside on April 28th, 2010, saved her life. [. . .] ‘My world had collapsed,’ she admitted, ‘I didn’t know what was happening to me. Our role as women was to help the men, to support them when they were in prison, to visit them and, if need be, to pass on information to the other mafiosi outside, to brothers, to clan bosses. Even if you know perfectly well that it’s a crime, you do it.’”

In 2010 Giusy Pesce began to collaborate with the authorities and was put into witness protection. As the prosecutor described it, she “saw the state not as the traditional enemy, but as an alternative for her and her children”.

Her testimony implicated family, friends, and carabinieri. She now lives in hiding under witness protection with her children. Her uncle, Rocco, “has condemned her to death: ‘You have to kill a dog that doesn’t look you in the eye.’”

Erminia Giuliano: Lady Camorra

Undated photograph of Erminia Giuliano
Undated photograph of Erminia Giuliano

“‘This woman is a leader. She has qualities normally reserved for men: charisma and organisational ability.’ This is how the head of the carabinieri, hunting her down, described Erminia Giuliano.

“Erminia’s destiny was determined by her birthplace, Forcella, a poor but vibrant district in the shadow of Naples’ Duomo. In this labyrinth of alleys, under a rainbow of washing hanging from balconies, scooters whizz by while women shout out of their windows.

“‘It’s said that you find the most beautiful women in Naples in this neighbourhood. But they also have a reputation for being the loudest and the most exuberant: they’re modern and entrepreneurial women for whom sex plays an important role,’ explains Giuseppe Narducci, magistrate at the city’s public prosecutor’s office.

“Forcella is inextricably linked with the Giuliano family, one of the city’s most powerful Camorra clans. The name Giuliano does not merely stand for a family and a district, but it evokes a whole era: the 1970s and 1980s, important years for Naples [. . .]

“The notoriety of this dynasty was due to its legendary chief, Luigi Giuliano, father of 11 children. Several of these, notably Pio Vittorio, succumbed to the siren calls of organised criminality, moving in the course of the 1970s from contraband cigarettes to kidnappings, protection rackets and pimping.

“It was such a spectacular rise that in a famous photo from the late 1980s, Diego Maradona is seen proudly clinking champagne glasses with Erminia Giuliano.

Pio Vittorio Giuliano himself also had 11 children, six boys (Luigi, Guglielmo, Nunzio, Carmine, Salvatore and Raffaele) and five girls (Erminia, Anna, Patrizia, Silvana and Antonietta), said to be very beautiful, tough and independent. Their amorous escapades and infidelities were notorious common knowledge, not least because they would sleep with magistrates and senior police officers to buy their favour. [. . .]

“Then there was Raffaele, the youngest of the clan, who threw his wife from a third-floor balcony after excessive cocaine consumption. Arrested, he was the first in the family to collaborate with the authorities, followed by Guglielmo, Carmine and even ‘the King’ himself.

“With no men left, the Giuliano clan was effectively decapitated and broken. Or so it seemed until Erminia took control with an iron fist. Through determination and charisma, she managed to rebuild clan networks, gambling on those affiliates still at large and on younger generations: sons, nephews and sons-in-law acquired through cunning matrimonial strategies.

“Her reputation as a tenacious woman was complemented by her readiness to take direct action, as on the day in 1997 when she stabbed a female rival, or, two years later, when she deliberately drove her car into the window of a toy shop whose owner had refused to pay the pizzo, the protection money traditionally extorted from shopkeepers.”

Erminia appeared on a list of Italy’s most wanted criminals, and was arrested on December 23rd, 2000, after being on the run for almost a year. Police raided her daughter’s house in the Forcella quarter of Naples late at night and found the then 44-year-old Ermina in a secret room concealed behind a kitchen cupboard and a sliding wall panel. She was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Women of Honour is published by Hurst £12.99

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