The Beauty Queens and Battle-Axes of Organized Crime

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When people hear what I do, they often assume that I write stories exclusively about men, but women have an important, if complex, role in Italian criminal organizations, a role that Mob Wives can't even come close to depicting. Female gangsters are subject to arcane rules, rigorous rituals, and inseverable commitments. Caught in a confusing place between modernity and tradition, they can give death orders but can't take lovers or leave their men. They can decide to invest in entire sectors of the market but can't wear makeup when their men are in prison—that would amount to confessing a betrayal, as if they were out looking to get laid.

Apart from a few rare exceptions, the mafiosa exists only in relation to her man. Without him, she's like an inanimate being—only half a person. That's why mob wives appear so unkempt and disheveled when accompanying their men to court—it's a cultivated look meant to underscore their fidelity. When they're well dressed and gussied up, their husbands are nearby and free. The man commands, and as he commands, his power is reflected on his woman and communicated through her image. This is the case for the Neapolitan Camorra, for the 'Ndrangheta of Calabria, and for some families of Cosa Nostra. That's also how it is in the Mexican cartels, which consider the woman a kind of trophy for a drug trafficker, a reflection of his virility and power. The more striking a woman at his side, the more strength he elicits. The popularity of beauty pageants in some states in Mexico, as well as Latin America more generally, is no coincidence. There is no better way for a woman to display her good looks and win over a drug trafficker—which, for some, can mean an escape from a life of poverty into a world of luxury. In some states, like Sinaloa, for example, there are few other ways for a girl to get a taste of wealth and power than to become a narco's wife. The tradeoff is clear: Drug traffickers give these girls money and a comfortable life, while the girls, through their beauty, give the narcos pleasure and prestige. The woman is such an asset to the drug trafficker's résumé that some narcos will even rig the beauty pageants she competes in. With the cartel's help, she brings home the title, and the drug trafficker gains eminence by having her at his side. That's why many women in Sinaloa invest in enhancements to their bodies from a very young age: They get breast implants and butt lifts in hopes of becoming more attractive to cartel members and changing their lives.

Though they have similar mentalities, the women of Mexican cartels tend to be more modern and uninhibited than the women of Italian Mafias. Yet the expectation that mob wives should make themselves dowdy and almost invisible doesn't mean they're entirely lacking in freedom—actually, they're often the ones who command in place of their incarcerated husbands.

Regardless of where they're from, women in organized crime tend to have similar life stories. Husband and wife have often known each other since they were teenagers and are married between the ages of 20 and 25. It's customary to marry the "girl next door," someone a man has known since childhood and can be sure is a virgin. The guy, on the other hand, is generally allowed to have mistresses—before the marriage and after. In recent years, however, the wives of mafiosi have required that their husbands' lovers be foreign—Russian, Polish, Romanian, Moldovan—women they consider to be socially inferior and incapable of building a family and educating children properly. Having a mistress from Italy or, even worse, from one's own town is damaging because it destabilizes the family balance—not only in the sense of the relationship of the nuclear family but also the relationships of the clan. A man can't risk taking the wife of another boss as a lover, betraying the sister of a fellow clan member, or making a fool of his own wife in front of the entire town. These acts would create disagreements and feuds and would jeopardize the life of the clan. It's a behavior that violates the code of honor on which the mob is founded, which means it could be punishable by death.

The specter of death haunts mob marriages constantly, and in Mafia-controlled lands many women dress exclusively in black. It's a sign of mourning. Mourning for a murdered husband or slain son. Mourning because a brother, nephew, or neighbor was killed. Mourning because the husband of a co-worker was taken out or because the son of a distant relative was assassinated. There's always a reason to wear black. And underneath the black, they dress in red. In the past, women would put on a red undershirt to remember all the blood that had to be avenged; today they often wear red lingerie, especially when they're young. It's a continual reminder of the blood that their own pain won't allow them to forget, and the contrast with the black really highlights the terribly intimate color of revenge. To be a widow in criminal territories means losing one's identity as a woman almost entirely and retaining only that of mother. As a widow, you can remarry only if you meet several conditions: Your sons must agree to the marriage, the man must be the same rank as your deceased husband, and, above all, you must have mourned for as much time as the clan prescribed, all the while remaining abstinent.

A female boss I remember well because I saw her come to power in the area where I'm from is Immacolata Capone. She was a businesswoman, but, according to the Anti-Mafia District Directorate of Naples, she was also a godmother of the Camorra. A member of the Moccia clan, Capone had a primary role in the management of public works for the Zagaria clan of Casal di Principe—one of the most powerful families in the area. She had the important and delicate job of obtaining the "anti-Mafia certificate" (the document that guarantees a business is clean and free of criminal associations) for the clan's businesses. Without this certificate, the Camorristi would not have been able to bid for public contracts.

One day in the early 2000s, she met the Camorrista Michele Fontana, known as "the Sheriff," and he told her that he had a surprise for her. He put her in the front seat of the car, where she immediately heard noises coming from the trunk. When Capone asked for an explanation, the Sheriff just told her not to worry. They drove for a while and arrived at a palatial villa in the countryside outside Caserta, about 20 miles north of Naples. At that point, Michele Zagaria—one of the most powerful bosses of the Casalese clan, condemned to life and finally arrested in December 2011 after living 16 years as a fugitive—emerged from the trunk of the car and went inside. Shocked by the presence of the boss, Capone couldn't speak to him even though they'd been partners in successful deals for years. According to some sources, the boss took his place at the center of the parlor, which was covered in rare marble and represented just one of his numerous villas, and began to talk about contracts, concrete, construction, and land—all while petting a tiger on a leash. It was a cinematic, almost mythic scene, drawing on the kind of imagery that crime families use to cement their power.

Raised in the environment of the Camorra, Capone was a tiny woman with a strong character, able to intimidate anyone when discussing business. She grew up under the guidance of Anna Mazza, wife of the boss of the Moccia clan and the first woman in Italy to be convicted of Mafia-related crimes for her role as the head of one of the most powerful criminal and business associations in Southern Italy. Mazza—initially taking advantage of the reputation of her husband, Gennaro Moccia, who was killed in the 70s—soon assumed a leadership role in the clan. Known as the widow of the Camorra, she was the brains of the Moccia family for more than 20 years. Mazza instituted a sort of matriarchy in the Camorra. She wanted only women in positions of prestige because, according to her, women are less obsessed with military power and make better mediators. This was her way of running the organization.

Having learned from Mazza, Capone was able to construct an entrepreneurial and political network of great importance. Many Camorristi courted her in order to become consorts of a high-ranking boss, sharing her bed and business deals. But Capone's talents brought about her own demise. In November 2004, a few months after the Mafia eliminated her husband, they killed her in a butcher shop in Sant'Antimo in the province of Naples. She was only 37 years old. The police never discovered a motive for the murder, but the clans may not have appreciated her attempt to climb the ranks. Her fierce ambition may have frightened them, and given her business acumen, she might have even attempted to undertake a big deal on her own, independently of the Casalese family. The only thing we know for sure is that Capone had successfully navigated the pressures, limitations, and expectations put on women to leave her mark on mob history.

Translated from the Italian by Kim Ziegler.

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