I told the judge: “Dottore, I’m on the first floor. If they want to retaliate again, they know where to find me … All the lives they’ve taken from me – they took my brother, they took my husband. I don’t think there’s anything else.
Lucia has had a harsh life. A petite and elegant 80-year-old woman with piercing brown eyes that are starting to fail and a melancholic smile, she lives on her own in a middle-class neighbourhood of Naples near the Maradona stadium. Lucia may look like your typical well-kept Neapolitan grandmother, but there is much more to her than meets the eye.
She was born during the second world war into what would become one of Naples’ more powerful criminal families, the only girl between two boys. Her father, like many men in the immediate post-war period, got involved in any business opportunity going to make money and survive. She denies that he was ever a mafioso, saying he was only ever looking out for others – but this is how he is described in most newspaper articles, police and judicial reports.
In the 1980s, Lucia had a prime view of the Neapolitan underworld and its devastating violence. Her younger brother was an emerging Camorra member specialising in relationships with corrupt businessmen and judges. Her husband, a car dealer, secretly collaborated with his brother, an international drug trafficker and significant criminal figure. On paper these were respectable businessmen, but in reality they were important camorristi – members of a key Camorra city clan.
Then, in the early ‘90s, both Lucia’s husband and younger brother were killed in mafia hits. She cries during our interview, which is conducted online because of COVID restrictions, especially when she talks about her brother’s murder. Lucia explains that she has had to bottle up her emotions ever since:
I’ll confess this to you: I have experienced great pain, great fear and great suffering. This is my whole life.
It is said that you can only be born into a criminal family – otherwise you will always be an “outsider”. While this is true of Lucia, Teresa was a complete outsider to the criminal underworld as a child. One of nine siblings, her mother was a housewife and her father worked for the municipal dairy:
My father was hard-working and my mother raised us with love and care … [They] taught us good values, to respect everyone. My father always played with us children.
Yet like Lucia, Teresa also became a Camorra wife. This proud great-grandmother, now 68, first met her husband Giuseppe in 1968 at the age of 14. He would go on to become a capo zona (neighbourhood boss) for the Camorra, but in 1990 was sent to prison for life with a minimum tariff of 30 years.
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When I last interviewed Teresa in July 2022, she was very angry with Giuseppe, who is now back home on conditional release. She feels she has wasted her life supporting the Camorra and a man who has spent most of his adult life in prison.
Teresa says she used to love spending time in her tiny-but-cosy flat in a working-class district near the busy Neapolitan waterfront. But over the two years that Giuseppe has been back with her, she has become scared and spends a lot of time walking around the city to avoid being at home alone with him:
I did so much for him and he answers: “No one asked you to.” I spent my life and money on him and he replies: “But I made you live the good life.” It is hell – he loves no one. He has become the devil.
Hiding in the shadows
There is another important character in this story: Naples. I am married to a Neapolitan and have a love-hate relationship with Italy’s third largest city.
When you walk around Naples, you don’t necessarily feel or see the Camorra. Rarely do you witness its business dealings or its beatings. It prefers to hide in the shadows, but there are small traces that become visible if you know what to look for.
Walk down a street in the Spanish quarter, for example, and if you are not a local a whistle may sound to warn Camorra colleagues that an unidentified person is walking in their direction. The criminal activities and individuals disappear in a second, whether to avoid possible rivals or a police bust.
One lunchtime walking home, I caught a glimpse of two youngsters on a moped carrying an enormous Kalashnikov rifle as they drove up and down the streets controlling the territory. Everyone looked at the floor and the tension was palpable, but they passed without incident. Normality was restored.
The Camorra protects its territory but it also wants to make people feel safe and gain their respect. My brother-in-law, when he lived in the city centre, once went into a bar for a coffee and in a flash, a young man had stolen his wallet. Everyone in the cafe looked confused – how could this happen to a local? Within five minutes, the wallet was back in my brother-in-law’s hands – with the understanding that he would not go to the police.
Let’s not forget that the Camorra looks out for its local community. It makes good business sense to guarantee peace and social consensus.
A more complete picture
Over the past 20 years, I have sought out the stories of women who orbit the Neapolitan criminal underworld. I believe sharing their voices can help build a more complete picture of organised crime to complement the city’s judicial overview. Above all, I hope it can help us understand how to counter the mafia’s deeply harmful grip on communities all over Naples and beyond.
Women have traditionally been ignored and considered irrelevant in the story of the Camorra and other Italian mafias, and indeed in most organised crime groups around the world. In 2006, the Neapolitan Camorra was made famous by Roberto Saviano’s accounts: he documented its members, structures, activities and links to politics. He even illustrated some of its female protagonists, but they were always presented as the exception rather than the rule.
In contrast to the rural Sicilian and Calabrian mafias, the Camorra has deep roots within the city of Naples. The Anti-mafia Investigation Directorate (DIA) estimates there are 44 active clans in the city and a further 98 across the rest of the Campania region. In 2021 alone, they were reported to have been involved in 26 murders and 65 attempted murders.
While many get distracted by the “baby gang” phenomenon – groups of children and teenagers forming their own criminal gangs in Naples – Camorra clans remain heavily involved in extortion, drugs and counterfeit goods. They have become savvy about social media and the potential for new business opportunities such as online fraud. Whenever necessary, they have the ear of both local and national officials.
Falling in love
Both Lucia and Teresa admit they fell for the wrong men. But they were not coerced or forced, despite how it might appear from the outside. Both describe complex relationships that were at once loving, coercive, inconsistent and contradictory. Of course, they weren’t only married to their husbands but the mob too.
Despite Teresa’s love affair with Giuseppe as a teenager, he married another girl who had told him she was pregnant. Once he realised she was not, he came looking for Teresa again. But because he was now married, they had to run away together as their strict parents could not accept this irregular relationship.
The couple found a small basement flat in a nearby district and had their first child in 1974. After that Teresa’s parents could not keep away. They turned up at the hospital and peace was restored when they met their new granddaughter.
Lucia’s romance was more turbulent. Her future husband kidnapped her in 1959 when she was 17 because he “had a sick love” for her, but feared her father would never approve of him. Lucia defends his subsequent violence and jealousy towards her by arguing that “I was still a child for him – so I had to stay that way”.
After two years, they returned to Naples and in time Lucia’s father accepted the relationship – but it was an agitated marriage. Lucia says she only fell in love with her husband once she had her first child:
I never went to complain to my father or my brothers, not least because they would say: “At the end of the day, you wanted him.” But at that age, how could I know? I wanted him as I couldn’t get close to any other man after being with him.
Many people imagine mafia women either to be male-like leaders or unimportant bystanders. Lucia and Teresa are neither of these caricatures. Their marriages and the families that grew out of them spawned love, trust and loyalty. They were in partnerships against the common enemy, the Italian state. Family relationships were transformed into criminal ventures. It seemed to me that Lucia knew and accepted what she was getting into – and Teresa says the same:
Yes, I started to understand many things. I understood, but by now we were too involved. When you get into this thing, you can’t get out afterwards – you don’t leave.
Italian mafias are always portrayed as male-centred criminal organisations, whether in films and TV series, academic and newspaper articles, legal judgments or police reports. Women, if present at all, are purely representatives of the men, with no independent agency.
By failing to challenge this “master” narrative, women’s criminal activities are overlooked and the fight against mafias is weakened. Women are an integral part of these groups with their own agency and their own criminal knowledge and capacity for violence.
My studies show that women often bear joint responsibility for the planning of criminal activities, but this remains hidden within the informal world of the household. In this private space, they participate, advise and organise. They are not coerced or forced; they are aware, knowledgeable and involved. Without these women, the criminal structures would find it difficult to survive.
So why are the majority of them “invisible ghosts” to us? Judicial records and police reports tend not to pick up the involvement of women because it is often behind closed doors, discreet and unpaid and therefore invisible. While much of Italian civil society reinforces patriarchal values that diminish the role and value of women, family life is a negotiated space where women can predominate. The same is true in Italian mafia families, where women – especially mothers and wives – can become equals to their men in the criminal underworld.
Over the course of our conversations, Lucia and Teresa highlight how living in a criminal space is not a black-and-white affair, as described in fiction or academic books. They show me that behind every successful male mafioso, there is likely to be a strong woman. But this doesn’t mean they are free of regrets.
A family slain
Lucia does not directly acknowledge the criminal activities of her husband or younger brother. She accepts that her husband did some loan sharking and that he went to prison for four years for his activities. But she is vague about the details because she was also part of this family business. Her husband put one of his companies under her name in order to hide their illegal profits, for which she went on the run and eventually spent time in prison in 1981. She never makes it clear why – she just did time for the family business.
Lucia’s son, who I have also interviewed and is not involved with the Camorra, acknowledges his mother’s apparent duplicity – of knowing but not wanting to know, of being involved without wanting to. Lucia says she always had a sense of how things would play out – first when her father was shot (but not killed) in 1980, then when her younger brother and husband were assassinated a decade later.
Her father was punished by her brother-in-law after he had supposedly “behaved improperly” towards Lucia’s sister-in-law, exposing a deep internal rift in this Camorra clan. Lucia told her husband that she knew who had ordered her father’s shooting but was not believed – probably because she was a woman.
While she maintains that her younger brother was “an honourable man”, to anti-mafia prosecutors he was a key member of the dominant Camorra alliance in the late 1980s, involved in drug trafficking and other criminal activities. He too was murdered, in 1991, apparently because his associates suspected he was a police informer.
Lucia recalls that her brother’s killer was someone he knew, whom he had taken in and looked after. She likens this Camorra execution to “being kissed and then shot in the back” – and says it “crucified” her:
I raised him – and when he died it was my great pain. We cried together when we were children because daddy wasn’t around, so he was like a son as well as a brother to me. That was my first big pain – my biggest pain.
Almost unimaginably, two years later Lucia’s husband was murdered because his brother, a top mafia boss, had decided to collaborate with the state. Her husband was offered state protection (as all relatives of informers are) but he refused point-blank; it is believed he was murdered as a form of indirect revenge.
After her husband’s murder, Lucia was also offered state protection but she too refused. There was simply nothing left for her to lose:
All the lives they’ve taken from me – they took my brother, they took my husband. I don’t think there’s anything else … I experienced great pain, great fear and great suffering.
Breaking from the Camorra
As capo zona, the boss of their local neighbourhood, Teresa’s husband Giuseppe was much respected and admired by his local community. She explains “they loved him” because he brought calm and was a “reference point” people could turn to in times of hardship:
From the beginning, I realised my husband was with these people … I would ask him: ‘But what are you doing? What kind of people are they?’ And he would say to me: ‘Teresa, let’s say it’s a life …’ By then he had it in his blood. The truth is they make you persist because they show you the money … They even bought my husband a car. He was starting to dress smartly – and I had everything.
Teresa was fully aware of her husband’s activities and supported and helped him. He would explain everything to her and they usually agreed. She never pretended not to know. But she admits:
We got ourselves into a mess, me and him. Not a small one. There was no turning back then. I spent my nights in bed waiting for him to come back home, with the fear that they would kill or arrest him. Those were terrible nights.
In 1990, Teresa’s husband was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment for being the leader of a violent group of camorristi. Teresa went from being a “Lady Camorra”, living the good life, to a Camorra widow, visiting her husband in different prisons across Italy while dealing with his lawyer.
Her husband chose not to negotiate with the state, which would have given him a leaner sentence. He frequently told Teresa not to wait for him, saying: “Leave me because I wasn’t a good husband.” But Teresa swore she would stick by him, as did the clan. She explains how the Camorra tried to buy their loyalty and silence:
[The clan] came in and hired a lawyer, and they gave me 100,000-150,000 Italian lira [then about £400-£600] a week. This is the way the clan keeps members loyal … It is very difficult to say no when they offer this financial help – but in time we did.
Two years into her husband’s prison sentence, Teresa decided to break free from the Camorra, its control and its power. She recalls how one day they came to her door and she said she no longer wanted their money. She would look after herself and her five children alone because she “didn’t want them to go down the same path”. She got a job working in a local market where, she says: “People were scared of me because I was the local boss’s wife.”
Life got even more difficult – I had to scrape together money so that my husband had money in prison, and to raise my children and for house expenses. My life was bad – you don’t know what it was like. You can’t even imagine.
Teresa grew very depressed, lost a lot of weight and turned to the local nuns for help. They looked after her and gave her a job. Over the 30 years of Giuseppe’s imprisonment, she slowly rebuilt her life, waiting for the day her husband would be released. Eventually he was allowed to take a job outside the prison three days a week. But, says Teresa, life remained “complicated”.
A wasted life?
Teresa acknowledges that the clan system in Naples entraps people. Since breaking free of the Camorra’s grip, she has had to work hard to ensure her children did not get sucked in – but she has been successful. Her five kids all have regular jobs: one works in a bakery, one owns a small restaurant, two are looking for work after COVID made them redundant, and another has moved to the north of Italy to work in a hospital. Above all, she says, they are happy people.
Lucia, now a widow for almost 30 years, has also focused on getting her children as far as possible away from a life of crime. According to her son, even though they are now out of the clan system, the local bosses still treat Lucia and the rest of her family with respect and admiration – her surname alone still produces reverence in others.
Being born into the Camorra has probably made it more difficult for Lucia to question and fully escape its grip. On top of all the killings, she has survived cancer too. After we speak for some time, she admits to feeling enormous pain and sadness as she reflects on her life, then says: “But this is my whole life – I have lived everything.”
Teresa, in contrast, says she regrets “everything”, having wasted her life on the wrong man and his choices. After 30 years in prison, he came out two years ago. Teresa had to sign the paperwork to be his guarantor on the outside, but her dream of living a comfortable old age with the man of her life has not quite worked out.
Giuseppe is still under licence – he has limited freedoms and must spend most of his time at home, with the police doing house visits to check on him at antisocial hours. Prison has had a huge impact: he is depressed and traumatised, and this in turn affects everyone around him.
Teresa describes him as “a monster living in her house”. She worries that Giuseppe is destroying everything she has built with her five children while he was in prison – in particular, a loving family atmosphere. She does not know what the future looks like, but is seriously considering her options as her love and soul have been destroyed.
The role of women in organised crime
Listening to these women’s accounts of their lives within the Neapolitan underworld shows how much more nuanced organised crime is than the way it is depicted on screen.
Lucia and Teresa are anything but weak and incapable. They have lived full lives as women, wives, mothers and sisters at the heart of the city’s underworld. They navigated this criminal space: it was not a glamorous life but a question of surviving – avoiding rival clans’ bullets and the handcuffs of the police and anti-mafia investigators.
The plurality of these women’s roles and responsibilities is fundamental to the way the Camorra functions. Without their emotional, physical and financial support, their husbands would not have made successful careers within the mob.
Women may not formally join a mafia as “made” members during an official affiliation ritual, but this doesn’t mean they only have irrelevant walk-on parts. Women may not make the drug deals or coordinate the transportation, but they aren’t oblivious of what they are carrying in their car or bag, or how their bank accounts are being used. However unsavoury, their long-time criminal involvement demands greater recognition and understanding.
Whether looking at women in Italian mafias or female members of British criminal gangs, we need to review our understanding of women in crime groups by listening to their voices and experiences. Only then can we get near a complete picture of their roles in the continued success and growth of organised crime. Perhaps in this sense, we are all part of the mafia problem.
Names have been changed to protect the anonymity of interviewees
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Felia Allum received funding from The Leverhulme Trust (2018-2022: MRF-2017-075) for her research on women in organised crime groups. She is co-author of Graphic Narratives of Organised Crime, Gender and Power in Europe, Routledge, May 2022)