Marisa Merico, the Woman Behind the Mob- by Beatrice Borromeo
Marisa Merico was 22 when she took over as the boss of a powerful Italian mafia clan. Her father had just been sent to prison for murder, and the clan was rudderless. Someone had to “step up,” and Marisa decided she had to do it. It was, she felt, her moral obligation.
Marisa, it turned out, was good at the job; self-confident and assertive. Even during more trying times, like when she had to buy a helicopter from a Balkan arms smuggler to help spring her father from prison, she remained cool. Her equanimity also carried her through a tough pregnancy and the early years of her baby’s life—when the police were on her trail, her husband was consuming massive amounts of cocaine, half her family was in prison, and the other half was trying to con her.
Today, almost two decades later, Marisa lives with her children and grandchild in Blackpool, a faded seaside resort town in northwestern England. She has been unable to return to Italy, as Italian authorities were seeking her arrest. But this spring, after a decade, the arrest warrant will expire, allowing Marisa to visit family and friends. “The world will be mine again!” she wrote, exuberantly, on Facebook in late January.
Now retired from the mafia, she presents herself as a respectable, middle-class, stay-at-home mom. For a while, the British government even supported her financially as she took care of her ailing mother, who recently passed away. At 42, Marisa is still handsome, with a thick mane of dark hair and dark eyes behind Dolce & Gabbana glasses. Behind her on her kitchen wall is a popular red poster depicting a crown and the motto: “Keep Calm and Carry On.” “That’s how I think,” she says, pointing at the poster. “And that’s why, when I was in charge of my clan, everybody respected me. I’m a reasonable person.”
Reasonable, perhaps, but deeply involved with a money-laundering, drug-running gang that smuggled heroin, cocaine, and heavy-duty weapons throughout southern Europe, while engaging in a bloody mafia war that, in the course of six years, cost the lives of 700 people.
For years, she ran the family business in conjunction with her father, visiting him in jail to plan their next moves. Being a mother, she says, turned out to be useful: she could hide money for corrupt police officers in her daughter’s stroller—just like her parents had done when she was a child. Eventually, though, it was family that undid her. After her aunt Rita was arrested trying to sell Ecstasy pills in 1993, Rita turned state witness and testified against her relatives. About 100 people were subsequently arrested, and Marisa, vowing vengeance, fled to Britain where she hid out at her mother’s house in Blackpool.
When I meet Marisa on a blustery, cold day to talk about her past, she is wearing a white T-shirt studded with rhinestones in the shape of a skull. During hours of conversation, she remains polite and friendly, though detached, as if narrating someone else’s story. Only when she speaks of her father, or about the time when she went to prison, does some affect shine through. She uses the word “moral” a lot to explain her actions as a mafia boss—as in “morally, I had no other choice but to step up and lead the clan.”
She expresses few regrets for what she and her family have done, though the path of her life has been bloody. Both her grandmother and her father were convicted of murder. Her aunt Rita at 12 years old was told to cut heroin in the bathroom to help out in the family business. The family controlled the Milan drug market during the 1980s, but Marisa has little time for reflection on what her family wrought in terms of pain, violence, or drug deaths.
Her account (which the Italian prosecutor confirmed) is far from the story line of The Godfather, with its shift of power from a dominant but aging patriarch to a hesitant son. Rather, hers is a story of a brutal and cunning dynasty, and the woman who “stepped up” inside the ’Ndrangheta, one of the most successful and violent crime syndicates in the world.
Though the Sicilian Cosa Nostra is better known through its depictions in popular movies and books, the ’Ndrangheta, from the Italian region of Calabria, has in recent years risen to become the most powerful mafia in Italy, netting, it is believed, more than $60 billion yearly—about twice that of Cosa Nostra.
Though the ’Ndrangheta hails from the south, it has a significant presence in northern Italy, primarily Milan, as well as Spain, Germany, Canada, Australia, and South America. Closely allied with the Mexican drug cartels, primarily Los Zetas, the group controls much of the cocaine market in Europe. The ’Ndrangheta also traffics in toxic waste and invests in legitimate business such as finance, newspapers, and real estate. Globally, the group’s ambition has sounded alarms among American and international law enforcement. “We’ve been dealing with them for years, but in the past months, the ’Ndrangheta has become one of our top priorities,” says a source at the FBI, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of ongoing investigations.
Families operate with a high degree of independence, and loyalty is paramount. But to understand the ’Ndrangheta is to realize that what fuels its business is a kind of “army logic,” in the words of Enzo Ciconte, a professor of the History of Organized Crime at the University of Rome. “Parents know some of their kids will be arrested and others will be killed. Since mercenaries are not accepted, they build their own armies of blood-tied soldiers.” The army is the family, and the head of the family is often a woman. As one Italian prosecutor puts it: “Catching the women has become fundamental to eradicating the clans.”
“In the last few years, women with key positions inside the ’Ndrangheta have increased: their number in mafia trials keeps growing,” says Nicola Gratteri, the Calabrian prosecutor with the most international ’Ndrangheta arrests. “Women carry messages to and from their husbands in prison and handle the money.” But their primary job is staying on top of retaliations, says Gratteri. “Women are the ones who keep the fire of the vendetta alive. When the husbands come back home, they charge them like springs to avenge the blood of the killed son or cousin. They even put their husband’s virility in doubt: ‘What are you, a pussy? You’re not a man if you don’t feel the need to avenge your cousin, who’s biting the dust while you’re here eating spaghetti.’”
The number of people killed every year by the ’Ndrangheta is hard to come by—killings are as discreet as possible so as not to attract attention from law enforcement, though, occasionally, more spectacular attacks are carried out, as in the 2007 shooting death of six men in front of an Italian restaurant in Duisburg, Germany. At the time, a German police official told reporters that more than half the criminal groups in Germany are affiliated with the ’Ndrangheta.
The ultimate goal in the blood feud is clearly to finish off the opposing family. But whereas in the past killing the last male heir was enough to exterminate another family, women now assume the mantle of leadership, as in the recent case of a ’Ndrangheta family in the Reggio Calabria province: “After all the men were killed, one widow wore her husband’s jacket, still covered with his blood, to symbolize the fact that she was taking command of the surviving family,” recalls Ciconte. “With this, the feud continued: she became the man.”
Marisa’s grandmother was nothing if not brutal. The scion of a mafia family, Maria Serraino was one of the first Italian women to be sentenced to life in prison for murder and other crimes. Visiting her own father in jail as a young woman, she had met her future husband—a prison guard with whom she eventually eloped, expanding her family’s drug-fueled empire to Milan. “My grandmother didn’t become a mafiosa, she was born into it,” says Marisa. “It was in her blood, just like it is in mine.”
La Signora Maria, as people called her grandmother, had her first child, Marisa’s father, Emilio Di Giovine, at the age of 16, and then gave birth to another 11 children in her kitchen. The family lived in cramped quarters. As Marisa puts it, “They lived like chickens—always fighting for space and food.” And Serraino didn’t send her kids to school but employed them, from an early age, in the family business: their occupations involved violence, weapons, and drugs—heroin and Ecstasy at first, but later also cocaine and hashish—“anything it took for the family to conquer the Milan drug market.”
But some of Serraino’s children were unable to resist the lure of the merchandise. In the course of one week, Marisa lost an uncle and an aunt to drug overdoses. It was Serraino herself who supplied her children with drugs out of fear that they would get dangerously cut heroin, says Marisa. “As a mother, I can understand—they would have done it anyway,” she adds.
Her father, Emilio, though, stayed clear of the drugs, and, in the late 1960s, he met Pat, a British woman from Blackpool. For a while they lived together in Milan, where they had Marisa. Although Pat enjoyed la dolce vita, she eventually decided to bring her daughter back to Blackpool in search of a more normal life.
Wanted by Italian authorities, Emilio later underwent plastic surgery and posed as a count as he moved to America, settling in New York City, where he opened a restaurant on 57th Street that he used to launder money. He was finally caught in the early 1980s—after running a red light—and American authorities sent him back to Italy, where he was promptly jailed.
Marisa was 13 years old when she first visited her father in an Italian prison. To the bored teenager from Blackpool, life in Milan seemed sun-kissed and fancy-free: fast cars, cool clothes, and a father who lived what she considered a glamorous life of blood feuds and criminal exploits. “I couldn’t bear this place anymore,” Marisa says now, with a nod to the approaching darkness outside, where the carnival on the wet promenade lures people to a roller-coaster and blinking arcades. “I was obsessed with going back to Milan.”
At 17, over the objections of her mother, she quit school and ran off to Italy, where she began hanging out with her father and his friends. Her father was in and out of prison, but a friend of his, Bruno Merico, would take her to see her father most days. Bruno made her laugh, and eventually, she explains with a shrug, “we fell in love.”
It didn’t take long before Marisa began behaving like a mafiosa: she was still a teenager when, in 1989, she was “christened” as Bruno’s accomplice smuggling kilos of heroin from Italy to Spain. “No one forced me to get in that car, but I knew he had a better chance of making it if I was with him,” she says today. The couple brought along her Yorkshire terrier whose breed, she notes with a smile, was “less pure than the heroin hidden in the spare tire.” Once the couple reached the border, the customs patrol dog got very agitated but, thinking the German Shepherd was barking because of the smaller dog, the agents let them pass. In Spain, Marisa handed off the drugs to a friend of her father’s, who, as a reward, let her pick a piece of gold jewelry—a bracelet that she still owns.
On April 8, 1991, she married Bruno at the city hall in Milan. A wedding photo shows her in a cream-colored lace dress with a big violet sash to hide her pregnant belly. White roses have been plaited into her hair. Neither her grandmother nor her father was able to attend the wedding, as both were on the lam, but the police had the wedding under surveillance on the off chance that her relatives would show up. That, notes Marisa, turned out to be a blessing in disguise: when members of a rival family came with plans to assassinate the family, the police were there to grab them.
With her father often on the run, Marisa became more and more involved in the family business. “My role was to take money abroad to pay for drugs,” she recalls. “I would take the plane wearing nice big Bridget Jones underwear, hiding millions in it. We became extremely rich.” But what drove her wasn’t so much the money as her father’s expectations. She was the only one he could trust, she says, and with time, “the guns, police raids, and things like that, became normal.”
When her family got into a massive turf war with another mafia clan, she would transport the weapons in hidden compartments in her car. Her father had become close to a Balkan arms dealer, and the family was getting surplus from the war in Bosnia—explosives, Kalashnikovs, grenades, and even bazookas. The escalating blood feud didn’t trouble her much, she says. “My family needed to fight back: it was so normal, it felt so right.”
What did cause her worry, though, was her husband’s escalating cocaine use, even as they were expecting their first child. And once her daughter, Lara, was born, Marisa even thought about withdrawing from the family business, but such considerations were quashed on July 31, 1992, when the police finally arrested her father in Portugal. “I had to step up otherwise everything would have fallen apart,” she says. “No one made me do it, but I felt obliged to. When the ship sinks, you don’t run.” Helping her father, she says, felt “even more important than my own daughter.”
In between changing diapers, Marisa now ran the mafia clan with the support and loyalty of her father’s men, and was constantly protected by three armed men. “I could have done anything—my power was enormous,” says Marisa. “One of my uncles tried to challenge me, saying I was too young to be in charge. I told him to f--k off.”
Soon a plan was hatched to spring her father from prison. He had already escaped three times (once swapping clothes with his brother who came to visit) so security at the prison was extra tight. Dreaming up a bold but ultimately unsuccessful plan, Marisa bought a helicopter to help with the escape. “My team was ready to go, armed to their teeth. But the police were alerted and increased the security. They found the helicopter not far from the prison just a few hours before the rescue operation was supposed to take place.”
Marisa decided to hide out with her daughter at her mother’s house in Blackpool. But eventually, British authorities came knocking—carrying an arrest warrant—and in 1994, Marisa was sentenced to five years in prison for money laundering and drug trafficking.
“They moved me to a special women’s unit in Durham prison,” she says, recalling the helicopter escort of the prison transport. She spent most of her sentence on Durham’s notorious H block—in Marisa’s parlance, “Hell Block.” “I was locked up with sexual maniacs, murderers—murderers like Rosemary West, who had killed many children, among them her own daughter,” she says. “It was very disturbing when Lara would come to visit me, being in the same room with those monsters.” She claims, though, that she wasn’t frightened. “Scared? I was just disgusted. I would defend myself if they came near me—they needed to be scared, not me.”
After Marisa served her U.K. sentence, police handcuffed her and put her on a plane to Italy, where she was tried and sentenced to 10 more years in prison for her involvement with the mafia. But Marisa’s lawyers managed to overturn that conviction on a procedural point in connection with the extradition. “And just like that, for a technicality, they released me.”
It was a moment of opportunity—she could begin again, freed from the prison as well as her past. But violence followed. Brutality was a taint on her life that she couldn’t remove.
She returned to Britain to her new beau, Frank, having left Bruno. “We were madly in love,” says Marisa. Frank had served time in Durham, too, for robbing a jewelry store; the two exchanged letters for almost four years before he was released. Frank promised to change his ways. But one night he didn’t come home. The following day, a friend of his phoned. “I’m really sorry,” he told Marisa, who was three months pregnant. Frank had been shot in the head.
Their son, Frank Jr., is now 11. He has a round face and clever eyes, and likes to play with an orange toy gun—one of several in the house. He seems kind, though, and shy. “Sometimes I think of him trying to retaliate for his father’s death,” says Marisa. “I’ve been told it was an accident, but the guy who shot him is still out there.”