Mobster Madonnas: The Rise of Women In Sicily’s Mafia

A recent spate of arrests of female mafiosas shows a changing power dynamic among Italy’s organized-crime syndicates.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

ROME—It took more than 200 armed cops, five specialized canine units, and twin helicopters to ensure that the latest powerful boss within the Sicilian mafia didn’t get away. But the don wasn’t the usual suspect. In fact, she wasn’t a don at all, she was a donna, Italian for woman.

Maria Angela di Trapani, the 49-year-old wife of Sicilian mafia kingpin Salvatore “Salvino Eyes of Ice” Madonia, was arrested last week after it emerged that she was in charge of reorganizing the Sicilian Cosa Nostra after the death of longtime boss Toto Riina in prison last month.

Trapani, who was referred to by other mobsters as the “mistress of the house,” was apparently in full charge of organizing each individual mob family’s affairs, including ordering punishments and hits. One pentito (or turncoat) told investigators that “she acts like a real man,” according to court documents. She and those she commanded are charged with 33 separate crimes, including successful attempts at extortion in which she allegedly personally saw to the collection of pizzo (or protection money) from local businesses.

She and her husband, who is serving a life sentence for gunning down anti-mafia activist Libero Grassi, were able to miraculously conceive a child during a closely guarded prison visit in 2000. The pregnancy was verified with a paternity test, which caused officials then to consider whether he somehow passed his semen to her or whether they actually had intercourse by either bribing guards to turn away or through creative coitus.

Trapani is just the latest lady of the mob to be arrested in what has become an emerging trend among crime families in Sicily. The move has not yet become quite as apparent in Italy’s other organized-crime syndicates like the Neapolitan Camorra or the Calabrese ‘Ndrangheta, where women still tend to play less important roles, including delivering messages.

Traditionally, women were not trusted with important business matters, according to Claire Longrigg in her 1998 exposeé Mafia Women. In 1983, a judge in Palermo acquitted a woman accused of money laundering on the basis that women “are not autonomous and are anyway too stupid to take part in the difficult world of business.”

Mobster madonnas have clearly come a long way since then.

Last February, three grandmother godmothers known as the “Prickly Pear Lip Gang” were also arrested in Sicily after the man they raised from orphanhood turned state’s evidence and ratted them out. The women, Maria Scuderi, 52, Concetta Scalisi, 60, and Paola Torrisi, 52, were called the “three queens of Castagirone” after the region where they reigned with violence and vengeance, according to the man they raised.

In 2015, Aurora Spanò, the 59-year-old wife of a boss with the Calabrese ‘Ndrangheta, was sentenced to 25 years in prison for her leadership role in the drug-smuggling organization. Her husband, Luigi Bellocco, only got 18 years for lesser crimes.

A spokesman with Italy’s anti-mafia police told The Daily Beast it’s natural that women would start reaching higher ranks in criminal organizations as more men are arrested for mob affiliation. “Many times the women know every aspect of the business intimately ," he said, "and just as women are empowered in other sectors, it is no longer taboo to take orders from a woman in criminal organizations.”

Despite the somewhat dubious move toward equality in the criminal world, mobster men still clearly have the upper hand. While it is acceptable for a female mafiosa to order a hit or extort money, she still cannot divorce her husband. The only way out for a woman married in the mob is death—no matter how much power she may have in the family business.