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In Italy's Puglia region, women take the lead in challenging the local mafia at great personal risk


LECCE, Italy (AP) — It was a scene straight out of “The Godfather.” On the night of Feb. 1, a bloody goat head with a butcher’s knife through it was left on the doorstep of Judge Francesca Mariano’s home in southern Italy, with note beside it reading, “like this.”

Mariano had already received threats, including notes written in blood, after she issued arrest warrants for 22 members of a local mafia clan that operates in southern Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot.

Puglia is known for its olive groves, cone-shaped “trulli” white-washed houses, and spectacular coastlines that will provide the backdrop when Premier Giorgia Meloni hosts Group of Seven leaders for their annual summit this week.

But the region is also home to the Sacra Corona Unita, Italy’s fourth organized crime group. It is far less well-known than Sicily’s Cosa Nostra, the Calabrian ‘ndrangheta or the Camorra around Naples, but just as effective in infiltrating everything, from local businesses to government.

And yet, a remarkable array of women like Mariano is challenging its power structures at great personal risk. They are arresting and prosecuting clan members, exposing their crimes and confiscating their businesses, all while working to change local attitudes and cultural norms that have allowed this mafia to establish roots as deep as Puglia’s famed olive trees.

“I don’t believe anyone who says they’re not afraid. That’s not true,” said Marilù Mastrogiovanni, an investigative journalist and journalism professor at the University of Bari who has written in-depth stories about mafia infiltration for her blog.

“Courage is moving forward despite the fear,” she said.

The Sacra Corona Unita, or SCU, is the only organized crime group in Italy whose origins are known: A local criminal founded it in the Lecce prison in 1981, in part to push back other mafia groups that were trying to infiltrate the area.

Its name and initiation rites are linked to the Catholic faith, with the “corona” or crown, referring to the beads of a rosary.

Slowly but steadily, the SCU wove itself into the fabric of Puglia's society, mixing its illicit activities in with legitimate businesses. Today, it has roughly 30 clans and some 5,000 members, almost all of them men.

Drug trafficking is the main business,” said Carla Durante, head of the Lecce office of the Anti-Mafia Investigative Directorate, an inter-agency police force. “That is always accompanied by extortion, usury. And now, like all over the nation, we have infiltration into the public administration.”

The SCU takes the billions of euros it earns from drug trafficking and launders it through legitimate business, often in Puglia’s booming tourism industry.

One of the most effective ways to fight it has been by confiscating mob-owned assets. Durante’s team sequesters mafia properties, such as vineyards or farms, which are then turned over to local organizations to be transformed into socially useful community centers or projects.

“By now we have learned that this is really the most incisive tool, because taking assets away from mafiosi means disempowering them,” Durante said. Since 1992, the national office has confiscated more than 147 million in mafia assets.

But the SCU has in some ways become more effective than Italy’s other mafia groups in inserting itself into the local community and gaining social acceptance. In recent years, it generally avoided headline-grabbing acts of violence in favor of more nuanced forms of intimidation.

“Organized crime is still organized, in the sense that it enjoys a certain consensus in Italy," said Sabrina Matrangola, whose mother, a local politician, was killed by the mob in 1984 after she campaigned to preserve a coastal park from illicit development.

"And as long as there is this consensus, as long as not everyone chooses the right side, and someone will not be willing to roll up their sleeves to help, these places will always be in danger,” said Matrangola, who now works as an activist with the group Libera, which converts mob assets to serve the community.

For those who challenge it, danger persists.

Two weeks after Mariano sent out her arrest warrants for a mob crackdown dubbed “Operation Wolf,” the lead prosecutor on the case, Carmen Ruggiero, nearly had her throat slit by one of the suspects.

Pancrazio Carrino, one of the 22 people named in the warrant, had signaled his desire to collaborate with Ruggiero’s investigation. But when Ruggiero showed up to interrogate him in the Lecce prison, he had other plans: He had chiseled a knife out of a porcelain toilet bowl in his prison cell and hid it in a small black plastic bag in his rectum, planning to “cut her jugular” during the meeting, according to court documents.

“If I had been as lucid that day as I am now,” Carrino later told investigators, “Carmen Ruggiero would already be history.”

In the end, a suspicious guard searched him before he could strike and found the makeshift knife.

Sevens months after the threat, Ruggiero walked confidently into the Lecce prison courtroom for a recent hearing in the case, accompanied by a three-officer police escort.

She has remained undeterred by the death threats, as have the other women who have challenged SCU’s power. But they have had to take precautions, including with around-the-clock security.

Mastrogiovanni, the journalist, moved her young family out of her hometown after her reports on her blog “Il Tacco D’Italia” about SCU's infiltration so angered the local government that at one point, the town was plastered with giant posters attacking her work. One depicted her up to her neck in a hole.

According to the patriarchal culture of the SCU, “a woman shouldn’t have a voice,” all the more if she uses it to write about the mafia, she said.

Mariano, the judge, also lives with around-the-clock police escorts but believes that her job challenging the SCU goes beyond the halls of the courtroom. In her downtime, Mariano uses her passion for writing books, poetry and plays to try to change attitudes at the grassroots level. Recently, she staged a play about the mob in Lecce’s Apollo Theater.

“We have to start with communication, which is fundamental to transmit values of dignity, courage, responsibility," she said. “The ability to say no, the ability to be indignant in the face of things that are wrong.”