Cop, judge, journalist, activist, prosecutor, volunteer: Women challenge the mafia in Italy鈥檚 Puglia

Puglia is where the leaders of the G7 nations will gather in a few days for their annual meeting. Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni will be eager to show off the region known for its olive groves, its 鈥渢rulli鈥, white-washed houses with cone-shaped roofs, and spectacular coastline.


A remarkable group of women is challenging the power structures of the Sacra Corona Unita, Italy鈥檚 fourth main organized crime group that operates in southern Puglia, the heel of Italy鈥檚 boot.

They are doing it at great personal risk, arresting and prosecuting clan members, exposing their crimes and confiscating their businesses, all while working to change local attitudes.

Here is a look at some of these women:

Carla Durante

Durante heads of the Lecce office of the Direzione Investigativa Anti-Mafia, Italy鈥檚 inter-agency anti-mafia police force, but her rise in the ranks was met with obstacles from the start.

When she told her high school Latin teacher that she wanted to become a police officer, the response was typical of the macho ethos of southern Italy at the time: 鈥淗ow vulgar.鈥

The reception wasn鈥檛 much better in Durante鈥檚 first job, as a cop in a small mountain town in southern Calabria that was dominated by the 鈥檔drangheta mafia. The locals in Taurianova were hostile to all law enforcement officers and were not afraid to show it.

For example?

鈥淲hen they torched my car,鈥 she says matter-of-factly.

Now back home, Durante is battling the local Sacra Corona Unita mafia, and hitting its leaders where it hurts most: confiscating their ostentatious properties, farms and front companies used to launder drug trafficking profits.

鈥淲e have learned that this is really the most incisive tool, because taking assets away from mafiosi means disempowering them,鈥 she says.


Maril霉 Mastrogiovanni

Mastrogiovanni is an investigative journalist and journalism professor at the University of Bari. She has reported extensively on the infiltration of the Sacra Corona Unita mafia in local Puglia communities and public administrations for her blog 鈥淚l Tacco d鈥橧talia.鈥

Her reports so angered the local government in her hometown that at one point, the town was plastered with giant posters attacking her work, one of them depicting her up to her neck in a hole. After various threats, she was put under police escort and eventually decided to move her family out of town.

According to the patriarchal culture of the Sacra Corona Unita, 鈥渁 woman shouldn鈥檛 have a voice,鈥 all the more if she uses it to write about the mafia, she said.

Is she afraid?

鈥淚 don鈥檛 believe those who say they aren鈥檛 afraid. It is not true,鈥 she says. 鈥淐ourage is going forward in spite of fear.鈥


Rosanna Picoco

Picoco volunteers for the anti-mafia group Libera, activism that was inspired by a childhood event.

When she was in elementary school near Lecce, three bombs exploded in her school one night. Local store owners had created the first anti-racketing association in town, refusing to pay off local mobsters, and the bombs were a clear warning from the Sacra Corona Unita that their children were at risk.

But instead of backing down, the parents did something remarkable that stayed with Picoco forever.

鈥淭he next morning our parents 鈥 all of them 鈥 accompanied us to school,鈥 she recalls. 鈥淚n the whole town, no one remained silent, and I think this has always marked me: The importance of not turning away, of being on the side of being active citizens.鈥

Picoco now volunteers with Libera, a national network of anti-mafia associations that, among other things, takes legal possession of confiscated mafia assets and turns them into socially useful projects and products.

At a Libera store in Mesagne, the Puglia town where the Sacra Corona Unita was founded, Picoco sells wine made from grapes grown in vineyards confiscated from the mafia. The bottles bear the names of mafia victims.


Maria Francesca Mariano

Mariano is the preliminary investigations judge at the Tribunal of Lecce. At the age of 24, she became the youngest woman judge in Italy. Now 55, she lives under a 24-hour police escort.

In July 2023, she issued arrest warrants for 22 members of the Lamendola clan of the Sacra Corona Unita organized crime group, on accusations of mafia association, drug trafficking and other charges.

Then, in October, she began receiving letters written in blood with death threats and satanic messages. On Feb. 1, a bloody goat head skewered with a butcher鈥檚 knife was left on her doorstep with a note reading, 鈥渓ike this.鈥

Police added a bullet-proof car to her security apparatus.

She still has her day job as a judge but in her down time, Mariano writes books, plays and poetry about the mafia in Puglia.

鈥淭he mafia has social consensus,鈥 she says. 鈥淚f we want to disassociate the phenomenon of organized crime, it is not enough to work in a courtroom. We have to start with the people.鈥


Carmen Ruggiero

Ruggiero is a Lecce prosecutor. She leads a prosecution team in the case of 鈥淥peration Wolf鈥 against the 22 defendants from the Lamendola clan of the Sacra Corona Unita.

She has not relented in her efforts following threats on her life but now appears in the Lecce prison courtroom accompanied by a three-man police escort.

Shortly after Judge Mariano sent out her arrest warrants, Ruggiero went to the Lecce prison to question one of the defendants who had signaled his desire to collaborate.

Instead, Pancrazio Carrino 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 鈥渃ut her jugular鈥 during the meeting, according to court documents following the incident.

Carrino told investigators he had asked to use the bathroom so he could retrieve the makeshift knife and hide it in his underwear until he could strike. But a suspicious police officer searched him when he came out and took it away.

鈥淚f I had been as lucid that day as I am now,鈥 Carrino said later, 鈥淐armen Ruggiero would already be history.鈥

Ruggiero declined to be interviewed, saying her work speaks for itself.


Sabrina Matrangelo

A daughter of a mafia victim, Matrangelo is now a Libera activist. She was 15 when her mother, Renata Fonte, was assassinated as she came home from a city council meeting in the Puglia town of Nard貌.

Fonte, a city councillor for culture, had become a vocal anti-mafia spokeswoman as she tried to protect 1,000 hectares of parkland along the Puglia coastline from illegal development.

Mobsters fired three bullets and killed her, but her legacy lives on: Thanks to her efforts 鈥 and the outrage that erupted after her killing 鈥 the park remains a protected area and Fonte鈥檚 daughter, Matrangelo, has taken up her cause.

鈥淭hese places will always be in danger,鈥 Matrangelo said from a lookout point above the sea in the Porto Selvaggio Nature Reserve.

鈥淎nd so the battles of those who shed blood for these civil struggles must walk on our legs, must be perpetuated by our everyday courage,鈥 she said.