NAPLES, Italy — They go by such nicknames as "Fat Cat" and "Tomboy." Their simmering power struggles once drove them into the streets, guns blazing. They rule their crime families with steely determination, and also raise the kids and stir the pasta.
Move over, Don Corleone. Godmothers are rising in the ranks of the Camorra, the Naples' area crime syndicate.
Women have long played a strong role in Camorra crime families, muscling, sometimes murdering, their way to the top. Their influence stretches back as far as the 1950s when a pregnant former beauty queen dubbed "pupetta" (little doll) shot dead the man who had ordered a hit on her husband, and allegedly settled into a life of crime.
Now, as the state steps up its war against the Camorra, rounding up scores of mobsters, the women are increasingly taking over the helm from their men.
"There is a growing number of women who hold executive roles" in the Camorra, Gen. Gaetano Maruccia, commander of the Carabinieri paramilitary police in the Naples area, told The Associated Press.
"They are either widows (of mob bosses) or wives of husbands who have been put in prison. They hold the reins."
Mothers, daughters, sisters and sisters-in-law are "assuming ever-more leading roles," Stefania Castaldi, a Naples-based prosecutor who investigates organized crime, said in an interview.
This family dimension of the Camorra finds its echo in mainstream Italian society — a family often will entrust its business to a woman relative rather than an outsider.
Camorra women still perform the more "traditional" roles of cutting and repackaging cocaine and heroin in their kitchens or tidying up the hideouts of fugitive bosses, but others are wielding power on the streets. They shake down merchants in extortion rackets and increasingly direct drug trafficking worth millions of dollars, Castaldi said.
In one of the most lurid episodes, in 2002, two carloads of women from rival Camorra clans lurched through the streets of Lauro, a town near Naples, first trading insults, and then machine-gun fire and pistol shots until two grandmothers and a 16-year-old girl were dead. The root of the bloodshed: a turf war fueled by the murder of a clan boss' cousin.
Some of the Camorra "godmothers" rank right up there with the men in commanding clout and obedience, authorities say.
Among them is Maria Licciardi, one of the victors of the long-running blood feud between the Di Lauro and Secondigliano Alliance that left Naples littered nearly daily with bodies a few years back.
"Signora Licciardi is a true 'madrina' (godmother), absolutely," said Castaldi. "She was the sister of a boss, and she sat at the table with other bosses, she made decisions with them, she was right at their level."
Authorities are now investigating whether one of those decisions was an order to execute as many as 30 of her rivals, say investigators, speaking on condition of anonymity because Italian law prohibits officials from discussing ongoing probes.
Licciardi, a petite woman known by cohorts and enemies alike as 'a piccirella" (the little one), was arrested in 2001 after she was stopped while driving her car near Naples. On the run since 1999, Licciardi at the time figured on the list of Italy's top-30 wanted criminals.
She is one of a handful of female mobsters who are considered so top-level they are held in Italy's stiffest prison regime, which includes isolation and severely limited contact with the outside world.
"She's in prison, but she still commands. Prisons don't represent a barrier" for the Camorra, said Anna Maria Zaccaria, a sociologist at Naples Federico II University who is researching women's roles in the syndicate.
Licciardi is widely considered an able manager, particularly valued for her "powers of persuasion," Zaccaria said in an interview. Dangling promises of cash, she is believed to have managed to persuade some Camorra mobsters who were contemplating becoming turncoats to stay loyal to the clan, the professor said.
For generations, when such mobsters were arrested, mothers and wives would descend screaming into Naples' chaotic streets, throwing insults and sometimes punches at police arresting their men. But as investigators increasingly regard women as significant Camorra figures, handcuffs have been snapping shut around their wrists, too.
"They are ... as cocky as the men" when arrested, said Maruccia, the Carabinieri commander.
In July, Carabinieri swept up 11 women for drug trafficking in a raid on Naples' Sarno crime clan. In another blitz, a mother and her two grown daughters were arrested on organized-crime charges, including extortion.
The emergence of strong Camorra women has deep roots in Naples society.
"The Camorra woman follows the model of the Neapolitan woman" in the matriarchal Neapolitan society, said Zaccaria. "She is in charge of household spending, the raising of children."
These skills can translate into setting the interest rates for loan-sharking or doling out weekly payments to neighborhood kids to watch out for police raids.
Raising offspring means steeping children in a life of crime and arranging marriages of sons and daughters to spin a web of new or stronger ties with potentially rival clans. "They're very determined, very good at mapping out strategy, even sharper" than their men, Maruccia said in a telephone interview.
Assunta "Pupetta" Maresca — who carried out her 1955 vendetta with a Smith & Wesson and gave birth to her son in prison — allegedly pursued a long life of crime after her release from prison in the 1960s.
Aspiring male Camorristi must undergo a rite of passage — often carrying out a boss' order to kill or maim a rival, investigators say. Zaccaria said no such "requirement" applies to female bosses. Still, "they eliminate their enemies, their rivals, in a merciless way." said Zaccaria.
Even when the Camorra woman doesn't pack a pistol, they seem to pump their offspring with pride for bloody deeds which further their crime family's prestige.
Take Concetta Prestieri, matriarch of a family in the long-powerful Di Lauro clan. A son-turned-informant told investigators how, in 1981, the clan eliminated a rival by "bringing him into a basement, torturing him, killing him and cutting him into pieces," said Castaldi, the Naples prosecutor.
After the killing, the participants gathered around the table in Prestieri's kitchen.
"All the while, as they recounted the deed, the signora cooked up some spaghetti and served it at the table," Castaldi said.
After bomb blasts in Sicily in 1992 killed two leading anti-Mafia prosecutors, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, Italy stiffened its laws against top mobsters. One measure limited prison visits to family members, and Camorra women have used that to their advantage.
"Most of the bosses choose to see their wives," said Castaldi. "The women are the ones who most transmit the orders of the clan chieftain. She becomes the continuity between inside the prison and the outside" world, enhancing her prestige.
Imprisoned mob bosses are known to communicate their orders to visiting family with gestures, code words, even facial expressions.
Admiration — and perhaps fear — for these godmothers is reflected in their nicknames. One woman, shot in the face in a power struggle, goes by the moniker "a' masculona," or tomboy, while another, wounded in the shoulder in a turf war, is known as "la gattona," meaning fat she-cat.
While Camorra women seem to have no limits in their ascent to power, the women in Sicily's Cosa Nostra's apparently don't enjoy the same possibilities.
A Milan-based historian, Ombretta Ingrasci, author of a book about women in the Sicilian Mafia, speaks of a "glass ceiling," possibly because unlike the family-based Camorra, Cosa Nostra's organization is essentially a men's club which seeks its members not based on blood ties.
But does that mean Camorra women can be considered "liberated?"
In one key sense, sociologist Zaccaria thinks not.
"The code of the Camorra permits the boss to have all the lovers he wants, even publicly, because it reinforces his strength," she said. "The Camorra woman, in contrast, cannot betray him."