Women stand by, and stand up to, Italian mobsters

Times Staff Writer

The hardened women of San Luca want you to know a thing or two about their notorious town. Not everyone belongs to the mob, they will tell you. And many who do are driven to it by poverty and neglect.

It’s a tough sell, no doubt. San Luca, a remote hilltop town in southern Italy, is the ancestral home and principal headquarters of a criminal organization that has emerged as the country’s most powerful and dangerous mafia, the ‘Ndrangheta.

The women here have always had a complex role in the dynamics of an insular society that seems to exist at the margins of mainstream Italy. They are the mothers of the mobsters, their wives and, prosecutors say, often their accomplices. Fiercely protective of their brood, they can be as ruthless as their men. In the last year, it also appears that some San Luca women have served as a counterforce to the violence spiraling from internal feuds.


The Times recently was given a rare glimpse of the life of a San Luca family and the strong women who run it. Saveria Giorgi and her adult daughter, Teresa Giampaolo, insist that they are not part of the ‘Ndrangheta (pronounced en-DRAHN-geh-tah), and their small home does not reflect any of the drug wealth typical of the hard-core mafiosi. Furniture is sparse and worn; there are no fancy appliances.

Yet, San Luca is a town of interconnected clans, and there is no one who cannot claim a mobster among his or her relatives. In virtually every family, someone has been imprisoned or killed.

“Journalists always speak badly of San Luca,” Giorgi, a stocky, weathered woman in her 60s, told two visitors over a lunch of soft pasta and dried basil picked from the family’s fields.

“Anything that happens, the blame ends up here,” complained her daughter, Giampaolo.

San Luca, a town of about 4,500 people, is a jumbled collection of houses in various stages of construction scattered over several hills. It is surrounded by olive groves, cactus, pines and a trash dump. The main local job is a kind of minimum-wage forest ranger; that means real employment is elsewhere.

The women raise many children, plant and harvest the crops and guard their homes while the men are often away. Giorgi’s husband, now retired, worked for years in factories in Germany; Giampaolo’s husband is gone for long spells driving a truck all over Italy.

Mother and daughter railed against what they see as the national government’s neglect of southern Italy, which deepens the region’s poverty, unemployment and lack of opportunity. Calabria, the toe-of-the-boot region of Italy where San Luca is located, is the nation’s poorest, on paper at least; the women complained that the only time they see an arm of the government it’s in the form of police rounding up suspected gangsters.


“It is not fair,” said Giampaolo, 34, a short woman with a quick laugh and a mane of black curls. “There are humble, respectful, generous people here. We’d like to see the presence here of the state, and not just the army.”

As the women chatted, and Giorgi’s husband poured beer for the guests, a television news report flashed on-screen, recounting the arrest a few hours earlier of Gianfranco Antonioli, an alleged gun broker for the ‘Ndrangheta who had been on the lam for a year.

Smiles vanished. Conversation hushed. The family exchanged glances. Nothing more was said. When someone tried to raise again the topic of the ‘Ndrangheta, lunch was abruptly over. It was time to move on. The women, who never uttered the word “ ‘Ndrangheta,” were worried neighbors would overhear.

San Luca sits on the edge of the densely forested Aspromonte mountain range, a favorite spot of the ‘Ndrangheta for hiding its kidnapping victims in the 1970s and ‘80s. The organization has existed in some form for more than a century, evolving as a protection racket after World War II and then graduating to drug trafficking a decade or so ago. The ‘Ndrangheta developed a multibillion-dollar enterprise in the last few years when it took over cocaine routes from Latin America to Europe, the fastest-growing market for illicit narcotics.

This region is like few others. The minute a stranger enters San Luca, a kind of silent alarm is sounded. Outsiders will be followed, their movements tracked. The people have their own body language, not to mention their own actual language: All speak a Calabrian dialect. An Italian speaker unfamiliar with the dialect will grasp only parts of a conversation.

San Luca gained international notoriety last year when six Italians were gunned down outside a pizzeria in Duisburg, Germany. Authorities called it a revenge hit in an escalating ‘Ndrangheta feud. Three of the dead, including a 16-year-old boy, were from San Luca, and the others from nearby Calabrian towns.


The killings -- the most public evidence to date of the international reach of the ‘Ndrangheta -- shocked Italians and unleashed fears of further violence. But more than a year later, no one else has been killed, and the credit, at least partially, goes to a woman.

Teresa Strangio is the mother of the slain teenager, and one of her brothers was killed in the same shooting. At a tense funeral for the Duisburg dead in San Luca in August 2007, instead of demanding revenge, as many mothers and wives had, Strangio insisted on forgiveness. It was a remarkable moment that broke a pattern and illustrated the singular influence of women in this society.

“She made a choice, she made it in the flesh, and other mothers followed her,” said Father Giuseppe Strangio, the parish priest in San Luca.

Diego Trotta, a senior police investigator in Calabria who has led many operations against the ‘Ndrangheta, thinks reprisals have only been delayed, not canceled. Any relative peace, he said, is thanks to scores of arrests in the last year. Trotta said the women of San Luca may have influence, but they do not really call the shots; they are more victims than movers of their circumstances.

In government wiretaps of alleged ‘Ndrangheta telephone communications, mothers tell their sons when the coast is clear and it’s safe to return to San Luca, according to court documents made available to The Times. In other calls, they calmly but obliquely discuss a pending operation, or can be heard weeping over the shooting death of one of their kin.

The women of San Luca are for the most part locked into a certain fate. They are married off to other families within the clans to seal the impervious unity of the ‘Ndrangheta. Only in the last decade or so did San Luca families allow their daughters to go to high school.


“They are extraordinary women who have lived under great pressure for years,” said Rosy Canale, a businesswoman and volunteer social worker in Calabria. “They know they are destined to suffer, even if it is in silence. They grow up sliding into this mentality.”

Still, Canale said, the women are the engine of the family, and that gives them power. A mother can keep her children out of the mob; she can also give subtle approval to a hit or relay intelligence to the gangsters.

“Their power may not be recognized, but it’s there,” Canale said. “If a woman says no in a house, then 80% it will be no.”

Though not from San Luca, Canale is trying to organize the town’s women into a sewing collective to give them independence. She formed the San Luca Women’s Movement and said about 300 have joined. For her efforts, her car was burned, she’s been threatened and she’s afraid to spend much time in San Luca, Canale said.

Giorgi and Giampaolo are members of the collective. Giorgi sits behind a giant loom and weaves flax, silk and broom into delicate place mats, table runners and linen towels, most of them given as gifts. It’s a handicraft that has disappeared in most parts of Europe. Giorgi has harvested and hauled the raw materials for a generation, as her dark, calloused hands attest.

The women hope to eventually sell their work outside of San Luca as a way to project a better image of the place and earn a small income.


Giorgi was related to one of the people killed in Duisburg but said she managed to keep her five children away from the clutches of the mafia by showing them prison movies when they were young and warning that was where they would end up.

“And so, we are honest, even though it means we are poor and have very little,” she said.

Her daughter nodded soberly.

“Yes,” she said. “Here, when you are honest, you are nothing.”