Tears and Thrillers – the Summer School on Mafia and Women in Milan conveys new knowledge


It can happen that you listen to a prosecutor’s account of her trying to stop a cooperating witness on her way to doom and the vehicle seems to pass through every road barrier unnoticed, and all she had at her disposal was a GPS signal. No car type, no eavesdropping, just a dot on the screen.

You may wonder why it is better not to see women in mafia clans as victims, but rather to consider factors that make them particularly vulnerable, because weakness arises from victim status, but vulnerability can be a resource of strength.

It also happens that you – and almost everyone else in the course, including the professors – are moved to tears by a play and feel the power of words. And it can happen that after a week and a total of 40 hours of teaching, the highest Italian anti-Mafia prosecutor will personally present you with your diploma. The Summer School at the University of Milan on several topics of organized crime is without a doubt something special. Participating in it, if you speak Italian, is a great privilege.

But if you come from Germany, it also leaves you a little sad. About the fact that there is no such event in Germany, which is aimed equally at a professional and a public audience. And of course, the old and still urgent story that the topic of organized crime and the mafia in Italy is receiving the attention and support that one seeks in vain in Germany. For the ninth time, the University of Milan organized this seminar. This year the topic was Mafia and Women, and it also saw the participation of the Italian anti-Mafia organisation Libera. On the university side, the programme was designed by three professors: Nando dalla Chiesa, Monica Massari and Ombretta Ingrascì and CROSS (Research Institute on Organized Crime). They are all researching the mafia and organized crime – which alone shows how far ahead Italy is in this regard. One of the organisers is also Sarah Mazzenzana, a former mafianeindanke volunteer. This year there were around 40 permanent participants: policemen and policewomen, public prosecutors, students, teachers, seniors and interested citizens. One participant came all the way from Washington.

It is difficult to summarize a week so rich in impressions and insights. One possible conclusion is that the male view on women in organized crime made a comprehensive view of the phenomenon virtually impossible. On a broad scale, the vision on clans as pure male entities still prevails. In fact, women play significant roles in all important organisations in Italy (‘ndrangheta, Cosa Nostra, Camorra and the smaller groups).

The Neapolitan Camorra, which sees itself as the most “progressive” organization, has experienced female bosses. Even the example of a trans woman leading a group is documented. Various interviews with female witnesses have also shown that the importance of women is far greater than just raising children and passing on the (dis)values of the mafia. It is also true, however, that within the Calabrian ‘ndrangheta it is significant for the clans to keep women under as much control as possible, precisely because their function is so central for the clans – even if they are not formally allowed to become members and thus do not assume an official function. For example, when Giusy Pesce became a cooperating witness and changed sides, the opposing clan Bellocco celebrated and mocked that the Pesce obviously could not keep their women under control.

Clan’s women often take on service functions as lawyers or financial administrators and accountants. This helps to understand the ‘ndrangheta not as a monolithic block, but as a network of different clans who do not all maintain the same rules and procedural patterns.

In the Summer School, however, the focus was not only on the women of the mafia, but also on those who fought it. Some were actually present, such as the prosecutors Alessandra Cerreti and Alessandra Dolci. Listening their experiences with key witnesses was exciting, shocking and enlightening. Their stories resembled a thriller – only with female leading roles. Female dropouts also had their say: the stage director Mimmo Sorrentino, for example, reported on how his plays were created. He works in maximum security prisons with confined mafia women. He gets to know their matters by asking them to tell the story of their fellow prisoners. Only this trick makes it possible to deal with one’s own life. Two women who played in his dramas reported how impressive this can be. One of the actresses told how she fell in love with a young man, a high-ranking mafioso from a well-known family. It is also testimonies like these that not only deepen the knowledge on organized crime, but also make it vivid.

The support of the Summer School by the highest authorities was surprising. Giuseppe Sala, the mayor of Milan, came to the opening and announced that the municipality would support the tenth edition of the Summer School in the coming year. Italy’s highest anti-Mafia prosecutor Federico Cafiero de Raho personally handed over testimonies at the end, along with many other important people.