They say it's a family business, but traditionally women in the Italian mafia were prison messengers or bargaining chips in dynasty marriages to create alliances between clans.
Now as male mob bosses languish in jail, mafiosas are increasingly stepping up to head crime families - and getting caught in the process.
After seven years behind bars, one such godmother - Maria Angela Di Trapani - was freed from prison in 2015 and for the last two years has allegedly been quietly moving up through the secretive, male-dominated ranks of Sicily's Cosa Nostra.
On Tuesday, the 49-year-old wife of notorious boss Salvino Madonia was among 25 people arrested in a sweeping Palermo raid, accused once again of mafia crimes, including orchestrating bold intimidation tactics to scare business owners into paying a feared mafia tax known as the pizzo.
“She operates like a man,” various mob bosses were recorded saying in prison about Di Trapani - the ultimate compliment in the man-of-honour hyper macho world of Cosa Nostra, which always gave an important role to women behind the scenes, but rarely officially.
Investigators say one popular cake shop in Palermo paid €5000 in extortion money. Another bar in a well-known central square named after Pope John Paul II paid €750 at Easter, and again at Christmas. A bustling pizzeria shelled out €3000.
“I'll never forget the look she gave me from her balcony when she called out to me, warning me to be careful what I said,” said one businesswoman in Di Trapani’s neighbourhood. “Her eyes were like ice.”
The Resuttana clan paid visits to tyre shops, local gyms, and some shopkeepers who didn’t pay went to work the next morning to find their rolldown storefront gates superglued shut or set alight.
This apparent increase in equal opportunities is a sign the mob is weakening, says John Dickie, professor of Italian Studies at University College London and author of several bestselling books about organised crime.
About Italian Mafias
“It is actually a symptom of crisis that we are seeing more women in Cosa Nostra,” he says. “It is an attempt to shore up the organisation in trouble, they are the avatars of the men – the wives and sisters of particularly fearsome or prestigious bosses, but they wouldn’t be doing it if loads of men weren’t in jail.”
A crackdown on organised crime over the last three decades has failed to take down the mafia, but has effectively put a generation of bosses behind bars.
Some of them are dying there, including two of the top Godfathers from the Corleone faction, Bernardo Provenzano, who died of cancer in 2016 while serving time in a Milan prison, and Salvatore “Toto’ Riina” who died of cancer last month while imprisoned in Parma.
The day after he died, Riina’s daughter changed her Facebook profile picture to a woman with her finger to her lips and the message “shhh.”
Investigators said this week that Di Trapani was involved in the reshuffling going on between clans loyal to the Corleonesi in the wake of Riina’s death.
“Since many of the male bosses are in prison, the women, who know everything that is happening in the mafia families, are not only the connection between the bosses in prison and the outside world, but are increasingly filling the gaps and doing what their husbands, brothers or fathers did,” said Italian journalist and mafia expert Attilio Bolzoni on RepubblicaTV.
The younger sister of the Graviano brothers, Filippo and Giuseppe, has gained influence for her capacity to quickly and effectively move large amounts of money, even though both boss brothers are in prison.
Those who aren’t caught, like Italy’s most wanted fugitive Matteo Messina Denaro – often turn to the women in their families for help hiding.
Messina Denaro’s sister, Patrizia, took over several roles in his absence and was among the few who knew how to find him, until she too, landed in jail, where she remains today, still silent about her brother’s whereabouts.