Cristina Pinto winces when a loud motorcycle zips by the bar overlooking the small walled port of Pozzuoli, just north of Naples, where she is enjoying an espresso and a Winston smoke in the warm autumn sun.
"There was a time when I heard big motorcycles, I would hide," she says.
Back then, in the late 1980s and early '90s, in gangland Naples, motorcycles could be instruments of death. The gangsters of rival families of the Camorra – the Naples-area Mafia – would use them on raids, zooming away after blasting their victims with pistols.
Ms. Pinto would know. She was trained in armed ambushes, and did them well – the lone female and leader of a six-thug squad that essentially worked as the praetorian guard of Mario Perrella, one of the most powerful Camorra bosses at the time. The squad's crimes ranged from break-ins and payment collection from cocaine sales to the illegal disposal of toxic waste and the elimination of Camorra rivals.
"We used to ride these motorcycles when we went out to shoot," she says, her eyes lighting up. "It was pure adrenaline for me."
She is legendary not only for having been violent, but also because she represented a new era in the development of crime families throughout Italy – the rise of the female Mafiosi, or Godmothers as they are often called. While Ms. Pinto never considered herself a true "boss," there is no doubt she was a powerful woman in the Perrella crime family, which made her both feared and respected among rival families.
Her audacity and efficiency earned her the nicknames "Lady Camorra" and "Nikita," after Luc Besson's 1990 film about a glamorous though tortured female assassin. It was all over for Ms. Pinto by the time she was 22. On June 18, 1992, when she was trying to go into hiding, she was arrested carrying her three-year-old daughter, Elena, and a suitcase.
Ms. Pinto was sentenced to 30 years in prison and emerged after 23 years (she was never convicted of murder). She is now 47 and has found an unlikely second career fishing.
Since Ms. Pinto went to prison, women Mafiosi have proliferated, in good part because so many of their Mafiosi men have been arrested in the great Mafia crackdown in recent years, or killed in internecine turf wars. The women are taking over the men's jobs, becoming bosses in their own right. A few became hugely successful and some were – and are – notoriously savage.
But Ms. Pinto finds the new generation of women bosses and street fighters, at least those in the Naples area, repellent.
"Until a few years ago, these women were at home, cooking macaroni and spaghetti, taking care of their children, and then, suddenly, being called upon to replace their husbands," she says. "Overnight, they have all this power and they're not used to it. They started too many wars in Naples. It was like giving guns to babies."
"I am a woman, but only on the outside"
Prosecutors in Naples estimate the number of Camorra women is 10 times higher than it was in the 1980s or '90s. They know because more of them are getting arrested – or killed – as they rise to positions of power.
One of the highest-profile female bosses was Nunzia D'Amico, a mother of five who poured buckets of cocaine into Naples, and ordered beatings and murders, from her base in the decayed Ponticelli area in the city's eastern suburbs. She became a boss after the arrest of her brothers, Salvatore, Giuseppe and Antonio, who had been the hard men of the D'Amico crime family.
"I'm not a man, I am a woman, but only on the outside," she would say, according to other Camorra bosses. "Inside, I'm more man than you. And here, in Naples, I rule."
Ms. D'Amico ruled her Neapolitan empire until Oct. 10, 2015. That day, in broad daylight, within metres of her apartment on Via Flauto Magico – Magic Flute Street – a man with a hood pulled over his head shot her twice in the abdomen and twice in the neck. Blood splattered the pram where her baby slept. The Godmother, who was 37, was killed like a true Godfather.
There was a time when Mafia women, in their subservient roles, were considered off-limits, all the more so if they had young children. That era is over. The rules of the Mafia game say that those who kill get killed, a ritual that can lead to ever-widening wars of retaliation. Traditionally, it was the men who killed. But since so many of them are out of commission, the homicidal are increasingly their wives, sisters and daughters.
While women bosses ceased being novelties more than 20 years ago, there is no doubt their numbers are rising. The Italian Ministry of Justice says more than 150 Mafia women are now locked up in Italian prisons, a record high. Almost all of them had leadership roles in Italy's various regional Mafia strongholds: the Camorra in Naples; the Cosa Nostra in Sicily; the 'Ndrangheta in Calabria, in the toe of Italy; and the Sacra Corona Unita in Apulia, the country's heel.
Teresa Principato, an anti-Mafia prosecutor in Palermo, used her 1997 book Mafia Women: The Sacred Vestals of Honour to offer one of the first glimpses of the rise of women bosses.
"Even the Mafia is subject to social change," Ms. Principato says in an interview. "It is clear that the changes produced by the process of emancipation of women has also affected the criminal world. Just as today's women have gained more rights in the work place, so have the clan women gained greater authority within their organization even if they are still subject to strong social and cultural limitations."
But Ms. Principato, other prosecutors, criminal-defence attorneys and former Mafiosi say it would be wrong to describe the new breed of women bosses as feminists who broke through Italy's thick glass ceiling. All, or virtually all, were pushed into their Mafia leadership roles after their men were removed from the game.
"All of the women bosses that I know of had husbands, brothers or fathers who were bosses," says Pietro Ioia, 56, a former Camorrista who was a liaison man with Colombian drug barons and is now a prisoner-rights activist and actor in Naples. "You had to be part of a crime family to become a woman boss."
From strict domesticity to front-line crime bosses
Traditionally, women in Mafia families played background roles in a culture characterized by deep male machismo. They were submissive to the wills of their husbands. They cooked, raised the children, spent the illicit fortunes, were not allowed to divorce or have lovers if their husbands were in jail and endured a sort of medieval sexual code. According to conversations between mobsters intercepted by the police, the Mafia rules dictated that "the man must never lie beneath a woman during sexual intercourse." As for oral sex, "It is okay to receive it, but never to give it to a woman."
Rosalba Di Gregorio, the Palermo attorney who represented Bernardo Provenzano, the suspected "boss of all bosses" of the Sicilian Cosa Nostra who died as a prisoner in July, says "the women were out of criminal activity in the old era. They were women who saw nothing. They were in charge of the family."
As more of their men got hauled away by the police, their roles began to change, though they were still largely wives and mothers. "Women were reliable, unsuspected and could evade police checks easier," says Alessandra Ziniti, the justice writer in Palermo for the Italian national newspaper La Repubblica. "Above all, many of them were the only ones allowed to visit their relatives in prison, playing a vital role in enabling detainee bosses to communicate with the outside world."
Still, almost none of the women at the time made the transition to crime bosses.
As evidence, Ms. Di Gregorio cites the famous Maxi trial, one of the biggest mass trials in Europe of the last century. The trial, which began in 1986 and finished in 1992, was held in a specially built bunker courthouse in Palermo and saw the convictions of most of the 475 Mafiosi who had been indicted. Not one of them was a woman.
Still, the stage was being set for the era of women bosses before the Maxi trial. In the 1980s, hundreds of Mafiosi were killed as the powerful clan in Corleone – the Sicilian birthplace of the characters in Francis Ford Coppola's film The Godfather – launched a power grab across the island.
Public revulsion with the endless murders triggered a Mafia crackdown that resulted in the Maxi trial. Between the Mafia wars and the trial, crime families across Sicily lost their male leaders.
The crackdown didn't let up after the Maxi trial. The Mafia-ordered murders in Sicily in 1992 of prosecuting magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borselino unleashed another wave of arrests, turning the old Cosa Nostra into a vastly diminished force. By the 1990s, the Mafia women, some reluctantly, some with alacrity, took their men's jobs.
"We disown her whether she's living or dead"
Francesca Mazzocco, a Palermo prosecutor who has been involved in the arrests of four Mafia women, estimates that some 20 Cosa Nostra families operate in the main Sicilian cities and towns. She says each has about 50 members and that about a third of those families are either led by women or include women among their most powerful members. "If the husband was very strong, then the woman gets more respect," Ms. Mazzocco says.
Among Sicilian Mafia women, it was Giuseppa (Giusy) Vitale who broke new ground. She was the first woman considered the real head of a Sicilian crime family, a "boss in a skirt," to use the sexist Mafiosi language.
Ms. Vitale, now 44, began her Mafia training at age 12, in Partanico, a seaside town just west of Palermo, when she was entrusted to deliver messages to imprisoned Mafiosi relatives. In the late 1990s, after the arrest of her brothers for murder, she took over the crime family. She was arrested in 1998 for Mafia association, released four years later and arrested again in 2003, this time for ordering the murder of another Mafioso.
"Giusy is a woman who sacrificed her femininity to almost become a man, shaped by her brothers in their image and likeness, ruthless and cruel, ready to order a murder with the click of her fingers" says Ms. Ziniti, the journalist.
In 2005, Ms. Vitale became a pentita – a collaborator with justice – and lives under an alias in a secret location. Her turncoat status earned her a death sentence. "We disown her whether she's living or dead," her brother Leonardo said. "And we hope it's the latter, and as quickly as possible."
Her even deadlier equivalent among the Camorra, in Naples, was Anna Maria Licciardi, now 65 and in prison, who was head of the Secondigliano clan. She was known as the "little girl" because of her diminutive stature, and made fortunes from the cocaine trade and from forcing Albanian girls into prostitution.
In 1997, to avenge the death of her nephew, she had 14 rivals killed within a few days. Still not satisfied, she terrorized her surviving enemies by distributing a list of future intended victims around the neighbourhood.
She was arrested in 2001. According to various reports, she is still the head of the clan, allegedly delivering instructions from prison.
"These women are worse than men"
In Pozzuoli, Ms. Pinto – "Nikita" – is adjusting to her post-prison, post-Mafia life with some difficulty. "My life is very quiet and calm now," she says. "But I'm not happy. I still have to solve some problems, private ones."
She doesn't go into details, though it's hard to imagine that this former action junkie is thrilled to be working a 10-metre fishing boat. While she denies that her life as a hit woman was romantic, she admits it was an emotional rush. (Her story forms an episode in the three-part crime series on women of the Camorra that will air in early November in Italy on SkyItalia.)
"When you are part of a clan, you feel big," she says, breaking into a smile. "You can't really call it happiness, but it felt great. I had power.… I had everything I wanted, free. People were kind to me because they feared me."
Ms. Pinto almost vibrates with excitement when she recalls some of her most daring escapades as the leader of a "punitive expeditions" squad, as she calls it.
One time, the clan boss, Mario Perrella, ordered her to kill a drug dealer who had defected to another clan. "I want to read about it in the paper," he told her, meaning he wanted the drug dealer's death to make the news.
"I shot him in the arm and leg, but he didn't die," Ms. Pinto says. "I was 21 years old.… I was a woman of the Camorra, a first-line Camorrista. I was trained like a soldier."
In August, 1991, she almost got killed. Gang rivals found her in her mother's little red Fiat Uno and sprayed the car with bullets from a Kalashnikov automatic rifle.
"They destroyed the car," she says. "I lay under the seat and prayed. I got out of the car while they were still shooting at me. I saw a man I knew passing by in a car. I opened the car door, grabbed the hair of the two women in the car, kicked them out and jumped in. I took the gun and pointed it at his head and said, 'Go! Now!' After that, we went to celebrate because we were still alive."
Today, she says she lives for her daughter, Elena, whom she barely saw during her 23 years in prison.
Ms. Pinto knows the Camorra won't turn gentler now that so many women have risen to the top.
"In Naples, we say, 'The bosses gave their balls to their wives,' " she says. "Now the power is in the hands of the women mobsters. These women are worse than men. They order murders just like that, not even thinking about the consequences. They are violent and irrational. Money and power make them crazy."
Second act for a mobster: thespian and playwright
Former Mafioso Pietro Ioia can claim one of the more unlikely career re-inventions. The one-time money man between the Naples Mafia, known as the Camorra, and Colombian drug syndicates, now calls himself an actor.
To prove the point, he flips open his Italian identity card and, there it is, under occupation: "Attore."
Mr. Ioia, who is 56 and served 22 years in prison – he was released in 2006 – inspired, co-wrote and is one of the actors in Below Zero: The Death and Rebirth of a Man in a Cage. The play opened in Naples in January and is running again now.
Zero refers to an infamous cell in Naples's Poggioreale prison, the most overcrowded jail in Europe, according to the European Parliament. The cell had no number, no windows, no video surveillance and was officially an isolation room. Unofficially, it was a torture chamber where inmates were beaten. Mr. Ioia claims he was one of them.
Also a prisoner-rights activist, he believes the publicity he generated about cell Zero triggered the recent investigation – which is ongoing – by the Naples prosecutor's office into possible human-rights abuses at Poggioreale. "I'm really proud of this," he says.
Mr. Ioia seems the model former Mafioso. He did not slip back into a life of crime, as so many ex-gangsters do when released from prison. Through a charity called Ex D.O.N., he helps young men find legitimate post-prison jobs "so they don't get sucked back into the Camorra." He knows a lot of former Mafiosi, including Cristina Pinto, the former Camorra gunslinger known as Nikita, and gives them advice on how to rebuild their lives.
In the early 1980s, Mr. Ioia and a woman he calls Patrizia made 40 trips from Europe to Colombia. Their job was to pay the Colombian narcos for cocaine that was shipped to Italy. Mr. Ioia and Patrizia did not actually transport the cocaine; he suspects airline pilots did it.
For a few years, he lived like a playboy prince. "I had a beautiful life – money, women, cars, motorcycles, clothes," he says. "I bought four apartments and drove a Lamborghini. But I didn't have a gun and didn't kill anyone."
Today, Mr. Ioia's life could not be more different. His clothes are simple and he drives a beat-up scooter. To subsidize his acting and Ex D.O.N. activities, he works three nights a week at his uncle's clothing market. "Still, I'm happier now than I was in the 1980s," he says.
– Eric Reguly