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The fugitive's sister and the power of Mafia women

Police arrested Messina Denaro at a health centre, where he had used a false name when he went for treatment. ©AFP

Rome (AFP) - Long considered side players, the key role of women in the Sicilian Mafia was highlighted by the arrest of Matteo Messina Denaro's sister, accused of managing his affairs while the mobster was a fugitive.

Rosalia Messina Denaro was arrested earlier this month not far from Palermo, where her godfather brother was caught on January 16 after 30 years on the run.

She is accused of issuing orders, keeping the books and transmitting secret messages for her sibling while he was in hiding.

For many years, women linked to the Cosa Nostra Mafia seemed born to become widows, portrayed in films as black-veiled Madonnas, leading funeral processions in sorrowful dignity.

The reality is far more complex, with many wives, daughters and sisters playing active roles while their men are on the run, in prison or dead.

"For decades, she was his (her brother's) economic reference point and his most trusted person," Palermo prosecutor Alfredo Montalto wrote in her arrest warrant.

By handling the day-to-day business for her brother, the 67-year-old "allowed Cosa Nostra to keep a strong leader...(who) continued to feed the legend".

However, it was through her that Matteo Messina Denaro, Italy's most wanted criminal, was finally brought to justice.

Secret messages

Rosalia, nicknamed "Rosetta", was in charge of the "pizzini", small handwritten notes passed from hand to hand and containing orders, details on the clan's funds, or personal messages.

One found by investigators included details on money coming in and going out in November 2011, with nearly 82,000 euros left in the family fund after expenses such as legal fees had been paid.

Others were a chance for her brother to vent, with the ruthless mobster claiming in one that "we are persecuted like scoundrels".

Matteo Messina Denaro, who had been sentenced in absentia to life for his part in the slaying of anti-mafia judge Giovanni Falcone in 1992, had given clear instructions: the messages must be burned immediately.

But sometimes his sister hid them instead.

In December 2022, anti-mafia police secretly broke into her home in Castelvetrano, the family stronghold, to install microphones and cameras.

When they attempted to fit one into a hollow chair leg, they found one of the "pizzini" inside, detailing the medical care of a man suffering from cancer.

Investigators managed to match a name to the details.Convinced that the patient was using a false name but was really the fugitive mobster, police launched an operation, arresting him at a health centre a little over a month later.

Rosalia had spent almost half her life hiding her brother, but her actions ended up betraying him.

Crime dynasty

The Messina Denaro family built a crime dynasty and Rosalia had been its operational arm since 2018, when her sister Anna Patrizia was arrested and sentenced to 14 years behind bars.

Anna Patrizia herself had overseen collecting the proceeds of extortion and defending the interests of her brother.

Women may not be able to become officially affiliated with the Mafia -- rites of belonging are reserved for men -- but some end up operating "almost at the level of the godfather", Federico Varese, a criminology professor at Oxford University, told AFP.

They are the ones, experts say, who raise and root their children in organised crime values.It is up to Cosa Nostra mothers to ensure their sons become "men of honour".

Prosecutors described Rosalia Messina Denaro as "a woman of origins and traditions entirely imbued with orthodox, entrenched Mafia culture".

And despite -- for the most part -- not committing violent crimes themselves, mafia women often receive heavy prison sentences.

That is a relatively new phenomenon.

"Until the 1990s, the idea was that women should not be convicted.It was judges and, paradoxically, feminists who said that this was a macho approach," Varese said.

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