The Italian Tiger Mamma

Italian Newspaper articles reporting on Ilda Boccassini's latest anti-Mafia operation. Photo by Trisha Thomas

The most ruthless of Italy’s Mafia groups the “Ndrangheta” is heading north from its traditional stronghold in Calabria, the toe of the boot of Italy, and seeping into Italy’s wealthy northern cities. There is one woman who is holding them back. She’s a fearless red-head named Ilda Boccassini, the Tiger Mamma.

Ilda Boccassini is a prosecutor who has been hammering away at corruption and crime for the past 30 years. This 60-something super woman, mother of two, with her carrot red hair is known in Italy as Ilda-the-Red, but I prefer to call her the Tiger Mamma, and I will tell you why. But first, let me tell you what happened last week in Italy.

Anti-mafia police conducted a major raid against the ‘Ndrangheta’ Mafia resulting in the the arrests of an Italian politician, a judge, lawyers, a police official, and a banker. Boccassini was the key magistrate involved in the investigation.

In a press conference in Milan, Boccassini and her colleagues presented a 810-document showing how they have found, mostly through intercepted telephone conversations, how the tentacles of the southern Italian Mafia are beginning to get a stranglehold on the north.

Over the years, Boccassini has led crippling attacks on the Sicilian Mafia, the Red Brigade terrorists and, most recently, the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta Mafia as they spread to northern Italy. In July 2011 she helped launch a massive police operation that resulted in the arrests of 300 suspected members of the ‘Ndrangheta.

Here is a quote from “The Telegraph” reporting on that operation: “Police wiretaps registered the alarm at the news that Ms. Boccassini was in charge. “That one’s a tiger. I’ve seen her on TV sometimes,” a suspected ‘Ndrangheta member, Giuseppe Pelle, is alleged to have exclaimed. His informant allegedly replied: “In the face of something like this, you need to have your eyes open 360 degrees. This is someone who stops at nothing.”

The one time I saw Ilda Boccassini in person was when I was in Milan covering the opening of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s trial on charges of engaging in prostitution with a minor and using his power to cover it up. The case has become known as the Ruby trial because Berlusconi is accused of inviting a young Moroccan girl nick-named Ruby to “bunga bunga” parties at his Villa in Milan (see blog post on Berlusconi’s Babes)

On that morning, most of the international press core based in Italy was there. Others had flown in for the event. I saw colleagues from BBC, CNN, CBS, Newsweek, NPR and Al-Jazeera. The story had the right mix of sex and power to create an international media frenzy.

Berlusconi’s family-owned newspapers had unleashed a campaign against Ilda Boccassini, splashing headlines across their newspapers of her reported love affair with a left-wing journalist years earlier. Clearly a woman who lives with death threats isn’t easily fazed by such personal attacks.

The courtroom was packed early and I just managed to get into the standing room area. As Ilda Boccassini walked in she seemed to have an untouchable aura around her. She was wearing her black robes, and her bright red-hair bobbed past me. She was not smiling. She had an intimidating, tough “don’t mess with me” look on her face. Nevertheless, I wanted to reach out as she passed by and touch her. I wanted to prove to myself that this larger-than-life woman was real.

This ‘tiger’ also happens to be a mamma. No mushy Mozzarella for this lady, I guess she is Italy’s finest example of a ‘Tiger-Mamma’. She does not give interviews to journalists, so I have gleaned information from some speeches and press conferences.

Boccassini has paid a price for her successes. She has had numerous death threats throughout her career and it has not been easy as a mother.

In 2007 she spoke to a group of students at a school in Milan: “When my children were little, they were really afraid for me. They grew up with the anguish of what could happen to me with the career path I chose, and the threats that I receive. I hope someday they will forgive me.” (quote taken from “Gioia” Magazine, February 14, 2011)

I do not know how her children feel about their mother, but I do know Italians are grateful to “Ilda the Red”, the Tiger-Mamma of Italy for her passionate commitment to rooting out the Mafia.

Post in: Italiano

9 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Alan
    2011/12/09

    such a rarity – someone who will not, cannot compromise their principles. Amazing person.

    Reply
  2. Avatar
    jwthomas
    2011/12/09

    Impressive. The US could use a bit of her strength and integrity in our national affairs. Hope she survives.

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2011/12/10

      Italy could use more of her strength and integrity too! She is really an unusual figure. I hope some day to get an interview with her, but she doesn’t have much time or patience for journalists. The one time I made a request — before the Ruby trial – we never got an answer from her office. I suppose she has more important things to do.

      Reply
  3. Avatar
    AdriBarr
    2011/12/10

    Hi Trisha,

    What a fascinating post. I have heard of other prosecutors in Italy who have waged war against the Mafia, but “Ilda the Red”, most certainly a Tiger-Mamma, is new to me. I hope she remains safe and able to do her work. Thanks for introducing us to her. Buone feste!

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2011/12/10

      Yes, there are a lot of courageous anti-mafia prosecutors in Italy. The most famous being Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, both Sicilians who were assassinated by the Mafia. Ilda Boccassini is the only woman I know of, but there must be others. I admire them all. Buone Feste a te. I am looking forward to reading about all your delicious treats on your blog.

      Reply
  4. Avatar
    Barbara Landi
    2011/12/10

    I pray I never hear about anything bad happening to Ilda or her family!

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2011/12/10

      I totally agree with you.

      Reply
  5. Avatar
    lisa chiodo | renovating italy
    2011/12/10

    how courageous and especially for a mother, I can’t imagine living with the risks involved to family and loved ones. Wholehearted admiration for such people men or women! And to journalists willing to pass the truth to their readers..
    ciao lisa

    Reply
  6. Avatar
    Liz Cameron
    2011/12/11

    Wow, a powerful woman indeed, and a brave one. I agree with JWT’s comment – hope she survives…I need to figure out how the tiger mamma phenomenon plays out in Turkey…strikes me that as I am not a mamma, I have really not addressed this at all, but have lots to say about my own husband, the mamma’s boy extraordinaire despite her death 24 years ago (thinking of when you taught me the word “mamone”).

    Also, as one blogger to another, you might consider sticking a hotlink on “see blog post on Berlusconi’s Babes” so people can go right to it :) Look for the chain icon on the wordpress bar above the composition area.

    Reply

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