The Woman Behind the Mob

By Borromeo, Beatrice | Newsweek, February 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

The Woman Behind the Mob


Borromeo, Beatrice, Newsweek


Byline: Beatrice Borromeo

Forget 'The Godfather.' The real-life story of how a daughter inherits a kingdom of drugs, guns, and money.

Arisa Merico was 22 when she took over as the boss of a powerful Italian mafia clan. Her father had just been sent to prison for murder, and the clan was rudderless. Someone had to "step up," and Marisa decided she had to do it. It was, she felt, her moral obligation.

Marisa, it turned out, was good at the job; self-confident and assertive. Even during more trying times, like when she had to buy a helicopter from a Balkan arms smuggler to help spring her father from prison, she remained cool. Her equanimity also carried her through a tough pregnancy and the early years of her baby's life--when the police were on her trail, her husband was consuming massive amounts of cocaine, half her family was in prison, and the other half was trying to con her.

Today, almost two decades later, Marisa lives with her children and grandchild in Blackpool, a faded seaside resort town in northwestern England. She has been unable to return to Italy, as Italian authorities were seeking her arrest. But this spring, after a decade, the arrest warrant will expire, allowing Marisa to visit family and friends. "The world will be mine again!" she wrote, exuberantly, on Facebook in late January.

Now retired from the mafia, she presents herself as a respectable, middle-class, stay-at-home mom. For a while, the British government even supported her financially as she took care of her ailing mother, who recently passed away. At 42, Marisa is still handsome, with a thick mane of dark hair and dark eyes behind Dolce & Gabbana glasses. Behind her on her kitchen wall is a popular red poster depicting a crown and the motto: "Keep Calm and Carry On." "That's how I think," she says, pointing at the poster. "And that's why, when I was in charge of my clan, everybody respected me. I'm a reasonable person."

Reasonable, perhaps, but deeply involved with a money-laundering, drug-running gang that smuggled heroin, cocaine, and heavy-duty weapons throughout southern Europe, while engaging in a bloody mafia war that, in the course of six years, cost the lives of 700 people.

For years, she ran the family business in conjunction with her father, visiting him in jail to plan their next moves. Being a mother, she says, turned out to be useful: she could hide money for corrupt police officers in her daughter's stroller--just like her parents had done when she was a child. Eventually, though, it was family that undid her. After her aunt Rita was arrested trying to sell Ecstasy pills in 1993, Rita turned state witness and testified against her relatives. About 100 people were subsequently arrested, and Marisa, vowing vengeance, fled to Britain where she hid out at her mother's house in Blackpool.

When I meet Marisa on a blustery, cold day to talk about her past, she is wearing a white T-shirt studded with rhinestones in the shape of a skull. During hours of conversation, she remains polite and friendly, though detached, as if narrating someone else's story. Only when she speaks of her father, or about the time when she went to prison, does some affect shine through. She uses the word "moral" a lot to explain her actions as a mafia boss--as in "morally, I had no other choice but to step up and lead the clan."

She expresses few regrets for what she and her family have done, though the path of her life has been bloody. Both her grandmother and her father were convicted of murder. Her aunt Rita at 12 years old was told to cut heroin in the bathroom to help out in the family business. The family controlled the Milan drug market during the 1980s, but Marisa has little time for reflection on what her family wrought in terms of pain, violence, or drug deaths.

Her account (which the Italian prosecutor confirmed) is far from the story line of The Godfather, with its shift of power from a dominant but aging patriarch to a hesitant son.

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