They call it the Maxi Processo, or Great Trial. It began 16 months ago in a specially built, arena-size, chillingly streamlined courtroom in Palermo, Sicily's capital. There, 374 accused Mafiosi held in cagelike pens—100 more are on trial in absentia—face charges ranging from political assassination to auto theft. The courtroom dramas are expected to grind on to this year's end.

The Mafia, of course, has been a fact of Sicilian life for centuries. But not until the 1970s did the Mafia expand its drug trade business and move headlong into international narcotics trafficking, turning Sicily's cities, including Palermo, into a bloody battlefield. The streets of Palermo have been littered with the bodies of rival criminal clans. And the brazen warfare began to claim the lives of those who fought the Mafia: judges, prosecutors, even a general of the carabinieri, the national police.

Responding to the carnage, organizations as disparate as the Catholic Church and the Communist Party have pressed the Italian government into a renewed campaign against the secret society. Among these groups none is more unusual than an alliance of women who have a special tragedy in common: They all became widows at the hands of the Mafia. The Association of Sicilian Women Against the Mafia, which now numbers non-widows among its 80 members, is loosely organized, but in 1981 its founders collected 50,000 signatures and helped to pass a law requiring the government to compensate Mafia victims and offer them jobs. The women have worked tirelessly to expose their enemy, chipping away at omertà, the ancient code of silence behind which the Mafia hides. Three of these Sicilian widows, leaders in the anti-Mafia struggle, recently told reporter Dianna Waggoner how they were shaken from their sheltered lives as traditional wives and plunged into the anti-Mafia cause.

One Murder Too Many

Giovanna Terranova, who appears to be in her mid-50s ("You can say any age you want, but I'm not going to tell you"), is a woman of aristocratic bearing. Her husband, Caesarea, was chief judge of Palermo's criminal court. On the morning of Sept. 25, 1979, he was assassinated by a Mafia hit man. He was 58.

We breakfasted together in the apartment, and then he left for work. The next thing I knew, I heard a loud noise and then five gun shots. Immediately I knew what had happened. I ran out the door in my nightgown; I remember it was pink with little white flowers, and I haven't worn it since. I remember thinking, maybe it's just a blown-out tire, and people will say I'm crazy coming downstairs in my nightclothes. I went outside anyway, toward his car, but someone stopped me and said, "Your husband is in the hospital." I kept asking to go to the hospital, because I so much wanted to believe he really was there, but of course he was in the car. Two men took me by the arms and brought me back inside.

I immediately wanted to know who killed him. One friend said, "Oh no, you must not think about these things." My friends cried, but they said you can't do anything against the Mafia. They said the Mafia is the Mafia. Basta!

The police said Liggio did it [Luciano Liggio became a Mafia chieftain at 19, the youngest in history]. But it's too simple to blame my husband's death on one man; I want to know who ordered the killing. Liggio was brought to trial, but they couldn't prove it. Now he is in the Maxi Processo with the other murderers, but he is not on trial for murdering Cesare but for other killings, kidnapping and drug trafficking.

My husband was a danger to the Mafia. One of his first investigations resulted in 100 Mafiosi being brought to trial. Most of them were freed because there wasn't proof. My husband used to say, "To convict the Mafia you have to have a notarized confession."

A month before Cesare was killed, an informer told police Liggio wanted revenge against my husband. I started to ask him not to do this or that, but he said, "I started this work and I must finish it." He wasn't afraid of anything, Cesare, and I think that killing him was meant to show that no one was safe. They wanted him dead for everything he could do to them.

We started an organization that in 1984 became the Association of Sicilian Women against the Mafia [Terranova is its president]. It was just the widows at first. Before that we had acted alone, each woman on her own. Now there are weekly meetings of the nine directors here at my house and bigger assemblies three or four times a year. We meet with the head of the state's anti-Mafia commission. We prepare press statements. We don't have an office, and we don't have money.

But we have helped to create a new climate of the mind. Young people now see the Mafiosi as monsters. In my time people saw the Mafia as invincible. Ten years ago it was unimaginable to say anything at all against the Mafia. After my husband's death people began talking at meetings, on television. The change has come because there are too many murders. We are fed up and cannot watch silently anymore. I think my husband would have been pleased with what I am doing.

'I Wanted To Die'

Rosetta Giaccone's husband, Paolo, 53, was an investigative coroner in Palermo. On August 11, 1982, as he was entering his hospital, a man jumped out of a car, ran up to him and shot him three times. Rosetta, 50, a mother of four, works as a secretary in a government office and appears often on TV and in schools urging youngsters to speak out against the Mafia. "You must not be afraid," she tells them.

We were preparing to go on a holiday, but first my husband had gone to the hospital to meet a colleague. I was having coffee with my daughter and, because he hadn't come to pick us up, I eventually called the hospital. "Signora, there has been an incident," the director told me. I thought there had been a traffic accident. I didn't think for one minute about the Mafia.

They sent a taxi to pick us up, and it wasn't until I saw Paolo in the hospital where he was already dead that I understood. I was so shocked I couldn't open my mouth. I couldn't cry, I couldn't move. I couldn't explain to my children what had happened and why.

Many of my friends and some of my family were afraid. They were supportive at first, but slowly, slowly they left me alone. They did it the classic Sicilian way, without saying anything, in silence. I think one reason was that I refused to wear black. If you are dead inside, you don't have to wear black.

I wanted to die. I was full of tranquilizers for a year. I didn't want to remember. Later I began to go out alone at night to the dangerous parts of the city, hoping that someone would kill me. I didn't have the courage to take a revolver and shoot myself. After that time I saw that I couldn't go on like that, I couldn't do that to my children. Some people said I should not say anything. But as a present to my husband, I decided to tell about him—who he was, his story—so people won't forget him.

My husband wasn't fighting the Mafia. He was just doing his job, but he must have come across many dangerous people. I think he was worried for his safety, especially after a phone call, part of which I overheard. The body of a Mafioso had been brought to my husband, and he had helped to identify the killer. Then someone called here and told Paolo that it would be better if he changed his evaluation of some of the evidence, and he said, "No, attorney, this is something that I don't believe in. You must not ask this of me."

The police charged Salvatore Rotolo with the murder of my husband. I have seen Rotolo at the Maxi Processo, where I have gone perhaps 10 times, once to give evidence. My first instinct was to strangle him. Sometimes he turned to look at me, but I was not afraid. I was just disgusted and I hate him.

It's important that no one forget our story, of the fight of the women of Palermo, or my husband. This is the focus of my life now. What I am doing isn't much, but if everyone did it, then it would add up. We are only a few. But drop after drop, drop after drop, we can build an ocean.

A Code of Silence Broken

Rita Costa, 65, is a co-founder (with Giovanna Terranova) of the association. Her husband, Gaetano, was a Palermo judge who was fatally shot on August 6, 1980, when he stopped off at a bookstall on his way home. His widow has since been elected to the Sicilian regional assembly. She has a daughter who is a doctor and a son who is an attorney.

In Palermo in the 1970s something began that had never happened before. The Mafia attacked representatives of the state: officials, magistrates, police. I became concerned for my husband's safety, but I didn't try to stop him because I knew I couldn't. One time he said, "If I work I must do it right, or else I will leave my work and go play chess with the old men." My husband was 65, a magistrate simply doing his job. He was killed because he made the Mafia uncomfortable. Maybe he was looking for something they didn't want made public, maybe his death was part of a strategy, or maybe it was a mistake. No, I don't know who did it, but I'm waiting for justice, true justice. I want the person who killed him to go to prison. If that is revenge, then, yes, I want revenge.

The first time I spoke out in public was in April 1981. With my daughter and a cousin I walked over to the piazza, where there was an assembly of women. I simply spoke about what had happened to me. I told them that to be afraid is not to be free. We women shouldn't be silent anymore. I said we had to stick together and fight not only because of the people who had been killed but because of all the young people who are growing addicted to heroin.

Eventually we formed our association. Now I talk in schools, in towns, in cultural circles, on television, radio, newspapers, magazines. I help other widows find lawyers to help them file civil actions against the murderers of their husbands. We also help them to find jobs so that they can support their children. Now we are proposing new legislation that would aid children without fathers.

The Mafia is like an octopus—it's everywhere. It is a power you can't always see or touch, but it is there. It makes riches from evil, and one of its powers is this code of silence, but this ancient silence has been broken by our women. We haven't made a revolution of the conscience yet, but we are doing something to destroy the Mafia. We need the cooperation of the magistrates and police, but I want to emphasize that what we have done we will continue to do. The way will be very difficult, but we will go on.

I don't see myself as a heroine. What does that word mean, anyway? I am simply a woman who believes in her own ideas. I decided to live the rest of my life with dignity, like my husband. I do not have any fear of the Mafia. I am 65, and I don't have time to be sentimental. I just fight.