They say it's a family business, but traditionally women in the Italian Mafia were prison messengers or bargaining chips in dynastic marriages to create alliances between clans.

Now, as male mob bosses languish in jail, mafiosas are increasingly stepping up to head crime families - and getting caught in the process.

After seven years behind bars, one such godmother - Maria Angela Di Trapani - was freed from prison in 2015 and for the past two years has allegedly been quietly moving up through the secretive, male-dominated ranks of Sicily's Cosa Nostra.

The 49-year-old wife of notorious boss Salvino Madonia was among 25 people arrested last week in a sweeping Palermo raid, accused once again of Mafia crimes, including orchestrating bold intimidation tactics to scare business owners into paying a feared Mafia tax known as the pizzo.

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"She operates like a man," mob bosses were recorded saying in prison about Di Trapani - the ultimate compliment in the man-of-honour hyper macho world of Cosa Nostra.

Investigators say one popular cake shop in Palermo paid €5000 in extortion money.

Another bar in a well-known central square paid €750 at Easter, and again at Christmas.

A bustling pizzeria shelled out €3000.

"I'll never forget the look she gave me from her balcony when she called out to me, warning me to be careful what I said," said one businesswoman in Di Trapani's neighbourhood. "Her eyes were like ice."

Businesses that didn't pay went to work the next morning to find their rolldown storefront gates superglued shut or set alight.

The van carrying Toto Riina's coffin disembarks at Palermo Harbour, Italy, last month. Photo / AP file
The van carrying Toto Riina's coffin disembarks at Palermo Harbour, Italy, last month. Photo / AP file

This apparent increase in equal opportunities is a sign the mob is weakening, said John Dickie, professor of Italian Studies at University College London and author of several bestselling books about organised crime.

"It is actually a symptom of crisis that we are seeing more women in Cosa Nostra," he says. "It is an attempt to shore up the organisation in trouble, they are the avatars of the men - the wives and sisters of particularly fearsome or prestigious bosses, but they wouldn't be doing it if loads of men weren't in jail."

A crackdown on organised crime over the last three decades has failed to take down the mafia, but has effectively put a generation of bosses behind bars.

Some of them are dying there, including two of the top Godfathers from the Corleone faction, Bernardo Provenzano, who died of cancer in 2016 while in a Milan prison, and Salvatore "Toto' Riina who died of cancer last month while imprisoned in Parma.

The day after he died, Riina's daughter changed her Facebook profile picture to a woman with her finger to her lips and the message "shhh".

Investigators said this week that Di Trapani was involved in a reshuffle between clans loyal to the Corleonesi in the wake of Riina's death.