‘These kids are violent, drunk on power’: can mafia children be saved from a life of crime?

<span>Illustration: Anna Kövecses/The Guardian</span>
Illustration: Anna Kövecses/The Guardian

Before dawn on a June morning in 2010, police burst through the high security gates of a palazzo belonging to a notable mafia family on the edge of a small town in Calabria. As agents swarmed through the building, turning the place over, family members moved frantically to hide any evidence. Maria, the family’s 12-year-old daughter, was given a page ripped from a notebook. It was a list of debts owing. She was told to hide it: “Put it in your knickers, they won’t touch you.” Her brother Cosimo, 14, watched in helpless rage as his father, mother, even his grandmother, were handcuffed and led out to the waiting police cars.

After the arrests, Cosimo was the only male family member outside prison, and it became his responsibility to collect money for the lawyers’ fees. He was a baby boss with his own driver, visiting local businesses who were on the family’s books, and demanding payment with menaces. “He was recognised as the boss,” says journalist Dario Cirrincione. “If he went to a bar in the village, older men would get up to greet him. People waited on him, drove him around, did anything he needed. This sort of treatment turns these kids into little kings.”

The Calabrian mafia, the ’Ndrangheta, is based on family groups in small towns along the coastline of Italy’s toe. The area is littered with half-built factories, projects paid for by state development funds and abandoned once the ’Ndrangheta got its hands on the money. Since taking control of the port at Gioia Tauro on the west coast, the organisation has become one of the biggest importers of cocaine to Europe. The authorities have made sweeping arrests over the past decade, and staged a series of maxi trials in reinforced bunkers, involving hundreds of defendants. But the family structure means the organisation is hard to dismantle. As fathers and grandfathers are serving life sentences, many in high-security jails, the younger members are starting their criminal careers ever earlier.

For two years, Cosimo only saw his father behind a glass screen in a high-security prison. His father told him he had to “grow”, to be a man, take charge, use his head. He was responsible for his sister. If Maria went out, he would send his thugs to check where she went and who she saw. He was living like a gangster, out all night, fighting, getting home at dawn. “People expected me to be forceful,” he said later in an interview with Italian TV. “They expected me to behave badly. I had all the hunger for power of a kid who feels he is invincible.”

Cosimo was chasing one businessman for €5,000. He waited outside the school gates for the man’s son, scared the boy and pushed him around. In spite of the very real threat of reprisals, the man reported the incident. The police were aware of Cosimo’s delinquent behaviour: he had visited other businesses, accompanied by his heavies, demanding money. He had taken a selfie in a balaclava as he robbed a tobacconist at gunpoint. He had filmed a youth getting beaten up, laughing as he urged the victim, who was on the floor, bleeding and vomiting, to fight back. But threatening children was a step too far. Cosimo was arrested.

* * *

IN LATE 2013, Cosimo’s case file landed on the desk of judge Roberto Di Bella at the youth court in Reggio Calabria. Di Bella looked at the boy’s file – already swollen with charge sheets – and felt a familiar sense of hopelessness. The family history weighed so heavily on this young man, Di Bella thought, he didn’t stand a chance. By now, he was still only 16.

In court, the boy displayed the characteristics Di Bella had seen so many times in young people from mafia families. He was dead-eyed, cold, refused to engage. He had a prepared response to everything he was asked. When Cosimo was sentenced to four years for attempted extortion, he betrayed no emotion. His mother had been allowed out of prison to attend her son’s trial, and was sitting quietly at the back of the courtroom. Cosimo never once turned to look at her. Di Bella noticed she showed none of the scorn and forced arrogance he usually saw in women from mafia families in public, especially in court. She looked haggard and sad. He thought how much she must be suffering.

***

The youth court of Reggio Calabria is a low palazzo, a few streets from the seafront, with stubby palm trees in the yard. Di Bella started here as a law graduate in 1992, and spent years dealing with teenagers from towns along the coast – Gioia Tauro, Palmi, Rosarno. He saw children as young as 10 put to work as lookouts by their parents, checking number plates on computer databases to see if there were unmarked police cars in the area. There was more: 12-year-olds counting containers in and out of the port at Gioia Tauro; 13-year-olds setting fire to cars whose owners had refused to pay protection money; a 15-year-old accused of murdering his own mother – punishment for dishonouring the family.

Di Bella, now 60, with neat hair and rimless glasses, is soft-spoken, quick to laugh, occasionally self-effacing. But his gentle demeanour hides a steely determination. He talks rapidly, leaning forward, gripping the arms of his chair: “The culture is almost jihadist – a psychological indoctrination that begins in infancy.” Di Bella recognised that these children had been brought up to despise the state, and that prison held no fear for them. But he felt they had been failed. “Was that all we had to offer these kids – sending them to jail?”

After he was promoted to president of the youth court in 2011, Di Bella had an idea. He set in motion a probation system with the power to remove children from the most dangerous ’Ndrangheta families and send them far away until they were 18. A team of educators, social workers and psychologists would give probationers the support they needed to finish their education, and maybe train for a career. Parents who persisted in involving their children in crime would be stripped of their parental rights. Di Bella called the programme Liberi di Scegliere – Free to Choose.

News of the initiative caused an uproar. Di Bella was accused of breaking up families, of stealing children. He was called a Nazi. The criticism came not just from the parents of children who had been removed from home and sent to care homes in Sardinia, Turin and Sicily, but also from the media. Newspaper columnists pronounced that taking children away from their parents, whatever the circumstances, was the work of a totalitarian regime. The church declared that the unity of the family should be sacrosanct. From one of the fathers in prison, he received a letter with a darkly menacing tone: “We all have children,” the boss wrote.

Di Bella is married to another lawyer, and they have a son. After one particularly serious threat, he was given an armed escort: two men now keep watch outside his office, handguns in pockets.

For some of the young Calabrians, joining Di Bella’s programme is more challenging than prison. At least there, everyone knows whose child they are. These are kids accustomed to living like princes. Suddenly, they are a long way from home, in a crowded house, sharing a bathroom.

“At home, they are used to being treated with deference,” says Maria Baronello, a social worker and sociology lecturer in Messina, Sicily, who worked on the probation programme with Di Bella from the start. People offer them tributes – money or gifts – when they are just 12 or 13. They are heirs to this big family, they are violent, throw their weight around, they’re drunk on power. But this behaviour often conceals a gnawing insecurity. “Their whole lives, they’ve been courted because of their name – they don’t know if anyone really likes them.” By the time she meets them, some of these kids have eating disorders, insomnia. Many take anti-anxiety medication because there’s such a gulf between who they seem to be, and who they really are.

* * *

When Cosimo was arrested, his sister Maria was left on her own. By this time, most of the family was in prison. It had been Maria’s job to deliver messages and carry money, since a young girl would almost never be searched. Di Bella judged it best for her to leave home.

This presented a particular challenge. A girl growing up in a mafia family has no autonomy. Even if she is doing well at school, she is likely to be taken out at 12 or 13 and kept at home to reduce the risk of flirting, or dating. She has special status: no local youth would dare to chat her up, or even look at her. Maria was desperate for attention. She would do anything to get noticed. After her parents and brother were arrested, she was sent to shared accommodation in the north. The move was organised by Enza Rando from Libera, a network of organisations working to counter the mafia. Rando, who is now a senator and leads on youth protection for the anti-mafia commission, worked with Di Bella from the earliest days of his project. She recalls Maria was horrified to find herself in the company of criminals and sex workers in her new home, and ran away. “She got herself into a real fix,” Rando recalls. “It seemed important to get her into a stable situation, where she could be supervised and find her feet.”

I had to face the fact that my children would end up in prison, like their father, or, like their uncle, murdered by the mafia at 17

Families who volunteer to take in troubled young people, many with links to the church, don’t necessarily expect to find themselves with a lodger from a mafia family. Journalist Giovanni Tizian interviewed a couple who fostered a teenage girl from a powerful ’Ndrangheta dynasty. They took on the challenge as a way of making a stand against the mafia: “We’re a family that makes ethical choices – we buy wine grown on vineyards confiscated from the mafia, that sort of thing – but this was a way to get properly involved.” The couple had two small children, and worried they might not be safe from the girl’s relatives. Social services had arranged the foster care, and some of their offices seemed sloppy about security – the girl even had a phone with GPS.

The main challenge the foster couple found was the girl’s anxiety about leaving her home “down south”, and betraying her loved ones, who she had last seen being taken away in handcuffs. She ran away, though she never went far. At first she barely spoke, but later she would occasionally mention something about her old life – dawn police raids, or a family member living in hiding. However much the foster family tried to support her, the tension between her two worlds was always there.

As for Maria, Rando found a foster home in the north who would take her, but she struggled to settle there and went back to Calabria. Her father kept contacting her, writing furious letters from prison telling her not to cooperate with the probation scheme, and to stay away from Di Bella. But her mother, from another prison cell, told Maria that if she wanted to make a life in the north, she would support her.

***

As news of Di Bella’s probation system spread, he and his team started to see surprising results. Women from ’Ndrangheta families, even wives of powerful bosses, would arrive at the courthouse and ask for a meeting. They were taking a serious risk even to be there, and the conversations were often highly charged. “They would say: ‘Judge, send my son away from Calabria,’” he recalls. “They would say: ‘Judge, if I said this at home, I could get killed. But I can tell you: I don’t sleep at night. I am so frightened, waiting for the phone call to tell me my son is in prison or dead. Help me, take him away from here.”

Cosimo and Maria’s mother, Anna, was powerless to influence her children, even before she was locked in jail. But not long after Cosimo’s sentencing, Di Bella received a message asking if he would visit her in prison. Di Bella found her crushed by the prison experience. She said she was grateful that her daughter had been able to enjoy family life in a foster home. Di Bella had been applying for Cosimo to be released from prison early, into the Free to Choose programme, and even though it was against her husband’s wishes, Anna wanted to let him know she approved.

In a private meeting room at the prison, Anna confessed she was tired of mafia life. She felt used. She was from an ordinary working family, but had been courted by the son of a mafia boss when she was still in her teens, and kept the engagement secret. When she finally told her father, he sank into a chair, without a word. There was nothing he could do to stop it: women – even teenagers – have been murdered for turning down a suitor from an ’Ndrangheta clan. But knowing what she knows now, she wished he had put up a fight. She spent the next 10 years in service to a mafia family at war. Her husband went into hiding, and she had to manage everything, ensuring he was supplied with food and intelligence, carrying messages to his men; money for whoever needed paying. It was for this supporting role that she had been arrested.

She saw in Di Bella and his team a chance for a decent future for her children – and maybe for herself, too. She had another year or so to go on her sentence. She said: “I can’t help them from here. Please, just keep them far away from Calabria.”

***

Maria Baronello has driven to towns and villages across Calabria to visit families at risk. She has found women in deep isolation, whose husbands are in jail, under the command of their mother-in-law. “They feel their lives are over. They can’t go out, unless it’s to pick up the kids or the shopping. They don’t have any kind of freedom. We call them white widows. They must not be seen to enjoy themselves: they have to live their husbands’ prison sentence as though they’re in mourning.” When social services call on the women at home, Baronello says, there is always someone loitering, listening in.

A protection programme for mafiosi who collaborate with the authorities, giving testimony in return for a new identity in a hidden location, has been in place since the 90s. But for women who don’t have any useful information to trade, there is no safe way out. In 2016, while Di Bella and Rando were figuring out how to help Cosimo and Maria’s mother move away from Calabria after serving her prison sentence, another woman, a mother of two, was facing prison for extortion.

To protect her identity, Di Bella gives her a fake name: Lucia. He was already familiar with Lucia’s family – he had had dealings with her mother-in-law more than a decade before. One of her sons had been murdered at 17, and that unpunished death still ate away at the heart of the family: Lucia’s boys, barely 10 years old, had been told they must grow up to avenge their uncle. While Lucia was awaiting trial, Di Bella summoned her.

She appeared at his office, tiny, defiant, with hair dyed auburn, dressed head-to-toe in designer clothes. “She was very proud, very fierce,” says Di Bella. “I said to her: ‘What do you want for your boys? Because it’s pretty clear what awaits them, with their family history. If you go to prison, where will they end up?’ I told her: ‘We could find a foster home for your kids in case you go to jail.’ She said: ‘Nooo! I’m not giving anyone my kids!’” (He does her voice, high-pitched with outrage.) After a heated exchange, she stormed out, slamming the heavy wooden door. “I said: ‘Well, you know where to find me.’” Lucia did come back, two or three more times, and on one of those visits Di Bella could tell something had shifted.

“Judge,” she burst out crying. “I want to leave Calabria. I can’t take any more. I live in a mafia family. My sons will end up dead or in prison. Please help me. I don’t want to lose my kids. I can’t say anything to anyone, or they will kill me, but I have to get away.”

Di Bella told her he would take care of it, but advised against coming to the youth courts again, as the entrance was too exposed. He started to plan her escape. They would have to leave without anyone noticing, otherwise they could be driven off the road and kidnapped. One morning in July 2016, Lucia and her boys left the house before dawn and drove to a prearranged meeting place, from where a police car took them to the airport. When they landed in northern Italy, they were met by volunteers from Libera, who drove them to their new lodgings, in a family home.

Lucia did go to prison, but her sons stayed with the foster family. Prison was a nightmare – she was a boss’s wife, locked in with other mafia women from whom she had to conceal her change of heart. But Rando managed to get her sentence reduced, and she was released after less than a year. Libera found them a flat near the foster family so they could stay in contact. Lucia got a job in a salumeria – an Italian deli. Slicing ham and weighing out cheese is a humbling activity for a mafia boss’s wife, but she tells Di Bella she loves it. Four years later, at a mass gathering in front of the Duomo in Milan on 21 March 2023, the annual day of remembrance in which the names of more than a thousand mafia victims are read out, Lucia stood proudly with the anti-mafia protesters.

Related: Hiding in plain sight: how Sicily’s mafia godfather eluded capture for 30 years

In a crowded conference room that afternoon, I joined school groups and anti-mafia campaigners in the audience as Lucia spoke in public for the first time. Roberto Di Bella appeared over a video link, as Lucia spoke from her seat in the third row, keeping her head down to conceal her identity. (Her husband has tracked her down once, and may do so again.) In a quavering voice, she said she felt grateful to be among people who spend their days fighting for the rule of law. “I met judge Di Bella in 2016, but I hesitated, because I was afraid to make a choice. He helped me understand that if I were to be convicted, my children would be left in the hands of mafiosi. So I had to confront the fact that my children’s future would be ending up in prison, like their father, or, like their uncle, murdered by the mafia in a vendetta at 17. I said no.” She broke down. Her sons, tall, good-looking boys, were sitting close by. One of them wiped away tears. “It has been a difficult road,” Lucia continued, “but I can say I’m a different person now. I am reborn.”

***

When a boy who has been in the probation scheme turns 18, the state has no more control over his life. Some of Di Bella’s charges have reached that milestone and gone on to further education, but there have been notable failures, too. One young man from a powerful ’Ndrangheta family was doing charity work and dating a volunteer from an anti-mafia programme. When he turned 18, he visited his father in prison. “Playtime is over,” his father said. “The family needs you.” The young man sought approval from the probation system, and funding, to start a gardening business in his home in Calabria. Two years later he was arrested with half a tonne of cocaine buried under the vegetable plots.

The Free to Choose programme has now been rolled out to a wider area, including Naples, and Catania and Palermo in Sicily, but the number of cases Di Bella has successfully turned around is still small. On the other hand, there is immense propaganda value when family members turn their back on organised crime. Rando says: “Imagine the power of a son who says, ‘Papà, I don’t want to be like you.’ All that money, the power of his name – and his son isn’t interested. If the crime family has no future, the boss’s years of prison time have been wasted. That’s going to do more damage to the mafia than 10 life sentences.”

* * *

When Anna got out of prison, she was determined to break free of the family’s control, and leave Calabria. But her mother was elderly and frail; she couldn’t abandon her. In the end, the two women escaped in an ambulance. “We found them a place to stay close to where the daughter was living in the north,” remembers Rando. “By the time the old lady died, Maria was 18, and it was natural she should move in with her mother. It was hard going, they barely knew each other by this point, but they managed to work things out between them.

“Then, a new drama: the son [Cosimo] was getting out of prison early. For these two women, just getting on their feet, free of the heavy presence of the men in the family, it was not an entirely joyful prospect. It was complicated.”

In prison Cosimo had been working with a psychologist, throwing himself into theatre, controlling his violent tendencies, and figuring out a new relationship with the family. He was released early, again with the support of the Free to Choose programme, and moved in with his mother and sister. This led to an uneasy shift in the family dynamic. The two women had been learning to enjoy their independence and Cosimo still felt he had to control his sister, telling her what she could wear and who she could go out with. But now Cosimo has a job, and is in love. He and his partner are expecting a baby. Anna is working for a food cooperative, grateful to be reunited with her children, far from Calabria. Her husband is serving a life sentence; Cosimo still visits him in prison. She is hoping he will come around in time.

Di Bella left Reggio Calabria for Catania three years ago, and is expanding his project across the south. He remains committed to dismantling the mafia, one family at a time.

Some names have been changed to protect the children.