When Judge Roberto Di Bella returned to Reggio Calabria in 2011 – the home of one of the most powerful criminal networks in the world – he noticed that the minors standing before him in court were the children of the mafiosi he had put away years earlier.
It was “a kind of enlightenment” for the 52-year-old judge, who has spent most of his career, save for five years in Sicily, in this mountainous and somewhat isolated region of Italy, where the ‘Ndrangheta mafia has proven to be stubbornly immune to law enforcement tactics that have helped to stem the culture of organised crime in other mafia strongholds.
“The youth of the ‘Ndrangheta is an endemic phenomenon that has been underestimated for far too long,” Di Bella said. “We needed to interrupt this downward spiral.”
The judge adopted a new approach: since 2012, about 30 “at risk” minors have been removed from their ‘Ndrangheta families by the juvenile court over which Di Bella presides. In some cases, they have been placed with families in northern Italy, and in others, have been put in youth homes or in the care of anti-mafia organisations.
In each case, Di Bella said, the goal is straightforward: to show the teenager, who the court believes has in some way been groomed for a life of criminality, that there is another way.
“The objective is to safeguard these children, to give them an opportunity to have cultural and social opportunities that are far away from their realities,” he said. “To take them away from an inevitable destiny of imprisonment and [early] death.”
It is a novel approach against a criminal organisation that is notoriously ruthless; a reliable partner of narco-traffickers in South America; and the biggest source of cocaine in Europe.
The ‘Ndrangheta is believed to have infiltrated businesses, political parties and organisations across Italy and is known to have a presence in other countries, including Germany and the US. The fact that it operates largely based on family ties makes it especially difficult for law enforcement to persuade members to turn on one another.
At first, the judge’s initiative was heavily criticised in local media – Di Bella said he was called a Nazi – and he is quick to point out that the programme is not an attempt to “ethnically cleanse” or “deport” children of the mafia. Di Bella said he looked at certain indicators, such as whether the minor was being “indoctrinated” to join the criminal syndicate, and whether his criminal activity – they are primarily male – was escalating. The court also considers feuds between family clans to be a risk to minors.
“Sometimes we hear on wiretaps that a father says of his 13- or 14-year-old, when you enter [the ‘Ndrangheta] this is the rank you will have,” he said.
The judge insists that minors can still be “moulded” and that the results of this judicial experiment so far have been “extremely satisfying”. Only one of the returning teenagers has committed a crime since the programme started, and it was not mafia-related.
Girls, in particular, have asked for help from the court even after they turn 18. In some cases, Di Bella said, the young women have been spared forced marriages into families that are designed to expand their own family’s influence.
“The initial phase of uprooting them is very difficult,” he added. Psychological studies of the youngsters show they are damaged in many ways: they suffer from nightmares and physical ailments, and have extreme difficulty showing emotions.
“The rigidity of the structure of the ‘Ndrangheta suffocates their needs for liberty and to express themselves,” Di Bella said. He recalled asking one teenager who was sent away – a boy who appeared very “straight” and who wore glasses – about his taste in music. “He said he only listened to tarantella [the traditional Calabrian folk music]. This is crazy for a normal 16-year-old. After a year-and-a-half he had contact lenses and a crazy hairstyle and was listening to all the recent music. I was invited to his 18th birthday party,” Di Bella said with a hint of pride.
“They begin to show great potential, which has been squashed by the families. They start studying again, they do volunteer work, and of course they experience relationships of affection which would not be possible here. But they need good psychologists and good social workers who have specific training.”
Enrico Interdonato is a 31-year-old psychologist who has worked as a volunteer on three cases in nearby Messina, Sicily, a short boat ride away.
“It is true that if you take a potential killer away you are weakening the criminal agency, but this is not the point,” he said. “All we want to do is save lives. If you see a father who gives his son whisky or a syringe, that is seen as abuse. In this region we know that a father puts a Kalashnikov in their hands or takes his son to a meeting of the ‘Ndrangheta. This, too, is abuse and mistreatment.”
The therapist, who says he becomes like a big brother to the patients, said it was important to take the children out of their normal environment, and even brings them “incognito” to anti-mafia events. “Usually we have stories of people who have infiltrated the ‘Ndrangheta [like undercover agents] but now we have people undercover with the victims, and they hear their stories,” he said.
While he does not believe it is possible to change them, he said his main task was to show the minors an alternative life and instil in them a belief that they have choices.
In some cases, minors who have been temporarily moved – the programmes last for up to three years – have never had a glimpse of life outside of crime. Their parents, grandparents and siblings have been in jail, been killed, or are on the run.
Lately, Di Bella has seen another phenomenon emerge: more mothers are showing active interest in having their children sent away. Pulling sheets of notes off his desk, Di Bella said one mother recently approached him asking for the judge to intervene in her own family, telling him that she was worried about her 14-year-old son, who was growing increasingly fascinated by guns and the ‘Ndrangheta culture. “She told me that he thinks going to prison is an honour, but that he has no idea of the suffering it would provoke,” he said.
Di Bella acknowledges that it is not clear whether the programme can put a dent in the ‘Ndrangheta, but he is hopeful that it could if it received adequate support. He wants the Italian government – the justice and interior ministries – to support a programme that would support social workers and therapists in the field, as well as help finding foster homes. He also wants the minors to get more assistance after they turn 18. At that point, they are no longer under the oversight of his court.
“In 100 years nothing has changed here,” he said. “The kids that have been taken away, they are the seeds. In the long term, this can have an affect, because the families disintegrate.”