An Italian judge’s radical plan. A protection programme to rescue women and children of the Ndrangheta

Roberto Di Bella

Helen Fitzwilliam IN 2011, THE DAUGHTER of a powerful mafia boss was found sprawled on the floor of her basement bathroom, blood and white foam spilling from her burnt mouth. It appeared that she had killed herself by drinking a bottle of acid. Maria Concetta Cacciola, aged 31 and the mother of three children, had wanted to escape from her family, leading members of the ’Ndrangheta, the close-knit crime syndicate that holds sway over Calabria, the region which occupies the toe of the Italian boot. It is the most feared, secretive and powerful of all the Italian mafias, and also the least known.

She was married at 13, and gave birth at 16, but it was a loveless marriage. When her husband was arrested and sent to prison, Cacciola knew she would be locked up too. Her father kept her under house arrest to ensure she remained faithful. Constantly chaperoned and allowed out only to take her children to school, she turned to her computer for company and began an online flirtation with a Calabrian man working in Germany. When her father and brother found out, they hit her until they broke her ribs. But Maria feared her brother might be planning something worse. The punishment for ’Ndrangheta women who bring shame on the family is death.

In the desolate, mafia-ridden hillside town of Rosarno, a terrified Maria walked into the police station and traded information about her family’s drug smuggling activities and the location of their hideouts in return for protection. Because of the strength of family bonds, very few members of the Ndrangheta have ever collaborated with the police and become what the Italians call pentiti (repentant). But over the past decade, more women have given testimony against their close relatives to save themselves and the lives of their children. In an otherwise impenetrable crime syndicate, prosecutors believe that girls and young women are the weak link.

When Maria Concetta Cacciola was relocated to Genoa in the north of Italy, she left her children behind. In a farewell letter to her mother she wrote: ‘I’m entrusting my children to you. Don’t make the mistakes you made with me. Give them a better life.’ But instead the grandparents mistreated the children to lure Maria out of the safety of state protection. The sound of her youngest daughter weeping down the phone was unbearable. After just two months and despite the fear she might be murdered, Maria returned home and was forced to withdraw her testimony. Eleven days later she was dead. Her agonizing death was the catalyst for Roberto di Bella, a judge in the juvenile court in Reggio Calabria, to introduce a radical new strategy to give the children of clan families the chance to escape a life of crime.

I joined him and his two bodyguards on his daily commute by ferry from Sicily, across the turbulent Strait of Messina. He has the compassionate manner of a father confessor combined with the zeal of a man who has discovered a way of cracking Calabria’s vicious circle of criminality: ‘We are a searchlight in this dark sea of suffering,’ he told me. Over the past six years he has removed more than 40 boys and girls from mafia environments and placed them with foster families or institutions outside Calabria until they are 18. Each teenager has a social worker and a psychologist to help them deal with the pain of separation. They are enrolled in new schools to learn how to become law-abiding citizens. During his 20 years as a state prosecutor in the youth courts before he became a judge, Di Bella had seen plenty of evidence of parental grooming for a life of crime. A mafia boss was secretly recorded telling his eldest son that he would be just like him and have the same rank by the age of 14. On another tape, a father and his 12-year-old son are heard bonding over the stripping and firing of a Kalashnikovrifle. Children are used as look-outs during murders and girls help to cut and package drugs. Some of the 12 to 16-year-olds who came before him had committed murder or robbery, torched police cars or demanded money with menaces. ‘They behave like child soldiers,’ the judge told me, and they exihibit the psychological trauma of Vietnam veterans.

Forced to control their emotions from an early age, their anxiety comes out in their dreams. ‘Often they have nightmares in which they have to save themselves from imminent danger.’ The judge said the teenagers’ rigid upbringing means that they cannot think for themselves. Experience proved that locking these young offenders up was pointless and only increased their hatred of the state. Di Bella said that some had tattooed the soles of their feet with images of the Carabinieri ‘so that they could grind their faces into the dirt every day’. The judge reasoned that since courts intervene to protect children from drug-addicted or alcoholic parents, it would be possible to remove them from homes where their only option was to join a dangerous criminal organization. ‘That’s child abuse,’ he said. In a departure from practice, Di Bella looked to international law. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child says children can be removed if their human rights are not respected and their well-being is at risk. And that happens, the judge thought, in nearly every mafia household.

These changes meant that if a mother fled into witness protection, her children could be taken to join her so they would not be used as blackmail to make her recant. A second post mortem examination on Maria Concetta Cacciola revealed marks on her wrists that showed she could have been held down. There were bruises consistent with someone forcing acid down her throat. It looks as if it was not suicide, but murder. The case is still under investigation. The judge removed the dead mother’s three children from their grandparents and placed them with relatives who had no criminal connections. The justice system could do for them what it could not for her – save them from the Ndrangheta. Her eldest son, who was 16 when his mother was killed, is thought to be studying law.


The Ndrangheta owes its current wealth and geographical spread to bloody events in Sicily in 1992. In that year two anti-mafia prosecutors, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, were murdered, a double hit so shocking that it roused the Italian state into a crackdown on the Sicilian Cosa Nostra from which it has never fully recovered. With the Sicilian mafia weakened, the Ndrangheta took over most of the cocaine trade in Europe, funded by the millions of dollars they made from kidnappings in the 1970s. A Calabrian criminologist told me that the approximately 150 mobster families operating today are based in three key areas: the most archaic and violent are in the misty Aspromonte mountains, others span out from Gioia Tauro, the container port that is a major entry point for drugs from Latin America, while the regional capital of Reggio Calabria harbours more sophisticated university-educated criminals, expert at embezzling government and EU funds.

The Ndrangheta has evolved into an international criminal network which, due to migration, is particularly strong in Australia and Canada. Founded around the time of Italian unification, its members took the traditional southern Italian family and subverted it for criminal purposes. Authoritarian fathers run the family as ruthlessly as the business. Boys are taught to treat women as things of no value. By the time they are teenagers, it is second nature to beat their sisters − and even kill their own mother if she is caught in an extramarital affair. Manhood is defined by this code of honour and your family name − De Stefano or Pelle or Condello − defines your identity. Daughters are expected to obey without question and to remain virgins until their wedding night. Their virtue is easy to police in Calabria’s small towns. Women are given the task of instilling criminal values into children. Arranged marriages are common to seal an alliance with another clan, to enlarge the power of the family or to settle a feud. Boys are encouraged to neglect their education as they are pre-destined to follow in their father’s footsteps. Crime as a way of life is passed down through the generations.

Vicenza Rando, a prosecutor and vice-president of the anti-mafia association Libera, explained why young women want to break free from the web of the Ndrangheta family. ‘All women have a love of life, maybe because they give life,’ she said. In the poorest region of Italy, many women trade their freedom for the money and status of the mob. But over time, they grow tired of raids by black-hooded Carabinieri, turning their homes upside down, waking up their babies and arresting their sons. ‘There is also the death toll from turf wars. Many become vedove bianche, or white widows, in their early thirties, when their husbands are sentenced to life imprisonment. Since they are not allowed to take a lover or leave their man, they become increasingly lonely. ‘They ask themselves, shall I wait for him or shall I start another life with someone who respects me?’ Rando said. A recent example is the case of Simona Napoli who became a witness after her father and brother beat her lover to death, smashing his skull with wooden clubs. She managed to get to a police station before they could kill her. It is not without risk, Rando explained, and it entails a drop in living standards, but they do it as they value freedom more. The most effective collaborator was the courageous Giuseppina Pesce, who now lives under witness protection with her new partner. She testified even though a previous woman who collaborated with the police, Lea Garofalo, was murdered. The evidence Pesce gave against her powerful family led to 34 jail sentences − a total of 600 years − and the seizure of 260 million euros of the clan’s assets. The formerly impenetrable mafia had been penetrated. Her example encouraged more women to come forward, 15 at the last count, giving Rando hope. ‘I believe the real revolution will come from women,’ she told me. If women rise up against their fathers, husbands and sons and say they don’t want to live like this any more − the Ndrangheta will die.

A glimpse of domestic mafia life comes from a case before the youth courts involving the 13-year-old daughter of a boss. Let’s call her Sofia. She and her 14-year-old brother were forced to live with their grandmother after the family home was seized in an anti-mafia operation. With both parents in prison, she was reluctant to take part in any of her clan’s illegal activities, according to court records. With legal fees to pay, her brother started missing school and acting like a power-crazed ‘baby-boss’. In a secretly recorded conversation, his aunt predicts that the boy will give ‘satisfaction’ to the family. As is often the case with older Ndrangheta women, the ‘Nonna’ with whom Sofia was living was a hardcore traditionalist − and under house arrest for murder. Sofia came under increasing pressure to conform to Ndrangheta rules and her brother beat her when she resisted. With an adult to drive him around, he started to demand money from businessmen three times his age. Sofia was arrested in the car with him, along with 5,000 euros of extortion money. She had hidden the list of the businesses to be shaken down in her underwear. Although Sofia said she was an unwilling participant in the extortion racket, she was terrified of her family’s retaliation: ‘I shouldn’t be telling you about this – they will make me pay for it.’ To save her from that fate, the court placed her with a foster family in the north of Italy.

But it is not enough to uproot the teenagers, Enrico Interdonato, an expert in mafia psychology who is responsible for the ‘post-removal’ stage of rehabilitation, explained over an espresso in a Calabrian harbour-side café. It’s important they are de-programmed and freed from a cultural jail where deviance is seen as normal. Often the only role models they have ever encountered are gangsters, he said. ‘Adolescence is an age of research and experimentation, when you are a punk one day and a rocker the next,’ he said. His ‘method’ is to give ’Ndrangheta teenagers new experiences, from taking them dancing in night clubs, to letting them act in plays or visit art galleries to open up their horizons and allow them to try out a new personality, not based on their infamous family name. ‘You take the boys out of that oppressive world and their macho act deflates like a balloon.’ To help the transformation, the teenagers are allowed to reconnect with their parents so that they don’t feel torn between two worlds. The point of the exercise is for the youngsters to learn how to make decisions for themselves about the life they want to lead. ‘The key is to give them self-determination,’ said Interdonato. Being away from the clan can have a dramatic effect. One mafia mother told him: ‘The first time I felt free was in prison.’

Not surprisingly, the judge’s scheme initially provoked a torrent of abuse. Families accused him of acting like a Nazi in ‘deporting’ children. Priests condemned him for undermining the sanctity of the family. From inside jail, a mafia father vowed revenge: ‘We all have children … my ruin can be paired with someone else’s ruin.’ Calabrian social workers were at first too frightened to remove children from mafia families, so Sicilians had to be enlisted. Interdonato says that they work with the parents, even visiting them in jail to explain how these measures do not punish their children but provide them with better prospects. Results are encouraging. Out of the 40 cases, only one teenager has been re-arrested, for dealing in drugs. Judge Di Bella is now a media celebrity. There is a forthcoming documentary about his work, and an Italian drama series based on stories from the youth courts is in production. This exposure has encouraged desperate Ndrangheta mothers to discreetly seek him out to request that their children be sent away. The judge suspects that the women are also looking for a way to escape the crime families of Calabria by seeking a kind of moral redemption.

An example of what they are trying to escape from comes in a letter recovered in a police raid from the wife of a mafia boss who describes her anguish that her daughter cannot marry the man she loves, as his family were once enemies of her husband: ‘What I had feared would happen to Anna has happened, and I cannot express my pain … I fear this will scar my daughter forever.’ The letter also reveals that her daughter will not have the right to decide for herself what she will do when she leaves school. Having tasted what it is like to make their own decisions, choose their own careers and find their own boyfriends, none of the 10 girls in the scheme has any plans to return to Calabria. Returning home at 18, the age at which the scheme ends, entails the risk that the children may revert to criminal habits, like an addict returning to a bad neighbourhood. There is an urgent need for jobs outside the world of crime, according the anti-mafia prosecutor Roberto di Palma. ‘The mafia infiltration of councils in Calabria means we have dysfunctional politics which doesn’t create jobs – doesn’t create culture – everything stays the same. The only way to change the mafia culture is to create jobs outside the Ndrangheta tentacles. A young kid will burn a prosecutor’s or policeman’s car for 100 euros as there are no other alternatives to earn money.’ But the judge says that nothing will change in Calabria if none of the teenagers comes back. This toxic environment needs to generate its own antibodies: ‘The mafia infiltrated us, now we are trying to infiltrate them,’ he said. ‘And this is just the beginning.’

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