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 organized 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 organizations.
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 organization 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.