Italy targets the mafia by taking away their most precious assets: their children

Tyler Mitchell By Tyler Mitchell Jul2,2024
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In the middle of a cold March night in 2022, the lives of Siria and Alessia Cacciatore changed forever.
The twins’ home in the Sicilian town of Syracuse was one of several that were raided by police as part of a major anti-mafia sting named ‘Operation Algeri’.
“They had a search warrant, but it wasn’t a search,” Alessia recalled.
“They came to take everybody. They arrested not just us, but lots of other families in the neighbourhood, with their children.”
Following an eight-month investigation by Italian authorities, a total of 28 people were arrested, accused by the Anti-Mafia District Attorney’s Office of controlling illicit drug trafficking in the area.
Investigators alleged the criminal syndicate was turning over 25,000 euros per week (about $40,000), with profits as high as 10,000 euros per day. It was alleged some of these operations took place in Alessia and Siria’s family home.
Now, almost every member of the girls’ immediate family is in prison: both of their parents and three of their four brothers.

The sisters avoided this fate.

A young woman wearing glasses and a black leather jacket stands next to a bed with her left hand touching the pillow.

At 18, the teens in the Free to Choose program are given a choice — they can stay in the community until the age of 21 or leave. Siria felt she wasn’t ready to go yet while her twin sister Alessia chose to start an independent life. Source: SBS / Dateline

Almost 700km north of their hometown, in a small community outside Naples, they are now rebuilding their lives under a radical anti-mafia program called Free to Choose.

Here, in a community called ‘Los Innocenti’ or ‘the innocent’, boys and girls aged from two to 21 brought in from across Italy have one thing in common: they were born into families with criminal ties to Italy’s most powerful mafias. They’ve been placed here in an attempt to free them from a future life of crime.
Removing children like this might seem extreme. But Italy’s organised crime clans, known as mafias, are almost always built around blood ties. Their enduring strength comes from exploiting family loyalties. Power is passed down, and children often follow their parents’ criminal path. 

It’s this intergenerational cycle of criminal behaviour that the Free to Choose program is trying to break.

The controversial program

The Free to Choose program was founded in 2012 by judge Roberto Di Bella.
Now based in the Sicilian city of Catania, for 25 years Di Bella presided over the Minors’ Court in the southern Italian region of Calabria, home to the most powerful mafia in the country today, the ‘Ndrangheta.

During that time, the court saw around 100 minors sentenced for mafia association. Around 50 were sentenced for murder or attempted murder.

An older man with grey hair and reading glasses wearing a dark suit, blue shirt and a pink tie

Juvenile judge Roberto Di Bella founded the controversial crime prevention program in 2012 in Calabria, home to the most powerful mafia in Italy today, the ‘Ndrangheta. Source: SBS / Dateline

“In 25 years, I found myself trying first the fathers and then the children, who were all minors,” Di Bella told SBS Dateline. “I myself tried a youth of 16 who was accused of six homicides.”

Seeing this intergenerational cycle of crime, he felt that something needed to be done “to disrupt what are otherwise inevitable life trajectories”.
A foster care program would remove children from high-risk families before they fall into crime.

In March this year, the project was expanded to two other mafia strongholds — Campania and Sicily, homes to two powerful criminal organisations, Camorra and Cosa Nostra, respectively.

Different opinions on the approach

Di Bella says that re-education is key to the Free to Choose program. They’re trying to unpick what he calls a ‘mafia mentality’.
“From a young age, the children are heavily indoctrinated with the negative values of organised crime,” he said.
“[By removing them] we try to explain to the kids that jail isn’t, as many think, a badge of honour, an obligatory path in life, but we tell the kids that jail is a terrible place that should be avoided at all costs.”

Di Bella says the children’s removal is in accordance with the Italian Constitution and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which specify a child’s right to grow and be brought up by their parents, but add that, if the parents are not up to the task and engage in abusive behaviours, the state must step in to protect the children.

But not everyone agrees with this approach.
Alessandra Dino is a professor of legal sociology and deviance and has spent decades studying Italy’s mafias. She says she understands the need to remove the children from their families, but says it often creates greater hostility towards the state.
“The removal of a minor from their family environment, even in cases of violence, is still an act of violence,” she said.

“If there are no situations of abuse, no situations of explicit violence – if, for example, it’s a situation in which the mother is available or the aunt is available, the child could be left with the aunt or left with the grandmother or a family member. One could find alternatives.”

An older woman with short brown hair wearing a burgundy top and heavy jewellery standing in an office filled with books

Professor Alessandra Dino disapproves of the Free to Choose program’s approach. She believes the program unfairly targets the mafia’s foot soldiers rather than their wealthy and powerful bosses. Source: SBS / Dateline

She also believes the program unfairly targets Italy’s poor, the mafia foot soldiers rather than the wealthy and powerful bosses.

“How do you identify the real mafiosi? The people who have done the rite of affiliation or are they the corrupt people who do business with the mafia or the ones who commit massacres or the ones who go and shoot?

“In reality, the mafia is a phenomenon of the ruling classes.”

Adjusting to a new life

A dedicated team of social workers, educators and psychologists provides round-the-clock support and care to teenagers as they are readjusting to life without their families.
For Siria, who’s now 19, the night of her separation left lasting wounds. When she arrived in the community, she says she suffered near-constant panic attacks and, at her worst, was self-harming. Her sister Alessia experienced extreme depression.

“Those who come to me are very fragile and do not have the strength to be able to face life outside the community or family context,” said Michelangelo Ambruzzo, a social worker and educator in the program.

Children are often brought up with the values of organised crime.

Roberto Di Bella, founder of the Free to Choose program

He says one of the key goals is to build children’s self-esteem, instil a sense of autonomy in teens outside of the criminal family context, and equip them with education and life skills. He says kids often arrive without any schooling and can’t read or write.
“[The goal] is to increase their self-esteem, increase the ability to believe in one’s own strengths. To make them understand that they are not what they imagined themselves to be; that they are not what they experienced before entering the community,” Ambruzzo said.

“We offer them a chance of fulfilling their dream using tools such as finding a job, job training, schooling, good manners and showing respect for others.”

Two teenage boys seen in an open window. One of them is holding his left arm around the other's shoulder and is showing a thumb up.

At a community called ‘Los Innocenti’ or ‘the innocent’, boys and girls from across Italy have one thing in common: they were born into families with criminal ties to Italy’s most powerful mafias. Source: SBS / Dateline

Same start, different paths

At the age of 18, Italy’s legal age of consent, the teens in the Free to Choose program are given a choice — they can stay in the community until the age of 21 or leave.
Siria decided to stay on. Her panic attacks have reduced, she’s working at a pizzeria and studying to graduate from school.

“I think I’m on the right track. But I feel I’m not 100 per cent ready to let go of their hands,” she told SBS Dateline.

Her twin sister Alessia chose to take the leap. Last year, she moved into her own apartment and is now working and paying rent. In April, she got married, marking the start of her very own family, one hopefully free of crime.
“In the community, I had love, something I hadn’t known before,” Alessia said. “I had people who were nice to me, who I could talk with, confide in.”
“Thanks to the community, I’ve changed. I’ve become who I am now.

“This is my second life.”

Tyler Mitchell

By Tyler Mitchell

Tyler is a renowned journalist with years of experience covering a wide range of topics including politics, entertainment, and technology. His insightful analysis and compelling storytelling have made him a trusted source for breaking news and expert commentary.

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