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Italy expands controversial program to take mafia children from their families before they become criminals

Rome – Italy has not only renewed a controversial program to remove children from their mafia families, but also decided to expand it to break the vicious cycle of passing on criminal behavior to new generations.

The “Free to Choose” project has existed since 2012 in the Calabria region, the base of the powerful ‘Ndragheta crime syndicate. Now it is being expanded to the regions of Sicily and Campania, home to the infamous Cosa Nostra and Camorra mafia.

The goal of the program is to remove children from the mob culture they were born into and break the generational cycle of crime, giving the children a chance to lead normal lives.

Authorities can only deport a child if they can prove to a court that they are physically or mentally endangered by their family’s criminality. Then the police and social workers intervene without warning and take the child away. The families have no say in this matter.

Demonstration on the “Day of Remembrance” for mafia victims
People take part in a demonstration on March 21, 2024 in Rome on the Italian National Day of Remembrance and Commitment to the Victims of the Mafia.

Stefano Montesi/Corbis via Getty

So far, 150 children have been separated from their families and placed in foster care in undisclosed locations across the country. Thirty mothers have chosen to join their children and seven have also agreed to appear as witnesses for the prosecution.

“This is a historic moment in the fight against the mafia,” said Justice Minister Carlo Nordio at the signing of the program extension document, attended by five government ministers and the Italian Episcopal Conference. “The fight against the mafia is also carried out by opening up new paths for generations who are able to decide freely about their future.”

Roberto di Bella, the program’s founder, said at the signing ceremony that during his 25 years as a juvenile judge in Calabria, he tried first fathers and then their sons.

“We put boys on trial for trying to kill their mothers who wanted to separate from their mafia husbands,” he said. With the Free to Choose program, he said, “we set out to change life trajectories that would otherwise have been inevitable.”

“There are children who are taught to shoot at the age of eight. There are children who are dealing crack as young as eight,” said Chiara Colosimo, head of the Italian parliament’s anti-mafia commission.

Di Bella said he had been contacted by some mothers who asked him for help in saving their children from mob indoctrination. He said he even received letters from several mafia bosses thanking him for giving their children a chance at a different life.

But the project also met with criticism. Some argued that even gangsters had the right to be fathers.

A raid and Italy’s evolving mafia landscape

Italy carried out a concerted action Law enforcement crackdown on organized crime in recent years, and that has not only led to this Hundreds of arrests and prosecutionsbut a change in the entire mafia landscape.

In September, Matteo Messina Denaro, a convicted mastermind of some of Cosa Nostra’s most heinous murders and considered Italy’s No. 1 fugitive, said died in a prison hospital just months into his stay caught. He had spent decades on the run.

Italian police arrest mafia boss after 30 years on the run


A long-ignored crime syndicate based in the southern Italian region of Puglia known as Fourth Mafiahas become the most violent mafia in the country in recent years.

One of the group’s leaders, based in the city of Foggia, escaped from a maximum security prison in 2023 by tying bedsheets together captured in France in February.

The clans based in and around Foggia – although less sophisticated than the ‘Ndrangheta, Camorra or Cosa Nostra crime syndicates – allegedly rely on extortion, bombings and threats to blackmail residents.

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