Help came from psychologist Enrico Interdonato, 33, who volunteers with a project that tries to free youngsters from the notoriously ruthless 'Ndrangheta in Calabria by placing them in care in secret locations across Italy.
The programme, called “Liberi di Scegliere” (Free to Choose), aims to show teens they can forge a life outside the criminal underworld without feeling they have betrayed those they love.
“They're raised as princes destined to inherit a dynasty, the embodiment of their town's criminal history,” Interdonato told AFP.
“Their fathers are almost always in prison or dead, their cousins or brothers are in jail. In the closed societies of small Calabrian towns everyone knows them and they feel it's their duty to live up to the family name,” he said.
“At risk” minors are removed from their families by the juvenile court in the southern city of Reggio Calabria and given a chance to finish their education. Those who want it also get help finding work once they turn 18.
The first challenge Interdonato faces is convincing the youngsters not to see it as a punishment but an opportunity to find themselves in a place where their family names – renowned at home – hold no power over them.
They also have to be convinced of the ills of a lifestyle which seduces many in a region with crippling unemployment.
“Being heir to a mafia clan means obligations but it also means privileges, having access to significant economic and social power,” he said.
They may wear designer clothes and command the fear or respect of locals, but “they are still the same as other teenagers in one respect: the changes in their bodies and brains are still underway”.
Though each case is different, all at first are “emotionally rigid” and traumatized after having seen relatives killed or taken away in the middle of the night in police raids.
Once a relationship is forged, Interdonato takes them along to meetings organized by the Addiopizzo association, a grassroots movement of victims of mafia extortion who have joined forces to denounce their tormentors.
“Just as police infiltrate the mafia, we infiltrate the anti-mafia!” he quips.
“These are people traditionally considered the enemy of the mafia, so the kids get a chance to see the human face of their 'enemy', and see what their world does to them.”
The encounters can be “very emotional”, he says. “In one case a victim living under police escort ended up befriending one of the lads and offered him a job.”
Interdonato, who sees the minors once or twice a week, says the aim is not to get the youngsters to turn on their families – though the mothers of some children sent away do just that, becoming police informants.
“No one wants the blood ties to be cut or for youngsters to hate their fathers. We say: 'You must love your father, but you must choose your future for yourself.'”
By Ella Ide