Walk into the Cordi’ family home, and you see photographs of solemn men, one after another, staring down from the walls.
These images tell the story of one of Italy’s most powerful mafia families, as brutal as it is sad. There is Cosimo — husband, father and reputed clan boss — gunned down on a bicycle during a turf war. And Salvatore, the eldest son, recently ordered into solitary confinement while serving a 30-year murder sentence. There’s Domenico, jailed for Mafia crimes, and Antonio, battling depression in a prison psychiatric ward.
Then there’s Riccardo, the youngest, still a boy with melancholy eyes. Antonia Spano’, the family matriarch, pauses before his portrait.
By age 16, Riccardo seemed destined to go the way of his brothers; that’s the rule of blood in Calabria’s powerful ‘ndrangheta clans, a global force in the cocaine trade. But his mother is tired of making prison pilgrimages up and down Italy, and wishes for him a different fate. And even in the ‘ndrangheta, there’s a chance for destiny to be derailed.
Two summers ago, Riccardo became the first of about 20 young men from some of the most notorious crime families ordered by a court into exile, into a kind of rehab away from the mob. This daring tactic by a judge is threatening the ‘ndrangheta by taking away its most precious asset: its sons.
INSIDE THE FORTRESS
This southern region of Italy is the dark heartland of the ‘ndrangheta clans, now among the world’s most dangerous organized crime syndicates, eclipsing even the more famous Sicilian Cosa Nostra.
Here in the forbidding Aspromonte mountains, clansmen of decades past kept kidnap victims in chains for months and even years, drawing ransoms that funded an international drug-trafficking business. These days, the ‘ndrangheta runs a multibillion-dollar narcotics empire, and launders money from resorts in Italy to pizzerias in Germany.
The ‘ndrangheta is built on family relationships and strategic marriages, making it highly impervious to turncoats and infiltrators. And one of its most important families is the Cordi’s.
Spano’s home sits within a compound of clan residences, cut off from the outside by a forbidding steel fence. The matriarch walks through formal rooms with marble-topped tables and displays of crystal goblets, typical of affluent Calabria households, into a spotless kitchen that once hid a secret bunker.
No precaution is too extreme for a family whose past is writ in blood.
Riccardo was 1½ when his father became another cadaver in a decades-long feud in Locri between the Cordi’ and Cataldo families. So many bullets ripped through Cosimo’s head that fall day, as he rode his bike on a country road, that he was almost decapitated.
Riccardo never knew his sister Paola, who died of a brain tumor at age 10. A few months later, the surgeon who operated on her was gunned down outside the entrance to the Locri hospital. Investigators never solved the slaying.
When Riccardo was 12, he watched wide-eyed on the patio here, half-hidden by plants, as police stormed Spano’s kitchen looking for fugitives including Pietro Criaco, a clansman on Italy’s most wanted list and close family friend.
They opened a wooden cabinet door under the gray stone counter and came across a trap door. It led to an underground bunker, complete with electricity and room enough for three men.
Criaco wasn’t there. But not long afterward he was captured as he tried to flee across rooftops in a nearby town— wearing pajamas.
Judge Roberto Di Bella knew all about this violent Cordi’ past when he faced Riccardo in court on a July day two years ago. He had even sent Riccardo’s older brothers to jail as juveniles.
The day had begun well for the 16-year-old and his family. In the juvenile court of Reggio Calabria, Di Bella declared the boy not guilty of attempted theft and damage to a police car. There wasn’t enough evidence for a conviction.
Who would testify against the son of one of Calabria’s most notorious ‘ndrangheta families?
But the judge wasn’t finished.
Something in Riccardo’s silent, tough-guy stance reminded him of the cold, contemptuous manner of Antonio, the Cordi’s’ second-to-last son.
After Di Bella convicted Antonio of a weapons charge in 2002, Antonio dropped his steely facade and confided that he wanted to shed the mantle of budding mafioso. He wanted to leave Locri. But with a widowed mother and Riccardo at home, that dream was impossible.
Maybe things could be different for the youngest brother.
Riccardo was as old as Antonio was when he appeared in Di Bella’s courtroom. He gave every indication that he, too, was destined for the path of crime. According to a juvenile court document, the psychologist who spoke with Riccardo before the ruling observed that the boy showed a “certain resignation to a life marked” by crime.
Di Bella concluded that removal was the only way to save Riccardo from “an otherwise inescapable destiny.” So, with a stroke of the pen, the judge banished him. And not just from the Cordi’ home, but also from Locri, the seaside stronghold where so many of his kinsmen were slain, and from Calabria itself.
Antonia Spano’ seethed. Her eyes burned. All she could think was that the state was about to take yet another of her men — her last son — away from her.
“So, I won’t see my son?!” she cried. “How can I see my son?!”
The judge told Spano’ to her face that she was incapable of handling her son, just like his brothers. Riccardo had been staying out late at night, hanging around with adults with criminal records, cutting class, flunking courses.
“This is an ‘ndrangheta family,” he told her. “We want to avoid having Riccardo end up in jail, or slain like your husband. … If you don’t like it, we’ll take him away anyway.”
Di Bella invoked a law that allows the state to remove minors from parents deemed unable to properly raise them, often children of drug addicts.
Why not children of clansmen?
The months passed. Social workers always seemed to have some excuse not to take Riccardo away from the Cordi’ home. One happened to have a vacation day; another was sick.
In the end, the police were called in. Expecting resistance, the officers arrived in force.
But there was no fight. Just Riccardo emerging wet from a shower.
Riccardo was whisked away to the sleepy hamlet of Roccalumera, across the Strait of Messina from Calabria. Home was now a facility for troubled youths, where nobody cared that Riccardo was a Cordi’, a clan prince. Rules were rigid, including no going out at night. Everyone made their own bed and sat down for meals at a communal table.
For two days, Riccardo refused to eat. He felt like an inmate doing time.
A few months later, he was transferred to a four-bed group home in Messina, just in time for the start of the school year. He took public buses to a vocational high school in a rough neighborhood.
Riccardo, then 17, also bonded with an unlikely ally, a wiry psychologist 11 years older named Enrico Interdonato. Interdonato had helped found the Messina chapter of Addiopizzo, a group of brave young Sicilians who encourage business owners to rebel against paying systematic “protection” money to Cosa Nostra.
The pairing was a bold one — for, investigators contend, one of the Cordi’ sources of income is shaking down businesses on their turf.
Interdonato became Riccardo’s shadow. To help Riccardo begin to comprehend the terrible human toll of organized crime, the psychologist took him to commemoration ceremonies for the victims of Cosa Nostra. He was always introduced incognito, so neither Riccardo nor the families would feel embarrassed or upset.
If the psychologist acted as a surrogate brother, a Messina construction company owner practically became Riccardo’s second father. Mariano Nicotra recounted what happened when he refused to pay protection money to the neighborhood Mafia boss. His car was torched. His daughter was ostracized by schoolmates. Nicotra even gave away the family dog, because Mafia threats made walks too dangerous.
Nicotra saw something in the shy, taciturn Riccardo that few back home even bothered to look for: a normal kid.
If you want, he told Riccardo, there will always be a job waiting for you at my company.
Slowly, Riccardo began to change.
Twice a week, he helped out at an after-school center for children from broken homes, even though doing something for nothing is an alien concept in the ‘ndrangheta. Many had one parent, even two, in jail. Some fathers were convicted Mafiosi.
The work didn’t come naturally. Riccardo was always buttoned up, wearing a jacket, even at outings at the sea. “He moved stiffly,” said Debora Colicchia, who works at the center. But “he came willingly, and when he couldn’t come, he called.”
“I had the feeling that he was discovering the child in himself, because he had a childhood as an adult.”
One day, another supervisor recalled, Riccardo surprised everybody by clucking like a hen to make the children laugh.
Riccardo’s exile wasn’t all hard work. On Saturday nights, Interdonato took Riccardo out for pizza and some beers, and even to discos.
Riccardo was eventually allowed to visit home every other weekend. He took the ferry by himself to Calabria, where a family member would meet him. Each time Interdonato held his breath: Would he return?
Each time, he did. Once he brought nougat for the kids at the center as a Christmas treat.
BRUSH WITH REBELLION
Just weeks before the end of exile, Riccardo rebelled.
He didn’t want to wait for his next visit home. Maybe he missed his mother’s cooking. Or his girlfriend.
If he broke the terms of his exile, he would fail probation over a past brawl in Calabria. That would give him a rap sheet — a formal entry point into criminal life.
Riccardo packed his bags. He didn’t care. He wanted out.
Interdonato pleaded with him not to leave, but the boy was adamant. It took somebody else to make him listen: His mother.
The ‘ndrangheta mom — who once spurted venom at the judge for taking away her son — had had a change of heart. Antonia Spano’ crossed the Strait of Messina with a cream cake as a thank-you for Interdonato.
MAKING A WISH
On his 18th birthday — Feb. 8, 2014 — Riccardo’s exile ended.
The after-school center treated him to a birthday cake ringed with strawberries. In a photo, the teenager with the arresting good looks is intent on blowing out the candles. What is the young man wishing?
Stretching out on a couch back at home, Riccardo smiles bashfully at the idea of a career in fashion, a world that has always appealed to him. But it’s just as possible that he’ll work in a relative’s electronics shop after he finishes high school next year.
It’s too soon to judge the success of Di Bella’s pilot program; it will take years to see whether a taste of the clean life can separate the ‘ndrangheta’s sons from the syndicate.
But the strategy is grabbing attention, and some 200 residents turned out in a town square in Reggio Calabria this summer for a discussion about it.
The exile approach costs roughly six times less a day than keeping someone in an Italian prison, social workers say. And if it keeps another generation from growing up to be drug kingpins or killers, the potential savings are priceless.
As for Spano’, she is overjoyed to have her son home again — but also torn. She knows that for his own good, perhaps for his safety, he must leave Locri. Youth unemployment in Italy’s south is staggeringly high, and for many youths the only reliable employer is organized crime.
“I want Riccardo to get a job. Maybe in Rome,” Spano’ said. “Maybe I’ll go with him.”
Ever the reserved teen, Riccardo is taciturn. All he will say about the initial shock of his exile is, “It was tough. I was counting the days.”
However, in a letter to Corriere della Sera newspaper, published on May 8, 2014 on its front page, he expresses his feelings more clearly. He takes pains to say that he is not repudiating his family or Calabria, but also thanks Di Bella for giving him a chance at a fresh start.
“I did things, met people, lived in places I never knew,” he wrote.
And he pays tribute to Interdonato, the psychologist.
“One morning, together with that guy, I went to see the sea. You could see Calabria, my land. This time, however, I saw it from another perspective: I was seeing it from another place.
“But it was I who was different.”