LOCRI, Italy — First Italy fought its mafia mobsters by confiscating their wealth. Now judges are taking away something more precious: their sons.
Riccardo Cordi', a shy 18-year-old scion of one of Italy's most notorious mob families, is a pioneer in a new strategy to fight the mafia by exiling crime clan sons from their homes and families. Riccardo is the first of about 20 sons sent into a kind of rehab away from the mob by juvenile courts in the southern region of Calabria, home to the dangerous 'ndrangheta syndicate.
By age 16, Riccardo seemed destined to go the way of his father, a reputed boss gunned down in a turf war, and three elder brothers in prison on mafia-related convictions. Their photos line the wall of the fortress-like Cordi' home in Calabria, seen in an exclusive visit by The Associated Press, in a testimony to the rule of blood in the powerful 'ndrangheta.
But when Riccardo was charged with attempted theft and damage to a police car, judge Roberto Di Bella followed up his acquittal with a startling order: The 'ndrangheta family prince would be sent away to Sicily until he turned 18.
Di Bella had sent Riccardo's three brothers to prison and wanted to spare the last son a similar fate. He cited legal provisions that allowed courts to remove minors from families incapable of properly raising them.
Riccardo's mother seethed, but there was nothing she could do.
"If you don't like it, we'll take him away anyway," the judge told her.
Riccardo was placed in a Sicilian facility for troubled youths where nobody cared that he was a Cordi'. Rules were rigid, including no going out at night. Everyone made their own bed and sat down for meals at a communal table.
"It was tough. I was counting the days," Riccardo said in interviews with The AP.
The judge put Riccardo under the wing of a fledgling psychologist, Enrico Interdonato. The psychologist had helped launch a courageous band of youths who encourage Sicilian business owners to stop paying "protection" money to the Mafia.
It was an audacious pairing, because the Cordi' crime clan was itself alleged to be in the protection racket. This unlikely mentor helped Riccardo understand the terrible human toll of organized crime, taking him incognito to ceremonies for Mafia victims.
If the psychologist acted as a surrogate brother, a construction company owner practically became Riccardo's second father. Mariano Nicotra told Riccardo what happened when he refused to pay protection money: His car was torched, his daughter ostracized. Nicotra even gave away the family dog, because Mafia threats made walks dangerous.
Nicotra saw something in Riccardo that few back home even bothered to look for: a normal kid.
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.
He moved stiffly, always buttoned up, wearing a jacket even at outings at the sea. But he came willingly, a supervisor recalled. One day, he 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 beers, and even to discos. There, he earned respect because of his personality, not his name.
Just weeks before he was due to leave, Riccardo rebelled. He packed his bags. He wanted out. His mother helped persuade him to stay.
On his 18th birthday — Feb. 8, 2014 — Riccardo's exile ended. The after-school center treated him to a birthday cake with strawberries. Soon afterward, he returned home to Locri.
In a letter to Corriere della Sera in May, Riccardo made clear he wasn't repudiating his family. But he wrote that he now wants a "clean" life.
He recalled how one morning in exile, he went to the sea, from where he could see Calabria.
"This time, however, I saw it from another perspective: I was seeing it from another place," he said. "But it was I who was different."