Photo via BBC

When non-Italian friends ask me about the Mafia, my first reaction is to feel ashamed of this dark side of my country. Then I embark on long explanations about the history and geography of the Mafia and Mafia-like phenomena. Because, to start with, there are at least three major mafia-like groupings in Italy: the first is the Sicilian Mafia proper, the second is the Camorra, based in Naples and in its region, and the third is the nearly unpronounceable ‘Ndrangheta, grounded in Calabria (the tip of the Italian boot). Each of these three distinct realities has its own rules, its own business, its own ways of operating; all are against the law, resort to violent means in order to impose their rule, and extend their tentacles much further from their regions of origin.

While their influence and affairs go well beyond the local horizon of their roots – and frequently have an international or even global reach – they still depend very strictly on their cultural and social milieu. Belonging to one of the mafias is in most cases a family affair rather than a free choice; someone born in a family with a Mafia-tradition will almost automatically be framed by this imprinting. Family bonds, the most sacred of all human relationships, are twisted by the mafias and become suffocating webs that give power and wealth but demand, in exchange, the surrender of one’s liberty to act lawfully and to build one’s own future.

It is comparatively easy to sketch a few reasons for this situation. The three regions which gave birth to the mafias are among the poorest in Italy; moreover, their populace frequently saw the celebrated Italian unity as something imposed to them, almost like a foreign domination, which deprived them of their traditions and of certain forms of social structures and religiosity (the former Italian ruling house was rather proud of its French-like laïcité). The State was felt by many to be a rather artificial entity, if not an outright oppressor; the ancestral and almost tribal structures which had sustained the poor economic and cultural conditions of the South were superseded, but not integrated, in the modern innovations brought by the new kingdom.

This is, of course, a very simplistic analysis, but it might aid understanding of the complexity of a phenomenon which has extremely deep roots (Italy became a sovereign country only in 1861…) and ramifications at the political, social and economic levels.

To analyse its roots is not in the least to justify the evil fruits of this system: the mafias are intrinsically bad, as they infiltrate local and international politics, determining the economic features and possibilities of individual people, entire cities, and even to some extent regions or countries. The Italian State is fighting a decades-long battle against all Mafias, and many heroes have given their lives to combat them. There are also special laws against crimes of mafia, allowing, for example, a strict regime of imprisonment for mafia bosses, as well as particular protective measures for those who decide to cooperate with the law.

One of these exceptional measures has been frequently adopted by Roberto Di Bella, a judge who is active against the ‘ndrangheta in Calabria. Di Bella has applied a law enabling magistrates to remove the children of ‘ndrangheta bosses from their families and birth-towns and entrust them to foster-care families in other Italian regions. It is a very controversial undertaking, widely praised by international media such as The New York Times and The Conversation, but also raising many ethical questions.

In favour of the judge’s decisions many arguments may be adduced. The first, and most unexpected, is that many of these transplanted children, some of their mothers, and occasionally some of their fathers, too, express their thankfulness for this drastic but ultimately positive step. When the children of a Mafioso father are distanced from their original milieu, they are no longer forced to submit to the prevailing mentality; the force of tradition is no longer imposed on them as a straightjacket; they are given opportunities to study and to choose a job, and not simply compelled to do as their parents and grandparents had done in turn. Judge Di Bella reports many stories of young people who feel grateful for having been given a new life, and even of Mafia bosses who admit the ultimate benefit that their children will receive.

While this extreme option can be justified reasonably, it still “sounds bad” on the affective plane. It is true that the Mafias distort the true meaning of family love and make it an instrument for possessing one’s relatives; instead of being the terrain in which the children’s talents can freely flourish, it becomes a stagnating pond which prevents their flying. At the same time, one cannot but wonder if the solution is truly to excise these familial bonds, instead of trying to heal them, “convert” them and give them back their true function and shape.

That may be easier said than done, especially since – in some contexts – it is the entire local society which answers obediently to the diktats of the Mafia; and to heal a society may be a very long task. Perhaps it is necessary to cut these suffocating bonds at their root in the family in order to construct a better society. But is it truly the only option? Will all the children who were forcibly moved from their homes and family feel truly grateful for this trauma? Or are we creating further resentment, further alienation between people and State?

It seems to me that these questions cannot be answered by ticking a “yes” or “no” box. Probably one has to evaluate each individual case, and it is precisely the task of judges such as Di Bella to do this in their daily job. In any case, it is to be hoped that the children’s best interest is always the adults’ first concern; and that not even a very praiseworthy goal, such as eradicating the mafias, turns children into instruments or side-effects of social reform.

Dr Chiara Bertoglio is a musician and theologian moonlighting as a journalist. She writes from Italy. Visit her website

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is a New Zealand journalist with a special interest in family issues. She began her working life as a secondary school teacher but always fancied the life of the scribe. Too late, she...