Riccardo Cordi, a shy 18-year-old scion of one of Italy’s most notorious mob families, is the product of 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 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.
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 was 18. Di Bella cited legal provisions that allowed courts to remove minors from families incapable of raising them properly.
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 ate communal meals.
“It was tough. I was counting the days,” Riccardo said in press interviews.
The judge put him under the wing of a unorthodox psychologist, Enrico Interdonato. The psychologist had helped launch a courageous band of youths who encourage Sicilian business owners to stop paying “protection” money. 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 human toll of organised crime, taking him incognito to ceremonies for mafia victims.
If Interdonato acted as a surrogate brother, then 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 ostracised. Nicotra even gave away the family dog, because mafia threats made walks dangerous.
Twice a week, Riccardo helped out at an after-school centre for children from broken homes, even though doing something for nothing is an alien concept in the ’Ndrangheta.
On his 18th birthday – 8 February this year – Riccardo’s exile ended. The after-school centre treated him to a birthday cake with strawberries. Soon afterward, he returned home to Locri.
In a letter to the Corriere della Sera newspaper in May, Riccardo said he was not repudiating his family but wanted 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.”