Three-year-old Nicola “Coco” Campolongo never had a chance at a normal life. Born to drug pushers in the tiny suburb of Cosenza, Calabria, in the heart of ‘Ndrangheta crime syndicate’s territory in southern Italy, the only time the toddler had seen his parents since June 10, 2011 was when someone found time to take him to visit them in prison.
Last week, young “Coco” was shot in the head along with his grandfather, 52-year-old Giuseppe Iannicelli, and his grandfather’s Moroccan companion, 27-year-old Ibtissa Taoussa, whom the child knew as “Aunt Betty.” Their skeletal remains were found in a burnt out Fiat Punto that had been doused with gas and set alight behind an abandoned farmhouse. A shiny 50-euro-cent coin was found on the roof of the burnt-out car, leading local investigators to assume the triple-assassination was a vendetta for an unpaid drug debt. Coco’s grandfather had been convicted of dealing narcotics and was serving out an eight-year suspended sentence under nocturnal house arrest. When he failed to check in with police, investigators went looking for him, assuming he had skipped town with his girlfriend and young Coco in tow. A few days later, a hunter spotted the burnt-out Fiat and alerted authorities who discovered the macabre scene inside. Iannicelli’s body was found in the car’s trunk and his young companion was in the front passenger seat. Coco’s charred remains were found in a carseat in the back seat of the car.
The blatant hit on “Coco” has sent ripples of indignation across Italy. Even for a country that often turns a blind eye to organized crime hits, shooting a three-year-old in the head at point-blank range was seen as one step too far. On Sunday, Pope Francis called the hit “a fury without precedent,” asking followers to pray for the young child, whom he said was “surely in heaven.” The prosecuting magistrate in charge of investigating the case, Franco Giacomantonio, called it the worst homicide he has ever seen in his long career investigating mafia-related crimes in Italy’s trenches. “How could anyone kill a tiny creature of just three years in this way?” he said at the scene of the crime. “It is unheard of. It is beyond horrendous.”
Coco is the youngest known victim of any mafia-related direct hit ever reported in Italy, according to the Direzione Investigativa Antimafia, or DIA, the country’s main anti-mafia organization. But he was by no means the only child living on the edge of the criminal underworld. According to Save the Children Italy, more than 75 percent of all families in Italy’s impoverished southern region known as the mezzogiorno live within communities known to be under the control of organized crime syndicates. That means the first-born sons are often destined to follow in their fathers’ footsteps—sometimes even replacing their fathers as heads of household when they are killed or jailed. Save the Children Italy says that young girls in the region are frequently forced into arranged marriages to either solidify clan ties or to join together allied clans. And because of the soaring drop-out rates and high levels of unemployment, it is almost impossible for any of the regions’ youth to escape a life of crime.
Last summer a judge in Reggio Calabria started a program to remove at-risk sons of mafiosi who had been sentenced to jail terms from the community and put them in foster care in other parts of the country. According to Judge Roberto di Bella, the program is meant to break the cycle of crime by introducing a different lifestyle and a new set of values. When the boys have their first brush with the law, whether for bullying or petty crimes, he says they swoop in to try to turn them away from a life of crime. “Our objective is to show these young men a different world from the one they grew up in,” he told the BBC last summer. “If you are a boy whose father, uncle or grandfather is a Mafioso, then there’s no one who can set rules—and we provide them with a context.”
Similar programs have been tried with moderate success in other regions. But anti-mafia magistrate Fabio Regolo says it is sometimes impossible to break the cycle because the alternative is bleak. Italy’s organized crime syndicates—namely the Camorra in Naples, the ‘Ndragheta in Calabria, the Cosa Nostra in Sicily and the Sacra Corona in Puglia—run a lucrative “parallel economy” in Italy. Some figures say that organized crime profits are upwards of 15 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, but those who work for organized crime companies can do so tax-free as part of the lucrative black market.
Regolo says that it is hard to entice people to leave a more lucrative lifestyle, even when it can be deadly. He also says that it is especially challenging to get children who grow up in situations where talk of extortion, threats and paying protection money are considered normal dinner conversation to reconsider their values. “Kids living under imaginary and symbolic adherence to the Mafia suffer a kind of elective affinity, making them ready to start serving and pleasing the mafia in order to reap the benefits and be accepted and even rewarded with honor in the crime families,” he says.
No one knows what three-year-old Coco’s future would have been if he hadn’t been gunned down in a revenge attack last week. He could have been one of the few who made it out and find a better life, or he could have one of the many who can never escape the cycle.