No more child mafia victims, pope says on visit to clan heartland

CASSANO ALLO JONIO, Italy (AFP) - No more children must die at the hands of the mafia, pope Francis said on Saturday, as he travelled to the hometown of a toddler murdered in a clan drug war.

"It must never again happen that a child suffers in this way," the pope said as he met relatives of "Coco" Campolongo, a three-year-old shot dead in January in the heartland of the 'Ndrangheta organised crime group in an apparent mob hit over money.

"I continuously pray for him. Do not despair," the pope told Coco's grandparents and uncle during a visit to the Castrovillari prison, where the toddler's father is serving time for drug-related crimes. He asked them to pass the message on to Coco's mother, who was also in prison at the time of his murder and is now living under house arrest.

Under a blistering southern sun, he then addressed the 200 or so male and female inmates, many of whom are in jail for mafia-related crimes.

The discovery of Coco's body in a burnt-out Fiat Punto sent shockwaves through Italy, as did the murder just two months later of another three-year-old in the nearby Puglia region.

Pope Francis stopped to speak with a group of disabled people in the large crowd of faithful who had come to meet him, before heading by helicopter to Coco's hometown of Cassano allo Jonio, nestled at the bottom of a steep mountain.

The 77-year-old was set to visit a hospice before lunching with poor and young people. He will wind up the day with a mass in the nearby town of Marina di Sibari.

The Argentine pope has denounced organised crime groups, warning mobsters to relinquish their "bloodstained money" which "cannot be taken to heaven".

The 'Ndrangheta plays a leading role in the global cocaine trade and its bastion, the Calabria region, is a major transit point for drug shipments from Latin America to the rest of Europe. It has benefitted in the past from historic ties to the Church, with dons claiming to be God-fearing Catholics and priests turning a blind eye to crimes. But over the past 20 years numerous priests have taken part in the fight against the clans - sometimes paying for their bravery with their lives.