ROME • It is one of the most secretive organisations in the world, with power passed through blood ties and family loyalty. But Italy's ruthless 'Ndrangheta mafia may have met its match.
Judges in the country's deep south have been placing the offspring from Italy's most powerful criminal organisation into care in a bid to save them from following their grandfathers, fathers and uncles down the path to prison.
Initially, the project sparked controversy, with the Catholic Church in particular protesting against the tearing of children from homes.
But four years after it was launched in the crime-plagued Calabria region, the government has signed a protocol which will not only unlock fresh resources but could also see the scheme applied nationwide in other mafia strongholds.
Dubbed "Liberi di Scegliere" (Free to Choose), the programme has so far seen 40 young people sent to live with foster families or in communities in secret locations across the country, where they learn about life beyond the clans.
"The issue is extremely delicate and we're walking a thin line," admitted Interior Minister Marco Minniti, as he presented the new protocol this weekend along with Justice Minister Andrea Orlando.
"And yet there are situations in which a country's democratic institutions have to intervene in intra- family relations to guarantee the freedom of minors," he said.
The results have been extraordinary. The kids go back to school, they take part in socially useful activities, they reveal talents and potential that had been repressed by their sphere of provenance.
JUDGE ROBERTO DI BELLA, who launched the project at the juvenile court in Reggio when he realised that the minors coming before him were the children of those he had put away in the 1990s. Most are sent into the programme when they are 15 or 16 years old and stay until they turn 18.
The name 'Ndrangheta comes from the Greek for courage or loyalty, and the organisation's brutal enforcement of codes of silence make it very difficult to penetrate - and equally as difficult to leave.
Judge Roberto Di Bella, who launched the project at the juvenile court in Reggio when he realised that the minors coming before him were the children of those he had put away in the 1990s, told Agence France-Presse that "the results have been extraordinary".
"The kids go back to school, they take part in socially useful activities, they reveal talents and potential that had been repressed by their sphere of provenance," he said.
The young people who qualify are those considered to be on a fast track to joining the family business, whether they are arrested for smuggling Kalashnikovs or their parents are caught on wiretaps training them in mafia codes.
Most are sent into the programme when they are 15 or 16 years old and stay until they turn 18.
"The idea is to make them understand jail is not an obligatory step or a medal to be worn with pride," said Judge Di Bella.
There has been another unexpected consequence: a maternal rebellion. Mothers have approached the court in secret to request that their children be sent away or ask to be sent away themselves. Others have turned informant.
The new protocol will see specialised teams of psychologists, social workers, tutors and foster families set up and financed by the region to transform the largely ad hoc process into "an anti-mafia educative task force".
Psychologist Enrico Interdonato, 33, has supported three of the teenagers during their placings and said the government's support was vital in ensuring more therapists are trained in the specialist area of mafia children.
"They are emotionally rigid, raised to be 'hard men'. The important thing is to take them to a place where their surname has no resonance, so they can stop being heirs to a dynasty and get to know themselves," he told Agence France-Presse.