BUCCINASCO — Giulia prepares lunch for her two-year-old son Luca and smiles. "It's nice here," the teenage mother says.
Giulia, just shy of turning 18, is what Social Services call a "fragile mother." But the courts have recently given her one last chance to keep custody of her child. She'll try to do so with the help of social workers present 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in an apartment inside a villa in a small city of about 28,000 that is just south of Milan.
They call this the "Platì of the North," in reference to the small town in the province of Reggio Calabria, in Southern Italy, that produced the leading families in the ‘Ndrangheta crime syndicate. Starting in the 1960s, those families — the Sergis, Papalias, Barbaros and Trimbolis — established their new kingdom in Buccinasco. They did business here, relocated their families from Platí, acquired assets.
But a series of nationwide investigations that began in the late 1990s has since put many of the crime network's leading figures behind bars. Today, those assets have been confiscated, and one woman, with the mayor's backing, has put those properties in the hands of mothers.
The ex-mafia's mansion valued 2 million euros is now converted into three apartments that house 18 people.
Rosa Palone, 33, is originally from Puglia in the South, but has long lived in Buccinasco. Since 2017 she has served as Councilor for Welfare, Social Innovation and Anti-Mafia Culture in the wealthy heart of Milan (one of the top 40 Italian cities ranked by income per capita).
On Oct. 26 she inaugurated La Tua Casa (Your House) for Giulia and other mothers like her. The "house" is a mansion really, valued at 2 million euros and converted into three apartments that will house 18 people. It previously belonged to boss Paolo Sergi.
The villa where Sergi was said to be worth 2 million euros — Photo: La Stampa
After the property was first seized it became a private asylum. When that failed, the city, under Mayor Rino Pruiti, acquired the property, paying off its 400,000 euros of debt. The city then accepted bids for potential projects and ultimately decided to turn the property over to a group called the Aibc Cooperative, for mothers in need.
"These are women with histories of violence, alcohol, drugs, destroyed families," says Valentina Bresciani, who works with the cooperative. "They need a peaceful environment. This is the ideal place."
The Office, where all the mafia's kidnappings were planned, today it's a recreational center.
But it's not just them, Rosa Palone explains. It's also or the children. "We felt it was natural to dedicate these confiscated spaces to families," she says.
On the Via Bramante lies the Spazio Gioco, or play space. It once was known as L'ufficio — The Office, otherwise known as the pizzeria belonging to the ‘ndrina, where all the organization's kidnappings were planned, including those of Cesare Casella and Alessandra Sgarella, which made headlines around the world.
Today it's a recreational center. In the afternoons kids do their homework under supervision, and on Friday evenings mom and dad can drop them off to enjoy three hours of freedom. "This past Friday we had 20 kids, and we're already full up for the next few weeks," says Palone.
A little further down the way, along the via Nearco, there's another villa, half of which has been seized. In the front part of the building lives the wife of boss Rocco Papalia. In the back, the confiscated quarters have been used to start a pilot project to house unaccompanied minors under SPRAR, Italy's refugee and asylum-seeker protection organism.
Papalia had other buildings, too, in the via Don Minzoni. Today in two of those confiscated apartments live two families, placed by a social reinsertion and housing project. "They can't afford a house at market rates," explains coordinator Alberto Nodi. "We help them insert themselves in the working world, manage their money, and start saving." [Editor's Note: In Buccinasco, rent on a two-room apartment is about 800 euros per month].
The programs of supporting elderly people and disabled kids are all allocated in the villas confiscated from bosses.
The city is also focusing on supporting families who have elderly relatives to take care of. In several weeks it will launch a project to house four autonomous seniors together. The two apartments allocated for the program, on the via Vittorio Emanuele, were also confiscated from bosses.
"We're helping families that often have trouble handling those of a certain age," says Palone.
Finally, in November, a 'relief weekend' will be launched for children with disabilities: a suite of confiscated apartments in the via Independenza have been set up for a project called "Dopo di Noi" (After Us).
"Every weekend we will host four disabled children," Palone explains. "The parents get to relax and the kids get to experience community life, and get used to the idea of a life without mommy and daddy."
For Mayor Rino Pruiti, the initiatives are "proof that the ‘Ndrangheta has lost." He acknowledges that the mafia still exists. "But it longer controls our territory," he adds.
The mayor points to the allocation of funds as further proof of this commitment.
"To date, 4 million euros out of the 20 million-euro municipal budget of 2019 are destined for welfare, education and the environment," Pruiti says. "We will never again let the anti-state replace us. In Buccinasco, the government, the State, is now present."
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