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The son of a mafia boss who rebelled against his destiny

Antonio Piccirillo – scion of a capo in Italy’s Camorra criminal organization – is encouraging other young people in his situation to stay away from a life of crime

Antonio Piccirillo
Antonio Picirillo, in the bedroom of his house.Paolo Manzo

A few years ago, in the center of Naples, a stray bullet in a shootout between rival clans hit a four-year-old girl. She had been sitting with her grandmother on a terrace.

The story of Noemi – the girl who ended up in a coma due to lung injuries caused by the ammunition – circled around the world.

Antonio Piccirillo saw the news. He didn’t know how to channel all the discomfort he felt, which he had been accumulating over a lifetime of omertà, as the code of silence in Italy is known. But the next day – May 5, 2019 – he decided to attend a public demonstration against the Camorra criminal organization, along with three friends. He had no plan – he simply wanted to be in solidarity with the people protesting.

At one point during the rally, he heard a speaker say that all the sons of gangsters were the same. He asked for the megaphone.

“My name is Antonio Piccirillo. I am the son of Rosario Piccirillo, who, in his life, made many mistakes and was a member of Italy’s Camorra mafia. Always love your parents, but disassociate yourself from their lifestyle, because it leads nowhere and only causes suffering. The bad life has always been terrible. Today and 150 years ago.”

The people froze. Picirillo – the capo of the clan that ruled the Torretta neighborhood in Naples for decades – was a legend in the world of organized crime. His family had made its living in the 1960s by smuggling cigarettes. They always lived that way, without major conflicts. That is, until Raffaelle Cutolo – the historical leader of the Camorra – created Nuova Camorra Organizzata (New Organized Camorra) at the end of the 1970s. This system imposed a methodical and hierarchical structure over the territory, with the idea being to compete with the powerful Cosa Nostra in Sicily.

Cutolo wanted a piece of everything. He counted each carton of tobacco that moved in Naples. It was a mistake, as smugglers are thick-skinned people. Picirillo and many others simply couldn’t accept this. They associated with the families of Secondigliano – the northeastern neighborhood – and fully entered the Camorra to start a war without mercy.

Antonio’s father – nicknamed O’biondo (the blonde) – is in prison today. He is a son of that long history of organized crime: he took over from a generation of mafiosi who are now nearly extinct. Elegant, handsome, always well dressed and discreet. The prototype of the old school mobster. He was in and out of prison for years, never betraying anyone, always maintaining his image.

The last thing one expects in this type of family – where silence is the law – is for a child to publicly denounce this lifestyle, with a megaphone in hand.

Antonio is 27 years old. He has blond hair – like his father – and green eyes. He speaks with EL PAÍS at noon on a Tuesday, seated at a table in a small tavern in the Santa Lucía market.

Antonio grew up in a Camorra family. And that, he says, implies having few memories.

“My father spent many years in and out [of prison]. We would see each other for brief periods. I hardly have any photos with him. It was a childhood, let’s say, of absences. But everything seemed normal. We were not the typical rowdy family – at home, we pretended to be normal. They told us lies all day to hide what was happening. The lying mothers, as I call them. Lies in good faith, of course, so as not to make us suffer. They told me that my father was an architect, a lawyer… and you would later tell these lies to your friends, to acquaintances.”

The story was similar to the one heard by so many other children of imprisoned bosses: the father is a builder; the jail – where you have to go from time to time to chat in a small room, sitting on iron chairs – was one of the buildings where he was working. It went on like this for quite some time. Until, one day, someone opened his eyes.

His best friend – the daughter of a family at odds with his family’s control of the area – brought Antonio a newspaper. On the cover appeared his father and the words “usury,” “extortion” and “jail.”

“That’s what your father does,” she told him.

At first, it was hard. He cried and didn’t understand anything. But he soon connected the dots.

“There were always people going in and out of the house. They hid when the police rang the doorbell, because my father was under house arrest and couldn’t receive visitors,” he recalls.

Little by little, he got used to this reality. And even began to like it.

“Old-school mobsters, like my father, caused a certain fascination. [They were] sinister, but very magnetic. Always well-dressed, very polite. They know how to talk, walk... they were very attentive. And I grew up with that idea of my father. Besides, I never had a clear idea of why some people treated me so well here. I’m very polite and respectful… but it always seemed like I deserved more than my friends. I saw that, if I hit a window or a market stall with a ball, the owner didn’t scold me, but he would scold my friends. And that impressed them. Walking around the neighborhood with the son of the boss had its privileges.”

That idea of blood privilege dominates the epic of the mafia story. TV series like Gomorrah have marked the mystique of the mafia in Italy and the family bonds that tie them together. That’s not to mention the cars, expensive clothes, tattoos, secret networks. This goes for Naples, but also in Sicily or Calabria, where blood ties are even stronger.

Almost everyone likes this lifestyle at first. But Antonio’s decision has shown a different way forward for others. Like Giosuè – the eldest son of one of the ‘Ndrangheta mafia clans in the Calabrian municipality of Rosarno – he also disowned his family after initial complicity.

A few years ago, a judge began to implement a controversial measure to keep the children of gangsters away from their parents. Roberto Di Bella – president of the Reggio Calabria juvenile court – designed the Free to Choose project. He began to take away custody of children from a large number of families from the ‘Ndrangheta. It was a harsh and highly controversial measure which produced results. And even a movie.

Antonio didn’t need anyone to separate him from his family. He just got fed up with it all. He turned to theater, music, the sea, literature. But the day he raised his voice in the square, silence fell all around him. In the neighborhood, he started having problems. Dirty looks, threats, spitting. He fell into depression, experiencing obsessive disorders.

A month after the demonstration, he went to see his father in the maximum security prison where he was being held.

“He told me: ‘If you think you’ve betrayed me or hurt me, you’re wrong. I feel for you: I’m afraid that you won’t be able to withstand this pressure.’ Many believed that I was repenting and collaborating with [the legal system]. They put my picture in the newspaper next to Giuseppe Misso, a guy who killed a lot of people and ended up regretting it.”

“What do I have to regret? Only not having spoken out earlier.”

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