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Tot's Mafia shooting, burning death shocks stoical Italy

Francesco Arena / EPA file

Crime scene investigators working at a burnt car where three burnt bodies were found in Cassano allo Ionio, Calabria, Italy on Jan. 19. According to reports, a three-year-old boy was killed in the mafia hit.

ROME – “Don’t kill women and children” used to be part of the mafia code of honor.

That’s why the recent shooting death of a 3-year-old, whose body was burned virtually beyond recognition, has shocked this nation long used to gruesome mob killings.

“Women and children used to be off limits,” said Patrizia Venturino, a local journalist who reports on mob hits. “But it’s all changed now. Women often become bosses if their husbands go to jail or are killed. And children, well, if they are a witness to a crime, they become a liability.”

On Jan. 19, the charred remains of toddler Nicola “Coco” Campolongo were found in a torched car near a farmhouse in the southern region of Calabria, which is a base for the ‘Ndrangheta, the most powerful and feared of the four Italian mafias. His body was found alongside the remains of his grandfather Giuseppe Iannicelli, and 27-year old Ibtissam Touss, who the police identified as Iannicelli's partner.

The killing of Campolongo sparked nation-wide outrage. Last Sunday Pope Francis called the murder “unprecedented,” asking worshipers to pray for Coco and for the boy’s killer to repent.

Italian authorities believe that Iannicelli, who was serving a drug-related sentence on house arrest and was related to a government witness called Pasquale Perciaccante, drove to an appointment with members of the mafia, possibly taking his young partner and grandson as a protective measure.

But not even the sight of a 3-year-old stopped the hitman, who shot all three point-blank in the head, placed a 50-cent coin on the roof of the vehicle as if to show that their lives were cheap, and set fire to it.

Tony Gentile / Reuters file

Anti-Mafia police wearing masks to hide their identity, escort top Mafia fugitive Giovani Brusca on May 21, 1996 as he leaves Palermo's police headquarters to be taken to a maximum security prison.

“I am upset that a child was brutally murdered,” Venturino said. “But I am even more outraged at a grandfather who brings his grandson as a sort of shield against the mob, in the hope they will have pity on him.”

In the last decade the ‘Ndrangheta has won a reputation as Italy's most violent mafia. Tales of how it feeds enemies to starving pigs have recently made the headlines.  But the toddler's killing was a previously unimaginable new low. 

While Campolongo is the youngest known victim of the Italian mafias, he is not the first child to have been violently executed by the mob. In 1993 Giuseppe di Matteo, the 11-year-old son of a government witness, was kidnapped by Giovanni Brusca, a member of the Sicilian Mafia known as either “The Swine” or the “People-Slayer” for his violence.

The boy was held and tortured for 26 long months, and finally strangled and later dissolved in a barrel of acid to prevent his family from giving him a proper burial. 

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