Milan, Italy – Trezzano sul Naviglio is just a short drive southwest of Milan, an industrial town home to hundreds of small and medium-sized enterprises.
It is also a hub for mafia groups that have grown more influential from the mid-1970s and expanded into Italy’s rich north, a natural destination for money-laundering operations and shady business expansion.
Just outside of Trezzano sul Naviglio’s old centre is a villa that belonged to Salvatore Di Marco, a mobster linked to both Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian mafia, and the ‘Ndrangheta, the Calabrian mafia. Di Marco died in jail a few years ago.
Inside the whitewashed building, groups of high school students have gathered to learn how criminal organisations work, and what they can do in the fight against one of Italy’s biggest problems – one many politicians rarely speak about.
During their stay in Trezzano, participants attend workshops, take part in question-and-answer sessions with people who lost family members to organised crime violence, and help refurbish Di Marco’s former property and transform it into a villa to give back to the community.
On one Saturday morning Alessandra, Sara, and Giulia, all 18 years old, are working hard, their gloves covered in white paint. They are scrubbing away a thick layer of cement that Di Marco had poured on the villa’s floor once he learned about his impending arrest.
Their goal is to clean up the villa before the end of the month, when it will become a centre for refugees.
“Mafiosi really … hate it when something that formerly belonged to them is used by someone else,” Lucilla Andreucci, one of the summer camp’s managers, told Al Jazeera.
“Their way of thinking is, ‘If I can’t use it, then nobody can.’ They try to destroy as much of the villa as they can before losing it.”
The driving force behind Trezzano’s summer camp is Libera, Italy’s most influential anti-Mafia organisation.
Libera – Italian for “free” – was founded in 1995 by Don Luigi Ciotti, a priest, following a wave of popular anger after Judge Giovanni Falcone, his wife, and three policemen acting as bodyguards were blown up by a bomb planted by the Sicilian mafia on the highway connecting Palermo, Sicily’s capital, to the airport.
Many Italians cried out in indignation, but unlike other organisations founded in the wake of the killings, Libera’s initiative didn’t fade as the rage died out.
On the contrary, in less than a year it was able to establish itself as one of the most effective anti-Mafia civil society organisations on Italian soil.
Libera’s first big success came in 1996, when it was able to collect more than one million signatures to pressure the Italian parliament into signing a law enabling non-profit organisations to use properties seized from the Mafia, for free.
Today, Ciotti is one of the Mafia’s most-wanted targets.
“Indignation should always be followed by a proposition and the commitment to make it happen. If this is missing, once anger ceases, organisations naturally die out,” Ciotti told Al Jazeera.
Wire-tapped discussions between Mafia bosses had one suggesting, “we could just kill that son of a bitch”. But Ciotti said he’s unfazed by the danger.
“I am not afraid… Those threats are not only aimed at Luigi Ciotti, they are aimed at all those people that over the last 20 years have been fighting organised crime,” the priest said.
When summer educational camps for young people are not taking place, seized Mafia properties often operate as cooperatives. Some are transformed into farms. Others become vineyards, restaurants, or social centres helping immigrants or disabled people.
The intent in all the cases is the same: to empower the local community through the creation of jobs and wealth – the lack of which is the primary reason people turn to organised crime.
One of the most famous and successful examples of this strategy is the Cooperativa Placido Rizzotto. Founded in 2001 near Palermo, it covers 155,000 hectares of land that used to belong to two of the most powerful and ruthless leaders of the Sicilian mafia: “Toto” Riina and Giovanni Brusca.
Today, the cooperative employs 12 people, sells its organic products across Italy, and, most importantly, gives hope to a community that for years lived in fear of gangsters.
Twenty years after the founding of Libera, about 1,500 associations operate under its umbrella.
Libera works with hundreds of local councils to hold workshops on organised crime networks in schools across the country, especially in areas of Italy where it has a strong influence.
“There is no real change without a strong educational commitment towards the next generation,” Ciotti said.
Libera’s third important battlefront is that of collective memory: keeping the brutal reality of the Mafia alive in the country’s consciousness.
For the past nine years on every March 21 – the first day of spring – Ciotti has organised an annual “giornata della memoria” – Day of Memory – gathering in which a speaker reads aloud the names of 900 Mafia victims to a silent audience.
Every year the ritual grows a little longer and every year Libera makes the same plea: for Italy to make March 21 a national day of commemoration to reflect on the Mafia and its impact on the country.
Coupled with the effort to maintain the memory of Mafia victims is the battle against corruption, which Libera says is strongly linked to organised crime.
Since 2013, the group has collected signatures to pressure parliament to pass a new anti-corruption law. In June, the Italian government passed a new law that harshened penalties relating to false accounting and official misconduct.
Daniela Marcone, one of Libera’s vice presidents and daughter of Francesco Marcone – a public official killed in 1995 – told Al Jazeera this effort is “a step in the right direction, but a lot more needs to be done”.
“Authorities fighting the Mafia need to be given more power, and we need a law protecting whistle-blowers,” Marcone said.