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Sezione Locale della Società Psicoanalitica Italiana


Little criminals: The “Paranze” of Camorra

This unpublished paper was presented at the 35th Annual Conference of the FEP- European Federation of Psychoanalysis, entitled “Ideals”, Vienna 15-17 July 2022

Massimo De Mari

(Padova), Full Member of Società Psicoanalitica Italiana, Centro Veneto di Psicoanalisi and member of the Psychoanalysis and Justice Commitee of IPA

“Cause we’ve almost made it,

we’ve almost made it,

we’ve almost made it to the top”

(Randy Newman)

Paranza, in mafia slang, describes metaphorically an armed gang but, literally, it refers to little fish which are blinded, and at the same time attracted by the strong light of lamps used by fishermen (called “lampare”). The fish, then, come to the surface from the bottom of the sea and are consequently trapped by the fishing nets (Saviano, 2016, p.11).

The same happens to certain youngsters who are blinded and attracted by the desire of easy money and power which they have no chance to get, given their age and social situation. But, in order to look like they have achieved that high-level lifestyle imposed by our nihilistic and consumerist society, they choose crime, violence, and oppression as their lifelines, knowing perfectly well that they are going to risk their life to reach that ideal model of existence. The term “paranza” is used to describe gangs of children, aged 10-16 and raised in mafia families, who are enrolled more and more frequently in their criminal activities.

The aim of this presentation is to underline how ideal-ego and ego-ideal for these children are linked together and very hard to distinguish from one another.

In Italy, the well-known anti-social phenomenon called “mafia” has historical roots in the nineteen century. At this point in time, Italy was formally becoming a whole nation, built from a large number of fragmented state-towns and regions. In reality, it took a long time for Italy to become united. The government decided that the northern and more advanced part of Italy needed to grow, in order to sustain the economy. This drove most of the state financial budget towards northern industries and factories, leaving the south totally abandoned to its basic economy, substantially supported by agriculture and farming.

The government wasn’t even able to make people follow the national rules, as they were far from the population’s expectations. The economical asymmetric situation, in fact, had led to more possibilities for young people to study and to find a job in the North. As a consequence, in the North human rights were much more respected, particularly regarding the role of the women in society. In those years, social, political, and financial assets grew fast in the North, while the South of Italy was fighting against poverty and ignorance. That’s why some criminal personalities became popular heroes, as they took the place of the government and started thinking about how to help people to react to this kind of institutional injustice. Despite those great differences in the quality of life, people in the South had to pay the same taxes as the ones in the North. The first families who took care of these problems started by establishing a local unofficial government (obviously targeted to their own private interests) that was able to answer the people’s need for food, order, and rules.

In the beginning, the mafia was an alternative government that fought against the Italian official government, on the side of the Sicilian people. But over time, it became a more and more structured criminal organization which only took care of its own economic interests, using its power against the population.

We all know how the mafia format has been exported abroad by mafia families, first in the U.S.A. (soon after the second world war) and then all around the world, particularly in European northern countries. Mafia also spread out in Italy, with different names linked to different social local backgrounds. So, we call it “mafia” when we talk about Sicily. In the region called Campania we have “Camorra”, in Calabria we have “N’drangheta” and in Puglia we have “Sacra Corona Unita”.

To end this brief historic excursus, it’s important to understand how (under these different names) we find different ways of interpreting the mafia criminal way of living.

In Sicily, the members of mafia families are linked by holy oaths which protect (or used to protect) women and children from the family criminal life. The Sicilian mafia is international but doesn’t want to get power, as they are only interested in money. Families of Camorra are very close, and they are able to create and keep very strong affective links among their members. Their aim is to be recognized as a respected social authority in the area where they live, and don’t export their activities abroad. Sacra Corona Unita is the smallest mafia organization, but it’s very powerful in Puglia and has strong links with politics. Lastly, N’drangheta is maybe, nowadays, the most dangerous form of mafia because its aim is to conquer new territories, in order to reach economic and political power, both in Italy and abroad.

Maybe you might have heard something about an important Italian magistrate/judge who managed for the first time to  understand the rules of mafia and, for its activities, has been killed with a bomb on may 23rd 1992.

His name was Giovanni Falcone (he is a sort of national hero in Italy), and he used to say:”Mafia is a human phenomenon, and just like every human phenomenon has a beginning, an evolution and also an end” (1991).

Calling mafia, a human phenomenon was a way to demistify/debunk it and to take away that halo/glow of mistery which for many years has contributed to deny the fact that it could even exist or to make it almost inconceivable. Even today if you go to any town in Sicily and ask the inhabitants any question about the Mafia, the answer will almost certainly be “the Mafia does not exist.” And it is true because the Mafia arises, as we have seen, from historical roots that are still very much entrenched especially in certain less culturally developed areas.


The child empty mind gains the possibility to think when it meets with the familiar capacity of thinking. It is possible to point out a strict relationship between the familiar possibility of thinking with the process of subjectivation, whose result depends on the quality of the familiar thought which might hinibit or improve the potentiality of the child to produce symbols.

If the familiar thinking is saturated and it is characterized by rigid behaviors and thinking patterns, the individual might become a victim of a circular and paralyzing repetition which will make him a mere executor of something already thought which has saturated all his/her symbolic maker mind’s links (Menarini R., Pontalti C. 1986, p.18).

Mafia’s way of thinking is the expression of a familiar matrix qualitatively saturated, qualified by a strong representation of the family compared with the individual’s weak one; the individual then is forced to find protection in the family or in the clan or in a big protective figure (like the so called “godfather”, for exemple).

The internal representation of a good world, made by “men of respect” and of a bad external world is a fundamental characteristic of the mafia way of thinking: like in many fundamentalisms, the ways of thinking are dichotomous and totalizing so that the external world is split in a punitive way.

To escape from an empty and anonymous identity, therefore to have the right to exist, the mafia member looks for an omnipotent celebration of the self, given by the affiliation to the mafia family.

So we can understand how this kind of psychological training inside the mafia families might easily lead to the development of antisocial and psychopathic personalities.

There are plenty of famous movies on this topics that can explain more than many words what I am saying. From the most famous “The Godfather” series by Francis Ford Coppola (started in 1972), to “Once upon a time in America” (1984, by Sergio Leone), “Goodfellas” (1990, by Martin Scorsese) to a more recent “Road to perdition” (2002, by Sam Mendes), where the protagonist is actually the son of a mafia killer who follows his father’s path as an ideal-ego model.

The ego-ideal is a term used by Freud as part of his second theory of the psychic apparatus: it is an instance of personality resulting from the convergence of narcissism (idealization of the ego) and identifications with parents, their substitutes and collective ideals. As a differentiated instance, the ego-ideal constitutes a model to which the subject seeks to conform.

The term “ego-ideal “first appears in “Introduction to Narcissism”(1914) to designate a relatively autonomous intrapsychic form that serves the ego as a reference for evaluating its actual achievements. Its origin is primarily narcissistic “What man projects before him as his own ideal is the substitute for the narcissism lost in childhood, that is, from that time when he himself was his own ideal.”

In “Group psychology and the Analysis of the Ego”(1921) such a process underlies the constitution of the human group. The collective ideal derives its efficacy from a convergence of individual ego ideals.

Roberto Saviano is a famous writer in Italy. He has written many books about Camorra, and for this he has been threatened with death and has lived for years accompanied by an armed escort. As In his book on “paranze” he writes…”The difference with adults is that while the former do not expose themselves and do not show themselves, kids post everything they do on social networks, without fearing that this will expose them to negative judgment indeed… (nothing must be hidden, this is the modern pornography as the philosopher Baudrillard predicted a few years ago)…if you shy away from social you don’t exist…the innocence that has led them to want everything and right away also leads them quickly to death, an idea that makes them almost happy…(if you die at ninety you are a centenarian but if you die at twenty you become a legend). In this sense they are very similar to jihadists, who have a kind of erotism of death, you attract more because to get what you want you are willing to die” (Saviano, 2017, interview).

Maybe we might call it erogenous masochism…. however much becoming an object implies the risk of being hurt, the tendency of these kids might be to expose themselves without calculation to the family who is co-constitutive of their subjectivity from the very first moment. To desubjectify themselves in their families’ hands, to lose themselves in their relationship with it, losing the boundaries of their identity, is the condition of true subjectification. It is like getting out of self-referentiality, opening themselves up to life, unbalancing themselves. Only if they lose their sense of self they will manage to find themselves fully present in the world.

I have not directly followed cases of children but I happened to know many members of mafia families who grew up according to the patterns described in this presentation and were devoted to the “family” job from an early age, with activities of logistical support (acting as poles to announce the arrival of then police in drug dealing areas) or acting as “fire groups,” i.e. using weapons.

The ideal-ego, on the other hand, is an intrapsychic form that some authors distinguish from the ego-ideal by defining it as an ideal of narcissistic omnipotence built on the model of infantile narcissism.

This second model is characterized by a greater difficulty in tolerating frustrations imposed by reality and by the use of the relationship to gratify one’s self by exerting power and a form of overpowering where an obstacle to realizing one’s omnipotent needs arises.

If the role models are inspired by violence and the overpowering of the other, life narcissism and death narcissism cannot distinguish one from the other. Likewise, the mixture between the life drive and the death drive will be unbalanced toward the death drive.  The consequence is a blockage of the subjectification process that keeps these children relegated to a passive role in which erogenous masochism prevails. The prevalence of the death drive unleashes aggression that cannot be mentally contained and is acted out. The bond of dependence with the Mafia family is destined never to be broken, and in some cases, when a family member tries to escape this dynamic, he or she is killed.

This is a simple description of a phenomenon that is increasingly expanding and characterizing the social phenomenon of the Mafia in Italy. But in these dark times that we are living through, we are witnessing an ever-increasing expansion of the phenomenon of baby gangs, which Carine will tell you about, which have nothing to do with organized crime and also affect social groups that are not particularly deprived.

Thinking about the therapeutic possibilities in this difficult field, we should first assume an educational intervention that must start from primary school and aim to educate children about legality. The challenge is to overturn the negative image of the state and offer to these children-adolescents a positive encounter experience with institutions.

This includes, for example, the musical projects of street orchestras (which originated in South America under the name of “manos blancas”) and, for example, the experience of the “ship of legality,” a cruise in which boys taken out of prison are involved with the intention of re-educating them in socialization through a group training experience.

From a judicial point of view, after committing crimes, adolescents are given the opportunity to go through a rehabilitative process of “probation,” at the end of which, if the process is successful, these little criminals are exempted from trial and re-enter social life.

From a psychoanalytic point of view every intervention with antisocial adolescents should have as a prerequisite the shared identification of their evolutionary needs, symbolically expressed through the transgressive behavior.

In practice, it is useful for treatment to be multi-systemic (i.e., intervening on the child and his or her context); integrated (capable of combining psychological, social, educational, and criminal work); individualized (aimed at the person in his or her context and history); project-oriented (future-oriented); empowering (aimed at a non-passive subject); and symbolic (attentive to the subjective meanings about being not aware of the antisocial behavior)(Maggiolini, 2014, p.283).

Finally, it is essential that the adult response be timely, swift and as early as possible, lest the cry of alarm expressed by the violent behavior go unheard, and also lest the adolescent be led to raise the bar of his or her challenge higher and higher.



De Mari M., Cenetiempo F. (2018). La paranza della camorra: educazione mafiosa e devianza minorile. Tesi Magistrale. Università degli Studi di Padova

Falcone G. (1991), Intervista, Rai3, 30 agosto 1991 https://www.rainews.it/archivio-rainews/media/Falcone-La-mafia-non-invincibile-2011d7b9-31e1-4fca-ade7-8fb81d0623e7.html

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Maggiolini A. (2014). Senza paura e senza pietà. Milano, Raffaello Cortina.

Menarini R., Pontalti C. (1986). Il set familiare. Psicoterapia e Scienze Umane, n.4

Molnar F., (1906). I ragazzi della via Pàl. Edizioni del Baldo, Castelnuovo del garda (VR) 2017.

Newman R., (1977). Little criminals. Warner Bros. North Hollywood (L.A.)

Per-gaud P. (1912). La guerra dei bottoni. Rizzoli Editore, Milano, 2010.

Saviano R. (2016). La paranza dei bambini. Milano, Feltrinelli.

Saviano R. (2017) Intervista a Roberto Saviano a Caffeina 2017; A 90 anni muori centenario, a 20 anni leggendario, 24 Giugno 2017,   https://www.caffeinamagazine.it/televisione/intervista-a-roberto-saviano-a-caffeina-2017-a-90-anni-muori-centenario-a-20-anni-leggendario/ 

Massimo De Mari, Padova

Centro Veneto di Psicoanalisi



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