Pope Francis visited the heartland of one of Italy's most feared mafias Saturday, saying no more children should die at the hands of organized crime as he traveled to the hometown of a toddler killed in a clan war.
"It must never again happen that a child suffers in this way," the pope said as he met relatives of "Coco" Campolongo, a three-year-old shot dead in January in the heartland of the powerful 'Ndrangheta mafia in an apparent mob hit over money.
Francis was in the Calabria region for a one-day trip despite fears his safety could be put at risk by provoking the local underworld.
"I continuously pray for him. Do not despair," Francis told Coco's grandmothers and uncle during a visit to the Castrovillari prison, where the toddler's father is serving time for drug-related crimes.
He asked them to pass the message on to Coco's mother, who was also in prison at the time of his murder and is now living under house arrest.
Coco was shot in the head in January, executed along with his grandfather and his Moroccan companion after a drug debt went unpaid.
The discovery of his body, still strapped to a car-seat, in a burnt-out Fiat Punto sent shock waves through Italy, as did the murder just two months later of another three-year-old in the nearby Puglia region.
The pope's trip to what is the second-poorest region in the south of Italy aims not only to remember child victims but also highlight the problems the young have in escaping the pervasive grip of the wealthy 'Ndrangheta.
Unemployment for people under 25 years old in the region stands at 56.1 percent, the highest in Italy in 2013 according to Eurostat, and local mobsters thrive by offering idle youngsters work, luring them into their networks.
According to Save the Children Italy, more than a third of all families in the impoverished south live in communities known to be under the control of clans.
Many of the inmates the pope met at Castrovillari were serving time for mafia-related crimes.
Under a blistering southern sun, Francis approached all 200 prisoners one by one, several of them weeping as he clasped their hands.
Francis stopped to speak with a group of disabled people in the large crowd of faithful outside the jail, before heading by helicopter to Coco's hometown of Cassano allo Jonio, nestled at the bottom of a steep mountain.
There the 77-year-old pontiff, who was met with cheers and the release of dozens of yellow and white balloons, visited a hospice and was set to meet with priests, before lunching with poor and young people.
Francis's determination to confront organized crime groups has sparked warnings that he could become a target, with respected Calabrian state prosecutor Nicola Gratteri saying in November that the 'Ndrangheta was "nervous".
The 'Ndrangheta plays a leading role in the global cocaine trade and its bastion, the Calabria region, is a major transit point for drug shipments from Latin America to the rest of Europe.
It has benefited in the past from historic ties to the Catholic Church, with crime bosses claiming to be God-fearing Catholics and priests turning a blind eye to crimes.
But over the past 20 years numerous priests have taken part in the fight against the clans, sometimes paying for their bravery with their lives.
© AFP 2014