ROME — Twelve-year-old Andrea Esposito was in the wrong place at the wrong time and it cost him his life.
One morning in September he witnessed a brutal Mafia ambush in a seedy wholesale produce market near Naples, where he worked unloading fruit crates before school to help his family get by.
After shooting the man they had come to kill, the gunmen--from a clan of the Camorra, the Naples region branch of the Mafia--turned their attention to those who had seen them.
Years ago, Andrea's tender age might have saved him. He might have got away with an icy warning to keep his mouth shut.
As Andrea huddled in a corner crying out for mercy, one of the killers put a gun to the boy's head and fired twice.
The Mafia and its offshoots have killed children before in their long and violent history. But such killings were rare. They were often by-products of attacks targeted at others and the Mafia went to great pains to keep such killings quiet.
"One of the masterpieces of the Mafia's self-generated public relations image has been to make people believe that its 'men of honor' kept women and children out of their conflicts," said sociologist Pino Arlacchi, an expert on the Mafia.
Still, Andrea's execution, the second killing of a child by organized crime groups in two days, shocked and outraged a country largely inured to gangland violence.
"The killing of children now occurs with much greater frequency and there is no attempt to hide it," Arlacchi said.
Two days before, 8-year-old Paolo Longobardi died when a gunman who had come to kill the boy's father sprayed their bedroom window with shots from a hunting rifle.
No longer concerned about a facade of honor, the killers now make no effort to make sure children or other witnesses are not in the way when they attack their targets.
Paolo and his father were the latest victims of a gangland feud between two Camorra clans in Castellamare di Stabia, south of Naples.
Andrea and the Longobardis were among 10 people killed in a rash of Camorra violence in a 72-hour period. Nearly 160 have died this year.
Police say the spiraling violence stems from the breakdown of the Camorra's two monolithic umbrella families into 106 rival clans fighting to control lucrative drug trafficking, extortion and smuggling rackets.
"Before, big flare-ups in organized crime violence occurred cyclically, every generation or so, when the young members took over from the old chiefs," said Arlacchi. "Now these conflicts are continuous, with a much higher number of dead."
After the killings of the children, Italy's national police chief Vincenzo Parisi--usually a man of few words--gave a flurry of television and newspaper interviews to assure the country that the forces of law had the situation under control.
Parisi said the indiscriminate violence showed the Camorra was in a desperate panic because police were taking advantage of the break-up of the big families to crack down.
Not everybody agreed with Parisi's suggestion that the Camorra clans were going wild because they felt the heat.
Right-wing Sen. Rafaele Valensise demanded that either the government give top priority to organized crime or admit the failure of its current strategy and start all over again.
"If not even this recent ferocity and brutality by the clans can dislodge the state into making a commitment in places where organized crime strikes out in an indiscriminate way, that means there is little hope of winning this war," he said.
The flare-up in the Naples area coincided with a burst of fresh violence in Calabria, where more than 200 people have been killed this year by the 'Ndrangheta, the poor southern mainland region's version of the Mafia.
The violence in much of southern Italy has prompted the influential Roman Catholic Church to denounce organized crime with renewed vigor.
"This concerted position of the church, these bishops, these priests, who speak out openly against the Mafia, this is truly something historically important," said Arlacchi.
Throughout the country, priests, bishops and cardinals urged Italians to cut the lifeline of organized crime by rebelling against "omerta," the Mafia's "code of silence."
"Those mouths and eyes which have been shut by brutality must finally make us open our mouths and our eyes to speak and see for them," said Bishop Antonio Riboldi of Acerra, a Camorra-infested city near Naples.
Rome Cardinal Ugo Poletti accused Italian political parties of weakening the fight against organized crime by bickering too much about strategy.
At Naples' most significant religious event, the prayers for the "liquifaction miracle" of the blood of St. Gennaro, the city's patron, Cardinal Michele Giordano attacked the Camorra for the brutal deaths of the children.
Bishop Riboldi, who travels with a police escort because of Camorra death threats, called for a new attitude among people living in Mafia strongholds to break the crime cartels.
"There is no more time to make believe we don't see and don't know," he said.