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Godfather Country Gets a Makeover

Italy's distribution of former mafia-controlled land and assets to Sicilian farmers has not just created jobs and revived the region, but also helped clean up Sicily's notorious gangster image.


Mafiosi are losing more than just their freedom.

For most foreigners and even mainland Italians, Sicily is synonymous with the mafia. But in recent years the island has been trying to shake off the image that everything is run by organized crime.

Sicilian authorities are keen to show that large areas of the island are run by honest cooperatives of young farmers and entrepreneurs. These cooperatives have been allocated millions of dollars worth of land and property that used to be formerly controlled by the mafia.

Italy first adopted laws on the seizure of financial resources and property from imprisoned mafia bosses over two decades ago. But it wasn't until 1996 that new legislation allowed these confiscated assets to be used "for the good of society".

Birthplace of feared mafia bosses

Nicolo Nicolosi, the mayor of Corleone, 60 kms south of Palermo where land has been confiscated, said the mafia had acquired it illegally. "These properties were the fruit of money laundering, violence and drug trafficking. The mafia had taken over the best lands, but now these are being given back to the people."

Corleone, a farming community is Sicily's most famous mafia town, largely thanks to a Godfather movie trilogy directed by Francis Ford Coppola. But, Nicolosi admitted that Corleone's association with the mafia is not just fiction.

"There is no doubt that the most important mafia bosses in the past ten or twenty years were born here. Corleone was the birthplace of the 'boss of bosses', Toto Riina, arrested in 1993, and of Bernardo Provenzano, who has been at large for 40 years and is believed to rule the mafia today."

Large land holdings were confiscated from Riina, now serving numerous life sentences. The powerful mafia boss ordered the 1992 killings of two crusading anti-mafia judges, causing outrage in Italy and abroad. In Corleone, Riina was feared and respected by


Fear of retaliatory mafia action

Nicolosi said that when Riina's seized properties were handed over to a cooperative of farmers, locals were concerned there would be deadly repercussions for those entering what was considered to be "sacred territory".

"Generally people were convinced that assets seized by the mafia should not be touched. Just like relatives of turncoats were killed by the mafia, people feared that those who did would pay for violating mafia territory."

This was certainly the case in the beginning. The 'Placido Rizzotto' cooperative was assigned 200 hectares of land, partly owned by Mafia boss Riina. The members grow wheat which is then turned into what has been labeled "anti-mafia pasta".

Francesca Massimino, one of the members said the cooperative has had problems. "The first year we could find no one to provide the machine to harvest the wheat. The police had to intervene to find a harvester," he said.

Massimino believes the company that had agreed to provide the machine had been threatened.

Other cooperatives have also faced trouble including discovering that their vines had been cut or experiencing sudden fires. In one case, two Dobermans disappeared from a farm only to be found days later dead in trash cans.

Giuseppe Randazzo, owner of the Tempio del Monte Jato cooperative, which farms the land that once belonged to another infamous mafia boss Romualdo Agrigento, too said the going hadn't been easy. "The mafia had carried out acts of vandalism. When we came here in 1998 we found it totally abandoned, destroyed, with walls torn down, vines cut down, pipelines severed, total destruction," Randazzo said.

Business interests outweigh mafia fear

But the fear of the mafia has not cowed down the young Sicilian recipients of formerly mafia-controlled land and property. They have caught on to the business potential offered by the opportunity.

The Placido Rizzotto cooperative will soon be inaugurating their first country-hotels in formerly mafia owned property and, Francesca Massimino said they have other plans as well.

"There are two country-hotels, one is nearly ready. Then there will be a winery, a laboratory for herbs and a riding school," he said.

Profits for the cooperative have been growing steadily. Now members can pay themselves a salary as well as workers, equipment and supplies. Whatever is left over gets reinvested.

Even Giuseppe Randazzo's Tempio del Monte Jato cooperative has just opened its first "anti-mafia restaurant." The cooperative also markets a crispy white wine produced from the grapes of the large vineyard on the estate.

"We made this wine and we decided to dedicate it to the child killed by the mafia," Randazzo said referring to a brutal retaliatory act by mafia boss Giovanni Brusca, when he dunked in a barrel of acid the son of a man who turned in evidence to the State.

"The child looks at the Tempio del Monte Jato with hope. It is a message of hope for our land," Randazzo said.

Sicily benefiting from scheme

Dogged defiance of the mafia is now slowly paying off in Sicily. In areas where unemployment is notoriously high and averages 20 percent, dozens of new jobs have been created.

Mayor Nicolosi said that in addition to greater work opportunities, a culture of legality is now spreading among the people. The project of giving mafia lands to honest cooperatives has diminished people's fear in the mafia.

"When people realize that the mafia can be beaten and is no longer invincible, then long-term results can be achieved," Nicolosi said.

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