Page last updated at 08:51 GMT, Friday, 11 June 2004 09:51 UK

Sicily offers safe taste of mafia life

By Tamsin Smith
BBC correspondent in Sicily

The view from the villa in Italy's Corleonese valley
Room with a view: Sicily is handing back the mafia's ill gotten gains

For decades, Sicily's richest agricultural property has been ruled by the mafia.

Land equates to power, even if the landlord is in prison.

But now, Italy is regenerating property confiscated from jailed gangsters and giving it back to the community.

It is Italy's first such government-backed project, and is reaping some unexpected rewards.

The summer residence of notorious mafia boss Giovanni Brusca opens its doors on 19 June as Italy's first 'anti-mafia' holiday home.

This stone farmhouse, perched high on a rocky hillside overlooking the Corleonese valley, was part of Brusca's 20 acre estate.

It was seized by the Italian state and handed over to the Consortium for Legal Development.

Climate of fear

It is one more success story for the consortium, based in the mafia heartlands south of Palermo.

With the help of EU money, it has put confiscated mafia land and villas firmly back in the hands of the community.

The group has employed groups of young jobless people to run farming co-operatives, taught them new skills and tried to combat the climate of fear.

Drinking a wine confiscated from mafia land gives it a special flavour - the flavour of legality.
Lucio Guarino

"For 20 years criminals ruled this countryside," says the consortium's director Lucio Guarino.

"By regenerating their land and property, we want to send the message that it's not just the mafia who rules here now - it is also the state."

Tourists excited by the prospect of sleeping in a mafia don's house may also thrill at the prospect of drinking wine from his vineyard, and eating pasta made from his wheat fields.

These 'anti-mafia' products are now also on sale in supermarkets around Italy and are growing in popularity

"We've named our produce 'Placido Rizzotto'," explains Lucio Guarino, while pouring a glass of anti-mafia dry white.

"That's to honour a union leader from Corleone, who was shot by the mafia in 1948 for trying to take the communities' farm land back.

"I personally think that drinking a wine confiscated from mafia land gives it a special flavour - the flavour of legality."

Scare tactics

It has not been easy reclaiming confiscated mafia land for the community.

Mafia boss Giovanni Brusca was captured in 1996
Giovanni Brusca was a godfather in the Sicilian mafia until his arrest

The big criminal bosses may be in jail, but their associates are still capable of intimidation, as the project workers found out.

"The first year we had just sowed our crops and a flock of sheep came from nowhere to destroy them," says Mimo Manselmo, who runs one of the consortium's farming co-operatives.

"Then the day before the project's first grain harvest, every combine harvester in the area mysteriously disappeared."

Guarino adds: "We've had threats, things put through our doors, but we carried on.

"Today the mafia looks at us differently because we're not afraid."

Powerful role

Sicily's mafia, known as 'Cosa Nostra', is certainly less visible than in the past.

But Professor Umberto Santino, an expert in Sicilian organised crime, says their power should not be underestimated.

"The mafia aren't carrying out high profile killings any more, so it looks like they don't exist.

"While they may not be in visible ownership of the territory, we should not forget they play a powerful role deep inside the economy and Italy's institutions."

Fighting the mafia is not just about jailing the ring leaders. It is also about changing attitudes.

And there are some signs that the culture of fear that has pervaded the countryside here for so long is starting to thaw.

Small steps

Local villagers, happy to sip the anti-mafia wine, timidly welcome this project to regenerate mafia land on their doorstep.

"Before there was more fear," says one of them, Renzo.

The confiscated summer residence of mafia boss Giovanni Brusca
'Casa nostra': the anti-mafia industry could spread across Italy

"But this is definitely a small step towards changing people's mentality."

"I think it's a great idea," agrees Calagero.

"It is our land after all, and it's now giving us jobs."

The Consortium for Legal Development is already working on new ways to use mafia property.

A horse-riding centre, an aromatic herb nursery, residences for the homeless and a children's summer camp are all plans in the pipeline.

There are now plans to expand the project to other areas of Sicily and southern italy.

And the success of this model has even attracted attention from anti-mafia authorities in Russia and Ukraine.

But throughout Italy only 10% of land confiscated from the mafia is used and regenerated like this.

The rest lies abandoned and derelict, perpetuating the culture of fear.

More anti-mafia pasta, wine and holiday homes could be the answer.

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