2007-01-05 Kate Hairsine
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The EU cleans up mafia assets

Rural house in SicilyRural house in Sicily
Although the Sicilian Mafia have stopped the high-profile murders and bloody gang warfare of the 1990s, the organisation still controls large parts of the southern Italian island.

But an EU-funded project aims to break the culture, of depending on the mafia for work, by providing legal jobs in the mafia heartlands, south of Palermo. And they are fighting the bosses with their own weapons - by using land confiscated from imprisoned mafia gangsters. Deutsche Welle’s Kate Hairsine reports from Sicily.

Sheets commemorating Giovanni Falcone and Paolo BorsellinoSheets commemorating Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino
Sicilian police desperately called for ambulances to treat those injured in the 1992 bombing of a car carring anti-mafia magistrate Giovanni Falcone. But for Falcone, his wife and three of his bodyguards, it was too late. Their car was completely destroyed as it passed over 500 kilograms of explosives dug into the motorway near the Sicilian capital of Palermo. When captured by police in 1996, mafia member Giovanni Brusca confessed to being involved in Falcone's assassination. Brusca also told police he had committed at least a hundred murders. His family’s land was seized by the government and in 2000, handed over to an organization called the Consortium for Legal Development. It restores property confiscated from imprisoned mafiosi and gives them back to the community. The project is the only one of its kind in Italy. According to Lucio Guarino, the organization’s director, returning the properties sends a powerful message.

"The Brusca family controlled the fortunes of this territory for nearly thirty years. So it’s an incredible symbol. Here land equals power. And this project shows that with the will of the people, it’s possible to confiscate and restore mafia land".

Giovanni BruscaGiovanni Brusca
The small stone farmhouse on the former Brusca land at San Guiseppe Jato some 40 minutes from Palermo was renovated in 2004. It’s now Sicily’s first anti-mafia agriturismo – or farmstay. Here, tourists can also enjoy organic pasta milled from wheat grown on Brusca’s land and organic wine made from his vineyards.

"They’re all high quality products. Pasta from land liberated from the mafia – there’s also lentils, chick peas, tomato paste … With these products, we’re demonstrating that it’s not just the mafia who are here, but also the anti-mafia, and those who are against the mafia are not just full of talk, they’re doing something concrete".

The Legal Development consortium, which was established six years ago, is based in the mafia heartlands south of Palermo. It has received four and a half million euros in funding from the European Union and the Sicilian government. This money is primarily used to make the land and villas viable again, says Guarino.

"There is a big time delay between when the properties are confiscated and when they are returned to us. Years can go by. The grounds and the buildings fall into disrepair - some of them are in really terrible condition. If this phase was managed better, we could use the money to make the properties even better than they originally were, rather than just restore them back to their original condition".

Lucio GuarinoLucio Guarino
The consortium employs young jobless people and forms them into cooperatives. The ventures are diverse - from growing melons and tomatoes, to running a vineyard and of course, the agriturismo. The organization currently supports four such cooperatives, where 70 people work full-time on more than 300 hectares of land. The cooperatives in turn, employ dozens of seasonal workers. In an area with an unemployment rate of nearly 30 percent, Guarino says job creation is a key aspect of the project.

"Because it’s only by creating work in the region that you can eliminate the privation that feeds the mafia, that gives them power. Most people would accept working for a mafia boss just so they have a job, and can take home some money. But the moment you provide people with legal work and pay their health and social insurance, you reduce the mafia’s power. That is the secret of our project".

Francesco works for the Placido Rizzotto cooperative, which is named for a union leader murdered by the mafia. According to him, at the beginning it wasn’t always easy attracting seasonal workers.

"When they heard that the properties had been confiscated from mafia bosses, which in this region are the highest authorities, and that it was a government-run project – well, there were a lot of reservations".

Nicola is one of the men who have been regularly employed in the former Brusca vineyards for the past two years. He’s from the nearby village of Roccamena, and says the reason he’s working on the confiscated land is simple.

" It’s a job, and I do it because I need to. … There’s a lot of unemployment."

Placido RizzottoPlacido Rizzotto
But he says others in the village don’t give him trouble because of his job.

"Because they know that it’s something that is well run, and is well organized".

Although the projects might be gradually winning over some, the local mafia bosses aren’t beyond trying to intimidate their adversaries, as the project’s leaders found out. Francesco reels off a list of scare tactics such as arson attempts, crops that were deliberately destroyed, and more recently, a hanged dog.

"That’s a clear message – “you are not wanted.” We are not fully accepted everywhere".

There are now plans to expand the project into other areas of southern Italy. And the model has proved so successful, it has attracted the attention of other countries with their own mafia problems, such as Georgia and Romania.

But for the moment the Consortium of Legal Development is busy with the latest addition to the former Brusca property - a riding stable. The stalls were only finished a few months ago and the cooperative hopes to set up a business giving riding lessons to children in the surrounding villages. Like many of their projects, the stables in themselves are symbolic. A large wooden sign dedicates them to Giuseppe di Matteo. He was an eleven-year-old boy who was kidnapped by Brusca because his father – a mafioso - had informed on others involved the Falcone killing. Despite a police manhunt, Matteo was held for more than two years, tortured, and eventually killed. One of his favorite activities had been horse riding.

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