ROME, Italy - The brother of Italy’s most dangerous mafioso, arrested in 2006 after 43 years of hiding, says the state has “stolen his property, built with the sweat of years of hard work in Germany.”
But despite what Bernardo Provenzano tells the media, the residents of Corleone, a small town in Sicily considered a hotbed of the Mafia, have finally gained back some of what they feel the Provenzano family stole during decades of violence and extortion.
The two-story building that once housed the country's most dreaded gangster has now turned into something unusual: a boutique selling traditional agro-food products from the country estates formerly owned by Cosa Nostra, Sicily’s powerful Mafia, but that are today run by young unemployed locals and relatives of assassinated victims. Soon a Mafia library and a room for conferences on legality and justice will open here as well, paving the way towards making the edifice Italy’s first museum on the Mafia.
The store, called the Shop of Flavors and Wisdoms, is run by Liborio Corato, a local resident who hails the remodeling of the building.
“Thanks to this shop Corleone’s image and reputation will change. We have been given back our dignity, freedom and pride. Before, the town was considered as the Mafia’s capital but today a new bright future is possible," Corato said. "From now on Corleone will be remembered as the city who had the courage to look ahead. The shop symbolizes the presence of the state, demonstrating that it has not abandoned these lands.”
On Aug. 15, the Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni - who in two years has arrested 6,483 mafiosi, seized 32,790 criminal assets worth 15 billion euros and launched an agency for the seizure of all “blood” patrimonies - inaugurated the boutique amid tight security measures. Shooters had been placed on the roof to avoid any extreme actions by those of the Provenzano clan.
Few residents, however, attended the opening ceremony.
“Many people are still afraid of change. Bernardo Provenzano’s brother lives just a few blocks from here. You know, it’s not easy to alter the mentality but the new boutique encourages to be more optimistic.”
After all, recalls Corato, Corleone claims over 45 churches, two saints and 5 beatified Catholics. “It has a lot to be proud of," he said.
The mayor, Antonino Iannazzo, acknowledges that “some residents don’t approve of what we are doing yet on the whole. There’s a general feeling of social ransom. In the last years we have restored 38 Mafia-seized assets turning them to public use including a youth hostel, a parking lot and a recreation center."
The “Shop of Flavors and Wisdoms” belongs to the Development and Legality Association, set-up in 2000 to recover for social and economic use some 700 hectares of Mafia-clutched manors and buildings scattered across Sicily. The association is funded in part by the Italian Interior Minister and the European Union.
Roughly 57,000 euros went in to restructuring the Provenzano family's former lodgings. Here clients can now find high quality fruit, vegetables, cereals, wheat and lentils grown in the “blood” fields, savory wines and home-made spaghetti.
The “Basket of Freedom,” containing samples of each, is set to become the most popular souvenir for tourists visiting the former home of the Corleone’s boss. The products are labeled with a specific trademark called “Free Land,” which guarantees the flavor of legality and freedom, says Lucio Guarino, director of the association.
“The aim of our organization is to promote and spread a healthy entrepreneurial culture in densely criminal areas, create new workplaces and foster local development opportunities by rescuing the youth from becoming social outcasts, thus at risk of being co-opted by Cosa Nostra, which feeds off the high unemployment rate.”
The Mafia, argues Guarino, is an inbred social cancer stemming from a particular mindset hard to modify. But a revolution is in the air.
“When we launched our first tender in 2001 to outsource the lands, 100 youth applied while in 2006 they were more than 400," he said. “When I ask them if they are scared (of the Mafia), they reply ‘no, just as long as you give us a job’.”
Work, it seems, is the best antidote.
Among the properties redesigned by Guarino’s team in Sicily is land once owned by another famous Mafia boss put behind bars, Toto Riina, which has been turned into a rural farm blending tourism and agriculture.
“From the criminal assets we have created a horse-riding center, a lab for legumes production, several wine cellars and a ‘Remembrance Garden’ for schools in honor of a child killed and melted with acid in a Mafia vendetta in 1996," Guarino said.
Other ambitious projects are on their way. Guarino hopes that by the end of this year a basement formerly used as a money-laundering site will be transformed into the headquarters of his association, while another “blood” cellar, today an enological center, is expected soon to host a wine bar open to the public.