The Italian government has been distributing large tracts of land and assets seized from the Mafia to young groups of Sicilian farmers and entrepreneurs. The aim is to create employment and give honest Sicilians a chance to benefit from estates once controlled by Sicily's most notorious criminals.

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, and the residents are proud to demonstrate a good chunk of the island's economy is 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 controlled by the Mafia.

Italy first adopted laws on the seizure of financial resources and property from imprisoned Mafia bosses more than two decades ago, but it was not until 1996 that new legislation allowed these confiscated assets to be used for the good of society.

The Mafia had acquired these lands illegally, said Nicolo Nicolosi, mayor of Corleone. These properties were the fruit of money laundering, violence, and drug trafficking. He said the Mafia had taken over the best lands, but now these are being given back to the people.

Corleone, a farming community just 60 kilometers south of Palermo, is Sicily's most famous Mafia town, largely thanks to the Godfather movie trilogy directed by Francis Ford Coppola. But Corleone's association with the Mafia is not just fiction.

"There is no doubt," said Mr. Nicolosi, "that the most important Mafia bosses in the past 10 or 20 years were born here." He said Corleone was the birthplace of the "boss of bosses", Toto Riina, who was arrested in 1993. Bernardo Provenzano, who has been at large for 40 years and is believed to rule the mafia today, was also born in Corleone.

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 many.

When his seized properties were handed over to a cooperative of farmers, locals were concerned there would be repercussions for those entering what was considered to be sacred territory.

Most people were convinced that assets seized by the Mafia should not be touched, said the mayor. Just as relatives of turncoats were killed by the Mafia, he said, people feared that those who violated Mafia territory would also pay.

This was true in the beginning. The 'Placido Rizzotto' cooperative was assigned 200 hectares of land, partly owned by Riina. The members grow wheat which is used in the production of what has been labeled "anti-Mafia pasta."

"The first year we could find no one to provide the machine to harvest the wheat," said Francesca Massimino. "The police had to intervene to find a harvester. The company that had agreed to provide the machine had been threatened."

But the young Sicilians persevered, and soon will be inaugurating their first country-hotels in formerly Mafia-owned property, then a winery, and a riding school.

Other cooperatives have also faced trouble at first. Their vineyards have been set on fire or cut, or their guard dogs were killed.

The Tempio del Monte Jato cooperative farms the land that once belonged to a notorious mafia boss, Romualdo Agrigento. The cooperative's head, Giuseppe Randazzo, opened a restaurant but had a rough start.

"The Mafia had carried out acts of vandalism," he said. "When we came here in 1998, we found it totally abandoned, destroyed, with walls torn down, vines cut down, pipelines severed - total destruction."

Now Randazzo's cooperative markets a crisp white wine produced from the grapes of the large vineyard on the estate. "The coop has dedicated its wine to a child killed by the Mafia," he said. "The child looks at the Tempio del Monte Jato with hope. It is a message of hope for our land."

The child was the son of a man who turned state's evidence. The boy was dunked in a barrel of acid.

For Sicily, where 20 percent of adults are unemployed, the cooperatives provide welcome job opportunities. And, Mayor Nicolosi says, giving Mafia lands to honest cooperatives has diminished peoples' fear of the Mafia.