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Terrified Migrants Toil on Land Taken From the Mafia in Corleone, Sicily

Refugees Working Mafia Fields to Make Living 2:22

CORLEONE, Italy — In the dark heart of Sicily near the town that for decades was the Mafia’s capital and killing ground, a dozen strangers cultivate a vineyard.

They are the new muscle on land that was taken from Corleone's most feared Mafia bosses, who were jailed for dozens of murders stretching back decades. The migrants, who are among some 400,000 to have washed up on Sicily’s shores over the past two years, were hired from refugee camps after enduring long and dangerous journeys.

The men, in their 20s and 30s, may have fled violence and poverty, but are now working on an island that has plenty of both.

"Sometimes I feel afraid," said a man from Gambia. "I'm looking over my shoulder.”

A fellow migrant from Pakistan agrees.

"The Sicilian Mafia is Sicilian [ISIS] ... They pervert identity and then they kill in the name of this identity."

"I'm alone here so sometimes we fear. Ninety-eight percent of people welcome us, but I'm worried about the 2 percent,” he said.

The two are housed in buildings confiscated from bosses like Toto “The Beast” Riina who ruled Corleone and Sicily in a reign of terror lasting 20 years. Another of his homes is now a police station.

All the men, who asked not to be identified for fear it would imperil their asylum applications, got nervous when they realized whose former land they were working.

The migrants are employed by Sicilian organization Girasoli to train vines, harvest grapes and sell their own-labelled wine. They are paid around $350 a month and get food, clothes and housing, as well as training the organization hopes will allow them to integrate into society.

Image: Corleone, Sicily migrants work in a vineyard
Migrants work in the field in Corleone, Sicily. NBC News

Andrea Camellini, who runs Girasoli, admits Mafia bosses may want their land back.

“So it could be we are in danger,” he said. “But we're proud of what we do and many people in Corleone fight against the Mafia. Some in the past died for that.”

“I try to protect the guys and I try to protect myself — I hope to live a long life,” he added.

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The wine made from the migrants' labor is named after Placido Rizzotto, a community leader who fought against the Mafia in the 1940s and paid for it with his life.

Photos of two Sicilian magistrates who were murdered after leading the fight against the Mafia in the 1990s hang on the walls of the house where the migrants eat and socialize.

Image: Migrants in Corleone, Sicily
Migrants in Corleone, Sicily, watch TV. NBC News

Calogero Parisi manages the confiscated property and says he’s proud to follow in the slain men’s footsteps.

"You die when you are left alone like them," he said, pointing at the photos of the murdered magistrates. "When they died, I had to do something."

He added: "We can only beat the Mafia if every Sicilian does his bit."

He doesn't believe they are provoking the Mafia — or its supporters in Corleone — by welcoming the migrants onto the mob's old property. Still, someone destroyed machinery they use in the vineyard, and someone set fire to their fields.

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And the migrant wave seems unstoppable — hundreds more have arrived in Sicily in recent days. The tolerance for them in Corleone is limited, as elsewhere in Europe. The hard Italian men on street corners and the young thugs in designer sunglasses have little sympathy for Africans. Foreigners are generally viewed with suspicion.

Corleone's Mafia "is not dead, unfortunately," Camellini admitted.

The Mayor of Sicily's capital Palermo agrees.

Leoluca Orlando is a strong supporter of the migrant work scheme and an archenemy of the Mafia, which he likens to the terror group ISIS.

Image: the Godfather poster
"The Godfather" looks on: A barista serves espresso at a bar in Corleone, Sicily, Italy. Gregorio Borgia / AP file

“The Sicilian Mafia is Sicilian ISIL,” he said, using another name for the extremist group, ISIS, which has conquered swathes of Iraq and Syria. “They pervert identity and then they kill in the name of this identity."

He stabbed the air with his finger, shouting: "The Mafia does not govern this city. I am the mayor of Palermo. I am the boss of Palermo against the boss of the Mafia."

Still, he concedes, the Mafia is not dead.

Nearby, the theme tune from the movie “The Godfather,” played by an accordionist, echoes through the streets.

Inside the house, the Pakistani vineyard worker is lonely; he wants to settle in Sicily with his wife.

He and the other men huddle in front of a small electric fire as a thunderstorm rages outside.

Storm clouds hang over Corleone and the rains beat down on a town where they say every cobblestone is stained with the blood of old vendettas. The Mafia’s vengeance often waits years to deliver.