In Palermo, Mafia Takes Aim At Historic Vucciria Market

Vucciria is not quite bustling.
Vucciria is not quite bustling.
Laura Anello

PALERMO — As the Sicilian capital's oldest market, La Vucciria has long drawn visitors from around the world for its myriad colors and aromas. While its peculiar traditions live on, with vendors barking out in the local dialect to sell their products to passersby, the market is a shadow of its former self. Once immortalized in painting by the artist Renato Guttuso and on the screen by the director Roberto Andò, both native Sicilians, the market is now mostly in ruins, with just a few stalls selling fruit.

La Vucciria, however, has become the stage of a battle between a group of local businessmen, committed to redeveloping the neighborhood and building new apartments, and the infamous Sicilian Mafia, which wants to keep control of the city like it has for much of the past century. After a devastating earthquake struck Sicily in 1968 and emptied the historic city center of its residents, organized crime prospered and the market was reduced to a mere tourist attraction.

Uwe Jäntsch, an Austrian artist based in Palermo, called attention to the market's dilapidated state by painting on the walls and producing provocative art installations. Three years ago, a group of 17 businessmen finally heeded his call by investing in a plan to stop La Vucciria's inexorable decline.

The group began by rebuilding Palazzo Lampedusa, a baroque palace destroyed by bombing in World War II, restoring it to its former glory. Now they've purchased the three palaces that surround Piazza Garraffello, at the heart of La Vucciria. The enormous palaces — Palazzo Mazzarino, Palazzo Sperlinga, and Palazzo Rammacca — were once home to the city's nobility before falling into disrepair. Left empty by families who emigrated and owners who disappeared, the group bought the buildings from the city government for 10 million euros ($11.8 million).

The underworld made its presence felt.

But just as reconstruction was set to begin, Palermo's underworld made its presence felt. Along with the Palermitan mafia, local drug traffickers and squatters wanted La Vucciria to remain in its current state — and in the hands of criminal networks. Cranes and scaffolding would have reduced the market's area by 600 square meters, shutting out the unlicensed vendors, nightclubs, and drug pushers that do business in La Vucciria. So the businessmen received threats and pressure demanding them to back down from their plans.

Piazza Garraffello — Photo: Kalamun

The market's renovation has become a symbol of the struggle between two visions of Palermo. On one side is a resurgent metropolis, nominated Italian Capital of Culture in 2018 and seeking to attract more tourists; on the other is a city living in the past, still plagued by corruption and organized crime.

As the market waits for the first scaffold to arrive, the local district council held a highly publicized open-air session in Piazza Garraffello last Monday in a show of support for the businessmen, which was also attended by Palermo's mayor and local law enforcement to demonstrate a united stand against the mob.

All of those who came out for the meeting know that they are embarking on a crucial battle for the city's destiny. "In the last few years, this part of the city has been abandoned," said Massimo Castiglia, a city politician who represents the surrounding neighborhoods. "Our dream is to transform Piazza Garraffello's image from a hub for drug deals to a center of culture."

The few elderly citizens still living in the old town point to several things that symbolize its decline. The balcony at Trattoria Shanghai, a famed Sicilian restaurant, is collapsing. Most of all, they look downwards to the balate, the market's porphyry cobblestone flooring. A local saying holds that La Vucciria would die only when the balate were no longer wet because the fishermen plying their catch in the market had vanished. Today, the balate are as dry as anyone can remember.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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