Don’t Let The Mafia Disturb Your Perfect Italian Beach Vacation

Authorities say one stretch of the picturesque region of Puglia is infested with local mob bosses who extort money from beach resort owners and use the coastline for drug trafficking. Locals are scared silent.

A beach near Vieste, Italy
A beach near Vieste, Italy
Niccolo’ Zancan

VIESTE - Along the Gargano peninsula, no one seems to want to say the word ‘mafia" aloud. This popular tourist destination in the Italian southern region of Puglia is jammed right now with summer sun seekers. But, yes, the mobsters are here too.

In the last 10 years, 141 people have been killed in this area, with 77 of the cases still unsolved. "Are you still here, journalist?" quips Maria Piscopo, sister of the most recent mafia victims. "You should leave. It's better that you don't write anything. I've warned you."

Her brothers, Martino and Giovanni Piscopo, were the owners of the resort Sfinalicchio, which is near the village of Peschici. The resort includes a restaurant, beach chairs and umbrellas around a small swimming pool, and direct access to the sea. It looks like many other tourist facilities in the area.

It was also the last place the Piscopo brothers were seen alive. The morning of Nov. 18, 2010, they left the resort and went to harvest olives. They never returned. After 10 days, their burned bodies were found in an old car; the corpses full of fractured bones. Authorities say the brothers had been tortured, killed and left few hundred meters from their resort, as a warning to everyone who might consider challenging the local mob.

I met Maria Piscopo at her restaurant. She does not like to speak about this story. She is trying to protect her nephews. "We haven't told them the truth. They think that it was a car accident," she said.

She is critical of the magistrate's investigation. "They have compared us to families that we don't know. We're just workers. It must be a case of mistaken identity. Here there are so many cars which look exactly the same as the one my brothers used to drive," she said.

So two people were murdered – maybe by mistake – and the tourists are still swimming in the blue sea as if nothing had happened. Everyone chooses to ignore the Piscopo brothers' case, and the other 139 murders of the last decade.

Arson and a horse's head

There have also been regular car chases, rounds of machine-gun fire, and 90 arson cases since 2009. The Gargano mobsters used to be known as the shepherd's mafia. They have evolved. Currently, the mobsters work mainly in tourism, just like many of the honest workers in the area. There are extortions and usury. The mobsters need direct access to the sea for their trafficking of drugs and weapons with Albania and Montenegro, just across the Adriatic Sea.

Four years ago, the head of a horse was hung in the main square of Peschici, just like in the movie The Godfather. Recently, arson destroyed the gate of the home of Giuseppe Mascia, president of a local anti-mob association. Now, he is as scared as the majority of the other locals. "We have already exposed ourselves to danger too much. We cannot tilt at windmills like Don Quixote. Some of the people involved are already at home arrest. This is not a good sign," Mascia said.

Each summer, more than 500,000 tourists arrive on the Gargano peninsula. Just in the village of Vieste there are more than 200 tourist facilities. "We are holding on," said the son of Pino Vescera, owner of the resort Lido Oasi, where arson recently destroyed the discotheque on the beach. The work to rebuild it is almost over, though."

Giuseppe Mascia explains that 33 tourism operators in Vieste had banded together to resist. "We had tried to send a signal. But using certain words can end up frightening people," he said.

Still, someone is brave enough to say those words. "The mafia is among us," father Giuseppe Trotta, rector of the church Santa Maia di Merino, declared after the murder of the Piscopo brothers.

"The mafia of Gargano is one of the most violent and most underestimated in Italy," said the district attorney of Bari, Antonio Laudati.

The investigators are trying to predict the next chapter of this war between the different mobster families: the Libergolis, the Romitos, the Notarangelos.

These mobsters of the Gargano peninsula, like the honest people too, have one particular advantage. The surroundings are beautiful. The landscape is not degraded like the outskirts of Naples, or poor and abandoned like much of the southern Italian countryside. Here, business does not center around public contracts. Instead, there are families on vacation, beautiful vistas, and elegant waiters who serve delicious fish in restaurants with a seafront view. The tourist facilities are affordable. The weather is perfect. It seems like another beautiful summer...except for a certain chilling silence.

Read the original article in Italian

Photo - mcastellani

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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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