"Listen, it's better not to bother with it."
The local policeman in the town of Stresa looks nervously to the side, perhaps afraid that someone will hear us. "No one is saying not to talk," he clarifies, "but it's clear to you, after you know who it is and after the police cleared all the facts from the area within minutes, that it's better not to bother with it."
But it is quite clear that two weeks after the mysterious sinking of the tourist boat Gooduria everyone is busy with "it." Stresa, near the western shore of Lake Maggiore, where the boat sank, is the kind of town that automatically has the term "picturesque" attached to its name.
On Sunday two weeks ago, at the Il Verbano restaurant, a group that looked like any other group of tourists dined. It looks in photos like a birthday party or a graduation party. Then they returned to the boat. During the voyage, a few hundred meters from the shore, a storm suddenly broke out, overturned the boat and caused it to sink. Two Italians, one Russian and one Israeli were killed. Then it turned out that all the members of the group were intelligence officers, and the dead Israeli was identified as a "retiree of the Mossad" who was still employed in the reserves.
The media storm hit as quickly as the storm that sank the ship hit: all at once Stresa and all of Lake Maggiore became a desirable tourist destination, the scene of a secret war waged by intelligence organizations around the world.
Meanwhile, "it" is not over. The local policeman says that the clandestine activity still continues. "There are blocked roads here, lots of things are confiscated for forensic identification, and every evening boats with huge flashlights on them, and divers who go down to the bottom, arrive at the disaster site."
What are divers for?
"The Israelis claimed that they lost their documents in the sinking, but a lot of people think that what was lost were folders and suitcases of documents. A birthday is the last thing that happened on this ship."
May 28 was Sunday, the feast of Pentecost, the Christian version of Shavuot. A long weekend. Summer awoke from its long spring slumber, and Majorca, the second largest lake in Italy, and all the towns around it, sprang to life. People swam in the lake and pools, went on picnics, the gelato stands offered their wares to children, the beers were poured into huge mugs on the tables outside. Locals and tourists chartered every possible vessel to sail the lake. Near the docks, mobile cranes ran and carefully lowered boats of all sizes, for the use of vacationers. Weather forecasters did issue a "code yellow" warning for the rest of the day – that is, stormy weather is expected – but what does the forecaster understand when there is a beautiful day for sailing?
In the late morning, a group of 13 Israelis, men and women, arrived in rented cars from the hotels near the airport in Milan to the Piccaluga shipyard in the city of Lisanza, in the southeastern part of the lake. They joined eight Italians there. Everyone boarded the boat, named Gooduria (a pun in Italian on the word "pleasure"). The boat, 16 meters long, is already about 40 years old, but it recently underwent a renovation that allowed it to take 15 passengers on board instead of 11. Now the 21 passengers, and with them the skipper and his wife, begin the journey north. In jeans, sneakers, a T-shirt or a polo shirt, they easily look like tens of thousands of other people. The official reason for the cruise is a birthday party for one of the crew members; In retrospect it is now known that if there is something that this group is a champion at, it is assimilating into the crowd and finding official reasons for their real activity.
After a short hour, they stop and anchor for a tour of Isola dei Pescatori, the smallest island of the Borromean Islands in Lake Maggiore. They tour there, then go to a celebratory meal at Il Verbano, a luxury restaurant by chef Marco Sacco, who defines the restaurant as "exclusive and intimate, one where time stands still."
He's not really exaggerating. This week, when I retraced the route of the group of secret agents, I also reached the tiny island on which the restaurant is located. It is a beautiful and green archipelago, about 300 meters from the beach. Its area is 400x100 meters. Number of permanent residents: 25. The main income is from fishing, mainly for the local restaurants on the island, which are visited by hundreds of thousands of tourists every year.
The group of Israelis and Italians that Sunday was no different from the other tourists: they too dined on the local fish. This week I tried to talk to the restaurant's employees, after I made an appointment by phone with the manager and was invited to the place. But when they heard what I was asking about, their lips were sealed and they announced that they would not say a word. Given that Italian waiters aren't exactly known for their silence, from the outside it looks like they're apprehensive - or received a warning from someone.
Outside the restaurant small boats came and went from the island about every 20 minutes. About 40 tourists per boat, five euros per head each way. Seven or eight minutes sailing here, seven or eight minutes back. Business. When I started touring the island, I came to a point overlooking the cable car going up to the Matterhorn. Here, to the painful exactness of two years less a week, an Israeli family began their day – until the cable collapsed. The five members of the Biran family who were in the cable car were killed, along with nine other tourists. The only survivor is the young boy Eitan Biran.
Two years less than a week later, the Israeli-Italian team also arrives here. The boat anchors next to the pier, they climb the gangway and go up to the island. To their right is the restaurant and the hotel that bears the same name. Just after 5:15 p.m., before they even get to the main course, the forecaster increases his warning about the weather. Most of the vessels in the lake return to the shore, but not Gooduria. She sails again at the end of the meal, between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m. To their right they can see the magnificent Alps.
Also on Tuesday this week, when we arrived on the island, the forecaster gave a "code yellow" warning, meaning the weather is about to turn. This is exactly what happened: heavy clouds came down to visit and kiss the tops of the trees. Rain fell and winds blew. A much stronger storm managed to sink the Gooduria, but Marco the Spaniard said ours would have no problem sailing.
"It was the skipper's mistake," he says of the accident. "A good skipper would have gotten out of it, and a skipper like me never gets into such a situation." I suggested that we might wait a bit, until the seas and winds calm down; He asked me not to worry, threw vomit bags at me and offered a life vest. "If he had insisted that everyone wear one during the cruise, no one would have died," he says.
That Sunday, at 7:20 p.m., in front of the Varazze beaches and the town of Sesto Calende, that forecaster's warning became a reality. Until then the sky was blue and the sea was flat, and suddenly the sky turned gray, heavy clouds poured a terrible rain and winds at a speed of about 70 kilometers per hour made the waves angry.
"I was sitting that Sunday on the seventh floor, in the Sky Bar of the La Palma Hotel," the local policeman tells me. "It was just a perfect day. Pleasant sun, high temperature. And suddenly, in 30 seconds, everything turned upside down. A hurricane in front of our eyes. But there were no longer any vessels on the lake when it happened."
The Gooduria shakes left and right. The skipper's wife, who can't swim, starts screaming hysterically and praying in Russian. An Italian woman from the group also has a panic attack, and both are taken below deck. "Within 30 seconds, an apocalypse hit us," said skipper Claudio Carminati, "the boat sank and we were all in the water."
The two women who were lowered into the belly of the boat immediately drowned. Another Italian man sinks to the bottom of the lake, lifeless. An Israeli man tries with all his might to save two other passengers. He succeeds, then dies and his body floats on the surface of the water. The rest of those present swim 150 meters to the shore, or are spotted by the few boats that remain in the lake and come to their aid. Their men reach out to them with their oars and other rescue aids.
Alessandro, 30, was one of the rescuers. He was sailing in a boat with a friend, near Sesto Calende. Two other friends were sailing next to them in another boat.
"We were already on our way home when the storm started, the likes of which we have never seen," he recalls. "We are 30 years old and the water has been a part of our lives for 25 years. We live for it and we thought we had seen everything. But we have never seen anything like this. It felt as if you were sailing in a cloud. Then shouting, screaming started coming to us from nearby. It didn't sound normal. And just then a flock of seagulls passed over us and we thought they were the source of the screams, but the screams didn't stop. Terrible screams, of people begging for their lives. We reached the area and it was a scene from a disaster movie: fragments of trees and chairs floating on the surface of the water, and among them people trying to fight for their lives. We started throwing everything possible into the water so that they would try to float, we started sending them oars we had to drag them to the boat and rescue them. We loaded them and continued the rescue mission. The other boat went to call for help from the rescue forces. And when there was no one left to load."
On the beach, wet and exhausted, the survivors were questioned by the security forces. The Israelis claimed that all their documents were lost in the sinking. Together with the Italians, they were evacuated to hospitals in Boracay. In less than a day, they were released, and miraculously all their hospitalization documents disappeared. This is how all the registration documentation of the Israelis at the hotel also disappeared. In less than a day they are all released. The Israelis didn't even bother to return their rental cars. A plane designated for special missions returns them to Tel Aviv.
The Italian media announces that four people drowned and died: Claudio Alonzi, 62; Tiziana Barnovi, 53; a 50-year-old Israeli, and Vanya Buzkova from Russia, the wife of the boat's skipper, Carminati. Just a month ago they founded a company called Love Lake, which offers breakfast and boating on the lake.
This story, as tragic as it is, would surely have been reported for a few hours, and then disappeared into the stream of Italian media news. But then there is a plot twist: it turns out that the eight Italians and the 13 Israelis work, or have worked, for the secret security services of their countries. The Israeli was an intelligence officer of the Mossad and the head of the mission, a man highly active in operational activities and who recently dealt mainly with relations with foreign intelligence agencies. La Repubblica names the affair the "007", the Corriere della Sera news service crowns the event with the name "Lake Maggiore summit," and the Italians begin to wonder what really happened there.
"Have we become a center for international espionage?" Giovanni Bozzi, the mayor of the town of Sesto Calende, on whose shores the boat sank, wondered this week. Well, the people we talked to this week along the shores of Lake Maggiore had an unequivocal answer: yes.
The landscape around the lake is indeed full of James Bond, but that is not the reason why the Maggiore area suddenly became a bustling scene of international intelligence, intrigue and conspiracies.
This region, northern Italy, sits at a crossroads that has become critical in recent years. It is very close to the southern border of Switzerland and the eastern border of France. Switzerland has always provided a haven for secret banking and straw companies of all kinds. France is a favorite destination for Russian oligarchs, who are often connected to the darker sides of regimes in the world. Italy in general, and the north in particular, is a global center for high-tech companies and startups that deal with and produce products, systems, software for the space and aviation industry, and mainly components for civilian use that can also be used for military purposes, including components for drones.
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the tightening of military ties between Iran and Russia, international espionage in the region has moved into high gear. Many oligarchs moved to the eastern bank of Piedmontese, in Verbania in Italy. Others, whose place of residence is in France, can reach here in a few hours. They used banks in Switzerland, a country that had not yet heard of an anti-money laundering law that could not be bent to overcome the Western economic embargo, bought expensive pieces of real estate and built a seven-star hotel. Before long, the Russians also began to mediate and engage in the sale of Iranian drones to the Russian army. At the same time, more and more Iranian agents came to Italy to sniff around about the purchase of technologies and components for their weapons projects.
"There are dozens of advanced Italian companies here. We are a very significant part of Italian industry and exports," an employee of one of these Italian technology companies, in the industrial area of nearby Lombardy, tells me. "So, understandably and clearly, there is a lot of industrial espionage here, we are not innocent. But in the last few months it has intensified to levels we do not know at all. There are hacks, there are surveillances, there are listening devices being implanted. There used to be a normal distribution of people here who want to recruit for companies; now, all the companies are just looking for fighters in the cyber arena. This is not normal."
So what did the Israeli agents do there, and what did they cooperate on with the Italian agents? There are a lot of theories running around the lake. Spying on the Russians is one hypothesis. But a much more practical hypothesis is that, in light of the alarming and constant progress of the Iranians in the nuclear project, they cooperated against Iranian officials and agents who roam Italy, especially in this region, looking to buy technologies for their country and to deepen the economic ties between Italian companies and the Iranian regime.
"It could be that everything is true, that they just went sailing together and celebrated a birthday and there is no James Bond story here, but only a boat with people on it that ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time," the local policeman tells me. "But there are too many coincidences here, and too many circumstances, and to me and my friends it looks like an operation, or a victory cruise for an operation that ended successfully."
What operation are you talking about?
"The explanation is that they succeeded in preventing the Iranians from getting their hands on advanced weapons or preventing them from strategic weapons and the proliferation of non-conventional weapons. I cannot confirm or verify to you anything that I say, because it is still a spy story, but that's how it looks to the security experts here."
"I already told you that we are not innocent," says a worker in one of the defense industries in the industrial region of Lombardy, one of Italy's richest provinces. "Whoever works here, every manager, every programmer and every receptionist knows exactly what they are working on. We don't lie to ourselves. I can say that I work in programming for an aerospace company, but that's just a nice name for an arms industry. And we can say that we only produce products and technologies for civilian use, but this is clearly not the whole truth. We are helping to produce one or another weapon here, some of which, in the end, will also reach countries and authorities that I neither support nor trust."
And how do you live with it?
"My government has not yet told me that it is forbidden, and it has not told me that it is going to stop doing business with Iran. And now I hear that an agency that belongs to my government is a member of another government's agency, and it is trying to prevent something that is not prohibited. I hope that the Israelis gave Italy a good reward for this absurdity. So, I continue to come to the office every day and do my work, without thinking too much about what it means.
"On the other hand, I also live here and I understand that people are afraid of what we will be here and what could happen, also because of the new Russian residents. And I know that I am part of the problem. And personally, I already told you – there were a lot of concerns about espionage here. Now, when this matter exploded with the disaster, it made everything more formal, official. These are no longer speculations. There was a group of Mossad people here who joined the local intelligence, and you know what they do together. They are spies. It's not something that makes you sleep well at night."
Italy's exports to Iran amounted to 532 million euros in 2021, the last year for which there is valid data. "The Italy of the previous governments was an Italy that bought itself insurance from here and there," an Italian academic who is part of a security think tank in Rome explains to me. "She also stood by Israel in the fight against terrorism, and also kept an eye on the trade of Italian industries with the Iranian regime."
"The change of government in Italy has completely changed the picture. It may condemn Israel on the Palestinian issue, but in a much weaker way. At the same time, it will take much more drastic measures to prevent, or at least not be a partner in, nuclear weapons and Islamic terrorism. This is a very strong point here, and this is an issue that receives very significant attention in the administration, also because of the refugee crisis. For the Italians, this is a situation where they can only profit: they are also trying to stop the Iranian bomb, and, along the way, they are studying espionage work at one of the best schools in the world."
But it's still half a billion euros of revenue per year, it's not a negligible amount.
"I believe that Italy will learn to do business through back roads and through a third party. But this is not an income that it can easily neglect. It's a bit of a test of character, like all Western countries: What are you willing to pay to be on the right side of things."
Outside the technological plant, while I am talking to the employee, dozens and maybe even hundreds of employees, most of them up to the middle of their fourth decade, flow around us from the companies' offices. They went out to take a yacht or grab lunch. Some finished their shift and drove home in their car. They look exactly like people who work in high-tech: sneakers, T-shirt or polo shirt and jeans, the same clothing worn by the passengers on the disaster boat. The Italian tried to explain to me some Italian proverb. I didn't fully understand, but I will translate it roughly: whoever goes to bed with components for the nuclear reactor in Iran, should not be surprised if he wakes up in the morning when a spy boat sails in front of his house.
Everyone here – at least those who are willing to talk – has some theory or explanation for what happened in Majora. Also, for Paolo, another skipper in the marina from which the group sailed. "First of all, everyone knows that the captain who took them is not a captain you hire on a cruise, nor is his boat," he explains. "You hire him because he is a man of logistics. He arranges things. He doesn't ask questions, he brings 23 people when only 15 are allowed. And his wife spoke Russian, which is a very big advantage for spies.
"Now, there's also the route they took on the way back. They should have turned back to where they came from, and then they would have avoided the winds and the crazy weather. But they traveled a few more kilometers towards Ispra. Ispra is the home of Euratom – one of the largest companies in the world in matters of radioactive waste, and one of the largest laboratories in the world for experimenting and researching the use of atomic energy – and the skipper was boasting all week about the booking he has to take a group of Euratom scientists on a cruise on Monday, the day after the sinking. And I'm pretty sure they weren't supposed to be alone on the cruise. In my opinion, the agencies wanted a completely private place, so that they could exchange information and documents, and he provided it to them."
The captain of the Gooduria is now suspected of causing death by negligence, and also of sailing with too many people. The lawsuit claims that because of the extra weight it was more difficult for him to steer the boat in a storm.
The dead Israeli was brought to Ashkelon for burial, and he was buried in a ceremony attended by the current head of the Mossad, David Barnea, who also paid his respects. The Italian media identified him as Erez Shimoni, although many are convinced that this is a fake name. All the Israeli survivors gave the same version of events at the time of the disaster. "Everything was perfect," the local press wrote after the details of the case and the identity of the people on the boat became known, "except for the closing party."
The Italian prosecution is indeed investigating the disaster, collecting any scraps of information, activating forensic departments and bringing divers to the scene of the sinking, but it has already made it clear that it intends to investigate only the sinking itself and the deaths that happened because of it, and will not investigate the relationships between the people who were on the boat and what they were doing.
This leaves the local policeman with many questions: "When I heard the order of things, how they happened and who was involved, I began to ask myself: Who stayed in the lake? One boat, a single one? Who comes from Milan – and sailed to the island to celebrate the birthday of one of the crew? This is not a place for a birthday of one of the staff, this is a place where you come to celebrate something really big. Such a big group, at these prices, with a staff whose whole life has learned to live in the shadow of life? You come to a place like this to celebrate something much bigger than a birthday. A lot larger."
How big? We may never know. But probably big enough to cause concern here.
"I know that this is a personal and national disaster," a board member at the marina tells me, "but it is also a disaster for us, the people who work in the tourism industry in Lake Maggiore. First there was the coronavirus pandemic that was unprecedented in the whole world; then there was the cable car disaster. Among its dead was also an Israeli family; and now this. This is not a good thing for our tourism."
Aren't you exaggerating a bit? People will be busy with it for another week, and in two weeks you won't have enough boats for tourists.
"You think? Think again. There's a world news report here about Israeli and Italian spies working together and getting into an accident. So how soon do you think the Iranians and the Americans, the British and the Germans will come here to try to figure out why the Mossad was here? How long do you think it will be before the Russians will start poisoning people here? I'm telling you, this is a big blow for us."