In the summer of 2009, I was invited to take part in a public discussion on organised crime. The panel was part of the summer festival that the Italian news magazine Internazionale mounts every year in the exquisite city of Ferrara.
Not only was the city’s main theatre packed to the rafters but there were also queues to watch the proceedings in other venues around the city. As I walked on stage, the audience broke out in the most thunderous applause I have ever experienced. And the clapping and cheering went on and on.
Both modesty and the truth prevent me from claiming that I was the object of this adulation. For standing next to me was Roberto Saviano, the young Italian writer whose book, Gomorrah, detailing the misery of life with the Camorra, the notorious Neapolitan version of the Sicilian mafia, was at the time a bestseller around the world. At least I now know how it must feel to work as a backing vocalist for The Rolling Stones.
In his writing and his public appearances, Saviano gives an authentic and loud voice to the disgust felt by many millions of Italians at the exceptional influence that organised crime has wielded over Italian economic and political life, especially since the end of the second world war.
He is a worthy heir to the genuinely heroic magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borselino, both murdered by criminals in the 1990s. These two had gone a long way to breaking the power of the mafia in Sicily and to exposing the collusion of some of the country’s most senior politicians in murder, extortion, and drug and people trafficking.
But Saviano has paid a heavy price since he stepped out of obscurity almost a decade ago. His life is not and never will be his own any more. He is shadowed wherever he goes by between five and seven armed members of the Carabinieri, the elite police squadron that has been responsible for his security since 2006. Indeed, he dedicates this latest book to his many bodyguards. To begin with, he had to sleep in a different apartment every night; his family have either been forced into witness protection or compelled to renounce him; and even abroad he needs armed protection around the clock. To this day, he cannot possibly form normal relationships as anyone close to him is transformed automatically into a proxy target for the Camorra. Unlike Salman Rushdie’s fatwa, which was negotiated away by the Iranian and British governments, the Camorra death sentence is for life.
Despite this, he has never stopped writing and broadcasting and his latest book, ZeroZeroZero, a wide-ranging study of the global cocaine industry, includes some remarkable material.
From Mexico and Colombia to Russia, Saviano dissects the groups that have built empires of blood on running coke from, through and into their territories. In Mexico, the deaths attributed to these gangs and, later on, the police and the military amount to more than 100,000 since 2007, with about three times that number internally displaced. If it were anywhere else — or if the causes of the slaughter were different — this would be recognised the world over as a humanitarian catastrophe. But the carnage in Mexico just hums along in the background.
In some countries, such as Colombia, the nastiness associated with cocaine was built on foundations of earlier political violence. But in Rio de Janeiro, for example, where there was relatively little tradition of political violence, the drug wars that broke out in the favelas of Rio resulted in one of the highest homicide rates in the world during the 1990s. Admittedly these visited different parts of the community disproportionately — well over 70 per cent of the victims were young and non-white.
In a short section on the coke economy, Saviano points out why this illegal market generates so much violence. “If you had invested €1,000 in Apple stock in the beginning of 2012, you would have €1,670 in a year. Not bad. But if you had invested €1,000 in cocaine . . . after a year you would have €182,000.” This, of course, assumes that your investment made it safely from the jungle of Colombia to the streets of London but given that, in Britain, police pick up less than 20 per cent of the coke entering the country, it’s a risk worth taking.
Since his reputation has grown, Saviano’s access to the police, to politicians and to lawyers engaged in combating organised crime has clearly improved dramatically. But his notoriety among the criminal fraternity means that he cannot get his hands as dirty in researching the underworld as he did in the past. One of the great achievements of Gomorrah was his vivid description of underworld activities in Naples, such as the huge Chinese trade in counterfeit goods passing through the port.
Saviano still makes a sterling effort to talk to people who are currently or were previously engaged in mobster activity. One of the most absorbing portraits in this book is of a former member of the Kaibiles. These made up a vile military counterinsurgency unit formed during the 1980s in Guatemala to eliminate anybody the government deemed subversive. The Kaibiles later turned their capacity for violence towards the establishment of protection rackets and drug-running operations. Saviano’s interviewee is the most degenerate of criminals, projecting a contempt for those who do not share his obsession with a macho violence that he perversely regards as an elevated human quality.
Saviano does not write with the analytical verve that characterises such compatriots of his as Diego Gambetta and Federico Varese, both Oxford academics. Our understanding of the economics, politics and sociology of organised crime has made huge leaps forward in the past 20 years. The power of criminal groups and their ability to assume a decisive role in society depend greatly on circumstances and policy. Where the state is ineffective in policing markets, the mob moves in. This includes licit markets — such as the restaurant business (The Godfather) or waste-disposal (The Sopranos) — as well as illicit markets such as cocaine. Indeed, Vadim Volkov, the Russian scholar, describes criminal gangs carefully as privatised law enforcement agencies.
But what Saviano lacks in academic rigour, he makes up for with an unrivalled passion in describing the damage that organised crime inflicts on society. In articulating this cri de coeur, he has developed a literary style that switches from vivid descriptions of human depravity to a philosophical consideration of the meaning of violence in the modern world. Indeed, when he revisits his work on Naples — the city where he was brought up and from which he is now excluded — his reflections soar into the realm of the poetic. But for me, most important of all is the hope Saviano gives to countless victims of criminal violence by standing up to its perpetrators, especially those from his home country.
ZeroZeroZero, by Roberto Saviano, translated by Virginia Jewiss, Allen Lane, RRP£20 / Penguin Press, RRP$29.95, 448 pages
Misha Glenny’s ‘Nemesis: One Man and the Battle for Rio’ will be published in September by Bodley Head
Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published