The 2008 arrest of Antonio Iovine, a Camorra boss who reportedly ran the Casalesi family’s hugely profitable waste-disposal business. Illustration by Jacob Everett
In the American imagination, being involved in organized crime means living in beautiful mansions, having beautiful cars, and being surrounded by beautiful women. Nothing could be further from the truth. The life of a mafioso is horrendous, bleak, and almost monastic. What people don’t realize is that being a mafioso, even a boss, means living like a rat in a sewer. They are forced to hide the riches they have earned, risking their own lives and those of their relatives. They become fugitives, dwelling in tiny underground bunkers just a few square feet in size, and rarely see daylight or their loved ones. They understand, from the moment they go down that road, that it ends in two possible ways: Either they’ll be in prison, or their enemies will murder them.
I’m speaking specifically of today’s mafiosi, the current generation of powerful, rich, and influential Italian criminals. They live in pursuit of only two objectives: power and money. That doesn’t mean, however, that they immediately get whatever they want.
When you join the Mafia, you begin with a low starting salary. Your title would be picciotto d’onore (“boy of honor”) if you were in the Calabrian ’Ndrangheta, or guaglione (“boy”) if you were in the Neapolitan Camorra—whatever you were called, you wouldn’t be making all that much, though you’d probably earn more than you could at a legal job in those parts of Southern Italy. You might bring in $2,500 to $4,000 a month to start. Then, as you took on more responsibility (and if you managed to survive), your salary would increase to around $6,500 to $13,000 a month. If you worked your way up to become one of the boss’s right-hand men, you could get a monthly stipend of $32,000 to $38,000. If you were a vicecapo, second-in-command to the boss, you’d receive about $130,000 a month. And bosses—well, it’s impossible to even guess how much they can take in.
In general, criminal organizations have a lot of members, but most of them don’t actually earn that much money, even though their jobs may be very dangerous. But zone bosses (those who control a “piazza,” or a fixed territory) and capos can earn truly significant sums. Members of La Santa, a secret society that’s made up of the highest-ranking members of the ’Ndrangheta, make a reported $130,000 a month. The monthly salaries of zone bosses in Scampia (the fulcrum of Neapolitan drug trafficking) range from $65,000 to $130,000. And along with the money come various benefits like cars, properties, and shares of their legitimate companies.
Then each clan offers its own form of insurance. If you have a disabled child, your base salary rises. If (or when) you are killed, your family receives money for your funeral and a “death allowance.” When a member of a powerful clan is killed, the family can decide to receive a lump sum of $130,000 to $260,000 or a monthly stipend, which is paid to the dead man’s widow, mother, or girlfriend (provided she is the mother of his children). There are also prison allowances.
I will never forget a scene I witnessed a few years ago in a courtroom in Naples. They were sentencing a Camorra family, and I went, as I often do, to watch the trial. When they read the sentence, I saw one of the defendants, only 24 or 25 years old, cover his face with his hands as he heard that he’d received eight years in prison. He was in the cage, the cell from which detainees participate in the trial. One of my police bodyguards, after seeing how young he was, tried to comfort him: “If you behave, your sentence will be reduced—you’ll see,” he said. “Plus, this is only the first level. The sentence could still change.” (In Italy there are three levels of court, and the first two allow for appeals.)
The guy raised his head and responded: “And now? Who’s going to tell my wife that they only gave me eight years?” It turned out that he was upset because, according to the rules of his organization, if he had gotten a sentence of ten years his family would have received almost $4,000 a month, but since he got only eight their allowance would be, at most, half that.
Growing up in the Camorra’s territory, I have always understood that even murder doesn’t pay particularly well. Executions are special assignments, separate from the daily business of organized crime, that earn killers a bonus—usually about $3,200 to $4,000—as well as other perks. After a hit, the killer is immediately moved to someplace more secure, outside the area where he normally works. One time, years ago, a hit man murdered a young woman in Naples for $2,600: She was tortured, killed, and burned, and he was sent to Slovakia, where the authorities couldn’t find him.
In many ways, joining a criminal organization is a lot like getting a job at a law firm or another large institution: You start out making barely enough to live, but you know that you’re paying your dues. The tasks, at the beginning, are routine and sometimes humiliating, but your assignments will become more prestigious as you become wealthier and more important. The $2,500 a month that a picciotto earns today could become millions of dollars if he becomes a boss—a process that, with luck, might take only a few years. There’s a certain logic as well to becoming a Mafia hit man—killing someone will almost certainly further your career ambitions, because you can’t become a Mafia boss if you don’t have both military talent and economic vision. If you are simply a soldier or only a white-collar professional, you can never be a boss.
Occasionally, a clan might run out of money, possibly because it has been under pressure from the media and the police. To deal with this, they raise capital by extorting more money from businesses. At Christmas, for example, a clan might force stores to double the price of panettone (a typical Italian Christmas cake) in order to pay the end-of-the-year bonuses for their incarcerated members. In some extreme cases, when the clan is really in a pinch, it may authorize robberies. It’s very rare, however, for the Italian Mafia to commit robbery—like prostitution, that crime is considered “dirty,” i.e., not honorable. (On the other hand, the Mafia has no problem receiving a percentage of any profits from such activities when they take place in their territories.)
The number one thing criminal organizations like the Mafia offer their members is security. If you do well, you’re rewarded. If you make a mistake, you die or go to prison for a long time. But even then, someone will take care of your family, and someone will pay for your lawyers. That sort of deal is fairly rare in this day and age—how many workers are guaranteed to get money if they’re injured on the job? How many people labor honestly for decades in the same job without getting a decent raise? This is the true power, and appeal, of the Mafia.
Translated from the Italian by Kim Ziegler
Roberto Saviano is an Italian writer and journalist. He is the author of Gomorrah and Zero Zero Zero. For the past eight years, he has lived under police protection because of death threats against him made by the Camorra. The film Gomorrah, based on the book, won the Gran Prix at Cannes in 2008 while the TV series, which premiered in 2014, has been distributed in 50 countries. Follow him on Twitter.