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The Sundaes Issue
Taking On The Italian Mafia
Roberto Saviano is the 29-year-old author of Gomorrah, the international best seller that, through a mixture of narrative and investigative journalism, exposes the workings of the most powerful, and least known, of the Italian Mafias: the Camorra of Naples.
Over the last 30 years, the Camorra has grown into an all-pervasive, seemingly undefeatable network of vicious killers, loons, and businessmen whose operations account for slightly less than 10 percent of Italy’s gross national product. His book is a powerful indictment of the “System” (as it’s called by its members) and a shocking account of the strength and ferocity of the Southern Italian crime syndicates. Saviano’s success, and his policy of openly stating the names and activities of the members of the Camorra, have made him an obvious target for assassination. He has been living with a 24-hour escort of three policemen who never leave his side for almost three years.
Recently, during the largest-ever anti-Mafia trial in Italian history, the “Spartacus trial,” the defense attorney read a 60-page letter penned by the suspects that openly accused Saviano, the public attorney, and a local journalist of trying to influence the court’s decision. Saviano himself has called the letter “a call to arms... a declaration that states that, were they to be indicted, we are to be held responsible.” In response to this declaration, Saviano came out of hiding to denounce the Camorra once more, on national television.
The day after his appearance on the screens of all Italian living rooms, we met with him for an interview. As we entered the lobby of the drab Milan hotel where we had planned to rendezvous, we were startled by a middle-aged man who quietly appeared at our side, leaned toward us, and asked in a barely audible whisper, “Are you here for Saviano?” We were taken to an undergound room without windows where our bags were opened and checked. Finally, Saviano himself entered the room, where we sat down, drank a glass of water, and chatted for a couple of hours about the Mafia’s power, his book, and his life.
Vice: If you were to explain the Camorra to someone who knew nothing about it, what would you say?
Roberto Saviano: The Camorra is a criminal and entrepreneurial economic organization based in Campania, the region surrounding Naples. I want to stress the entrepreneurial aspect of this organization because Italian organized crime is often viewed romantically, with stories of bandits on the run and honor codes. In reality, these are criminal cartels that do business in every economic sphere, especially in the legal ones, such as textiles, transport, tourism, construction, and waste management. Only after all of that come cocaine, heroin, and extortion. The Camorra is also one of the least-studied crime cartels, even if it is the Italian Mafia that has the largest number of affiliates and that has generated the largest number of deaths. Together with the Calabrian ’Ndrangheta, another poorly visible Mafia, it’s probably the number-one criminal emergency in Europe.
Exactly how powerful is the Camorra?
The net turnover of the three Italian Mafias—the Camorra in Campania, the ’Ndrangheta in Calabria, and the Cosa Nostra in Sicily—is something like $230 billion per year. That’s just their direct business. If you add all the other aspects, you could say they are linked to around $800 billion annually. Consider the $230 billion figure. The FIAT group, Italy’s largest industrial group, has a turnover of around $80 billion a year. In other words, the Mafia is the single largest Italian economy, and one of the largest in Europe. In terms of violent crimes, if you add the number of deaths directly linked to the Mafia in the past 30 years of Italian history, only in the three regions of Sicily, Campania, and Calabria, you can estimate it at approximately 10,000. That’s more than those killed in Gaza in the last intifada. It’s a war.
In your book you do a great job of explaining the international dimension of the Camorra. But the Mafia is seen as something quintessentially Italian. How does that work?
It’s the most annoying stereotype for Italians overseas—the fact that we’re automatically connected to the Mafia. Of course, it’s idiotic. But it is true that the criminal aspect of these organizations was born in Southern Italy. It is there that they begin to extract the first capital, to organize their eventual hideouts, to flesh out their hierarchies. But that’s not where they make money. It’d be impossible. How can you make that kind of money in a poor territory, with 40 percent unemployment? They use the South as a gold mine. They build their empires there by fraudulently channeling EU funds; they use it as a base to stockpile huge quantities of drugs—most of the coke that comes to Europe from Latin America or Africa stops in Southern Italy. From there, it is sent to Milan, Rome, Paris, London, Marseille, and Bonn. This capacity to use Southern Italy as a launching pad for the rest of the world is one of their greatest strengths.
Do they also reach America?
Italian-American Mafias are very weak. Even if the Italian families want to keep that aspect alive, today it’s the Italians themselves who go to America to invest, often with the mediation of the Albanian and Nigerian Mafias—the ones that are structurally closest to the Italians. That’s the funny part: The Italian Mafia has a strong international appeal. Most of the world’s Mafias, besides maybe the Russian and the Chinese, are inspired by it.
Speaking of the Mafia’s international appeal, can you tell me what happened in Helsinki recently?
I went to this huge bookshop to present my book, and it was packed. But my book had only come out the day before, so I knew they couldn’t have been there for me. I asked my publisher, who reassured me they were all my crowd. And then I discovered why. When the host announced me, he said, “Please welcome Roberto Soprano!” I thought he was kidding, but he was just confused. The Sopranos was a huge success in Scandinavia, and all those people thought I had written what the Washington Post defined as “the book about the real, mean Sopranos.” You know, the character Tony Soprano is originally from Campania.
Are the three Mafias very different from each other?
Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian mafia, is the most well known mainly because of films and because they have killed many important public figures, like Judge Falcone. The ’Ndrangheta is a very powerful organization, but nobody knows much about it, because it’s based on blood ties. You can’t become an affiliate if you aren’t related. Plus, there’s very few of them, and they have very few informers.
And the Camorra?
The Camorra, on the other hand, is the most porous. You can enter it even if you’re unrelated. Even if you have parents in law enforcement. The entry to the clan is completely liberalized. They permit the creation of groups. I mean, if you and I were to go to Naples, we could create our own group, do our own extortion, coordinate our own trafficking. If we became a nuisance, they might kill us. Or if we became powerful enough, we might make allies. Maybe we’d enter another, bigger group. Or we might declare war on them. This is why it’s such a bloody organization: They can’t exist without armed encounters. During their war of Secondigliano, where different clans were fighting one another, there was a tally of four or five murders a day. In those few months, there were more deaths in the area of Secondigliano than in Baghdad.
But the different Mafias work together?
Yes, they are allied. But these names are false: The Sicilian Mafia is actually called Cosa Nostra, but the ’Ndrangheta is called Cosa Nuova, the New Thing. And the Camorra is simply known as the System. Nobody inside the organizations calls them by their widespread names. Those are names for cops and journalists. However, even if they work together, they don’t exactly love each other. The Camorra looks down on the Cosa Nostra, because they made the mistake of murdering celebrities. The “idiocy of the Corleone” is how they define it. They see it as an overrated Mafia. They have always leaned toward the right-wing parties for support, and the anti-Mafia commission is traditionally left-wing. The ’Ndrangheta and the Camorra look left, making it very hard to talk about them.
It seems that the three Mafias do their business and deal with their public perception in different ways, and that the Camorra is the most media-savvy.
The famous Camorrista Pasquale Galasso, during his trial in front of the anti-Mafia commission, when asked why they had never killed enemy judges or lawyers, replied, “Because we don’t need to kill. We prefer to delegitimize.” They know that if you kill public figures, you play the game of those who want you arrested, but if you delegitimize them, if you remove their ability to hurt you by destroying their career or reputation, you use the perfect democratic tool. You use libel. They have also killed at times, but only figures that they thought they could get away with, like Giancarlo Siani, a young freelance reporter. And in any case, the relationship between the Mafia, politics, and the media is very complicated.
In the States, or in other countries, there is no way you could be a politician who has publicly known ties to organized crime. In Italy, it’s the norm. In fact, politicians often do their best to show that they can work with the Mafia, because it’s seen, in many circles, as something positive. If everybody knows you have ties with the System, they know you’ll be able to get the right contracts, to make things happen, and that those works won’t be sabotaged. The Mafia makes administrations more effective. It is an economic lubricant.
But if it’s so intertwined with the state and the law, isn’t it sort of invincible?
For sure. We won’t see the end of organized crime. It will take many generations, if it is ever to happen. Italy can’t afford to lose $230 billion worth of business. It would collapse. Europe would collapse. The only way to fight it is to organize the downfall of a specific family. Remember, there isn’t one boss who won’t end up killed or in jail. It always happens. So the authorities can stop one family. Like the Corleones. But after them there will be another and then another. It’s just fighting the symptoms. Funnily enough, this constant changing of the guard makes the System work better. If they didn’t live in this culture of death, they would be easily defeatable: It’d be a monopoly, which makes prices rise, and which creates publicly despised, all-powerful bosses. Instead, the fact that they kill each other and are in competition with one another keeps the prices lower, allows for diversified investments, and keeps the authorities guessing. Like in any form of capitalism, monopolies destroy economies.
Is there a way to change things?
You would need to attack the financial-economic side. You’d need to change capitalism. As long as contracts end up in the hands of those who offer the job in the quickest, cheapest way, they will always win. Because they bend rules. Because they have illegal incomes, which they use to irrigate their other companies, and because they can pressure politicians. Think of the case of the clan of the Casalesi. They opened some illegal dumps outside Aversa, which they filled with garbage and toxic waste. Then, word comes around that the government is building a motorway. They pressure the politicians into building it over their dumps. Then they cover the dumps in cement, they sell the land to the government, and, cherry on top, they land the contract to build the motorway. That’s three highly lucrative deals. No straight entrepreneur could do something like that.
You often mention the waste-management business and the Camorra. How does a situation like that of the garbage emergency in Naples come about?
Basically, the region of Campania is filled with dumps which are run by the Camorra, illegally or semi-legally. If you add it up, it has accounted for some $300 billion in the past 20 years. The dumps are full because they contain all the garbage and toxic waste in Italy. Because, as I mentioned before, Camorra-owned businesses can offer the best prices.
Don’t they have a problem with polluting the land they live in?
To start with, many bosses were against this idea. But the fact is—because of the constant, ruthless competition—if you don’t do it, another clan will. And if they do, they’ll make so much money that they’ll run you into the ground. Like with drugs. Many families are against them, but you can’t run away from business. You’ll end up being the weak one, the intellectual one. Real businessmen have no ethics.
What about the famous honor code?
OK, that exists, but it’s fake. There are falsely “noble” codes. They say they don’t kill children, but they always kill children. They say they don’t touch women, but they’ve always massacred women. They have always dealt in drugs, even if it was initially forbidden. They have always had people among their ranks whose mothers were prostitutes, even if it is theoretically unacceptable. These “codes” only exist as a form of self-regulation. Take drugs, for example. In theory, you aren’t allowed to deal drugs in your own territories, because it’s bad, but actually it’s just because drugs are the quickest wealth accelerator, so if one of your affiliates does well with drugs, within six months he can become your competition. If, instead, he deals in construction or contraband, it takes him six years to become competition, and you can monitor him. Of course, there are some unbendable rules. In my area, Secondigliano, it’s impossible to conceive of a homosexual Camorrista. In Naples it’s more accepted. Once word came out that a member of the Casalese clan had been involved with a North African boy in jail. They killed him for that. Strangled him. Their cultural references are very macho. There was a famous boss in the 80s who went all over Italy, looking for his new wife’s first boyfriend, so he could hang him. Another story is the one of the 40-year-old who was courting his boss’s 18-year-old niece. They took him to the beach, tied him to a chair, and killed him by forcing him to eat sand, so that with every bite of mud, he could think of the mistake he’d made.
These violent crimes all have the fringe benefit of increasing their street cred.
Yes. Call it their PR department. If they want people to know, they act accordingly—like when they decapitated a man by using a metal grinder. It’s like their villas: They all live in giant, snazzy homes that they never enjoy. They always have marble columns or piranhas or lions in them. They are just symbols of their power. Think of Walter Schiavone, a Camorrista who had a huge villa built outside Naples that was the exact replica of Tony Montana’s home in Scarface.
How did you actually write your book?
The book is a hybrid between a novel and a nonfiction investigation. I wanted to follow Capote’s footsteps. In reference to In Cold Blood, he once said that he wanted to “produce a journalistic novel, something on a large scale that would have the credibility of fact, the immediacy of film, the depth and freedom of prose, and the precision of poetry.” Once, I was asked by the police what I thought made the Camorra so angry at me that I would need a 24-hour police escort. I said, “Literature,” and they thought I was pulling their leg. But I actually think that’s true. I mean, literature made unreadable stories readable. Five hundred pages of pure nonfiction, read by 3,000 people, and reviewed in the back sections of small magazines—they wouldn’t have cared about that. But if you make it into a story it becomes interesting to a much larger number of readers.
And this put you in danger.
I think that I’m in danger not because of what I wrote, per se, but because I reached so many readers. The New York Times called me “the Italian Rushdie,” but I think it’s a very different situation. Rushdie was persecuted because he wrote a book, much like the Soviet writers were. The Mafia allows you to write. You can say what you want about them. They just don’t want the information to reach a large enough audience so that it affects their business. Only stupid dictatorships ban books without understanding that you just give it publicity by doing so. Real democracies censor you by ignoring you.
Was there a particular incident when it dawned on you that you were going from first-time author to living in hiding with a 24-hour police escort?
The book came out in the May of 2006, but until September of 2006 I was fine. I wasn’t a challenge for them at the beginning. They see writers as effeminate, useless faggots—and they’re often correct. When my book sold 100,000 copies, I started to panic. On the 13th of October 2006, my life changed. I went to a public meeting in Casal di Principe, the hometown of the Casalesi families, and I announced, “Schiavone, Iovine, Zagaria, you are worthless.” Those are the names of three major bosses. Silence came over the meeting, and since that moment, I have lived with a constant police escort. Now they give me three policemen and a bulletproof car.
How do you live your life? Do you still get to see your friends, your family?
No, but for different reasons. Where I come from, being my friend is a big problem. This makes human relationships impossible. But there are hundreds of us living like this. I think of those who had it worse than me. Like Federico Del Prete, the trade unionist who was murdered in 2004. Phone interceptions show that he was killed after a poll. They first asked around about how famous he was. “Do the papers talk about him?” they asked. “Only local papers” was the answer. And they executed him.
Would you say your fame protects you?
Yes, but only as long it lasts. A Camorrista-turned-witness famously said, about me, “They’re waiting for this to pass.” It’s always like this. They know that sooner or later, the media storm will pass. Then they’ll get me.
Looking back, would you do it again?
The writer in me wants to say yes, a hundred times over. But I would be lying. I wake up almost every morning thinking, “If only I could go back...” There is a part of me, you see, that just wanted to write a book. I didn’t want my entire life to be swallowed by that book. But what can you do? It was my choice. The most difficult thing is forgiving myself for the problems I created for my loved ones. You feel really brave, but when you see how your family is forced to live, you feel like a worm. Honestly, I wouldn’t recommend doing what I did. But I also want to say that the more people who deal with these problems, the better. If so many Italian writers stopped navel-gazing, maybe we’d all be better off.