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Italy: The Crooks in Control

Gomorrah
by Roberto Saviano, translated from the Italian by Virginia Jewiss
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 301 pp., $25.00

Last year, Italy seemed to wake up to the problem of the Camorra—the Neapolitan equivalent of the Mafia—in the form of 2,700 tons of garbage. On the nightly news for several days running, TV viewers stared with a mixture of wonder and horror at mountains and mountains of garbage—some of it wet and stinking, some of it on fire and spewing toxic fumes—on the streets of Naples and nearby towns. All but one of the city’s garbage dumps had been closed for safety violations, and when the trash was left to mount on city streets some residents set it on fire in attempts to get rid of it. The illegal burning of waste created so grave an environmental disaster that many towns had to shut down their schools.

The rest of the country suddenly learned that some 43 percent of Italy’s trash and toxic waste winds up in Campania—the region of which Naples is the capital. Most of the trash was being disposed of—often unsafely—either in illegal landfills or simply by being burned in open fires. The waste disposal business is generally run by the Camorra, whose criminal “clans” are mostly organized around family ties and links to specific towns and neighborhoods. Residents of the area suffer from drastically high rates of cancer but the Camorra has reportedly blocked the building of environmentally safer public incinerators to prevent competition with its own lucrative business. In many places, Camorra groups are paid to pick up the trash but, in some cases, just dump it in the streets of Naples and nearby towns.

The local politicians managed, temporarily, to get rid of the trash—or at least get it out of sight and off TV—but then a series of battles broke out between competing Camorra clans, with shoot-outs taking place on the streets in and around Naples; innocent bystanders were routinely killed or wounded along with the camorristi. Last summer, the Italian government debated whether it should send thousands of army troops to Naples to reestablish order as it had to Sicily in 1992 after a series of spectacular killings. It was as if the Camorra—a problem that had been kept buried—had continued to grow underground until it suddenly reemerged in all its monstrousness like some horrifying creature in a science-fiction film.

That it has emerged as a national issue is partly owing to the unexpected popularity of Gomorrah, by Roberto Saviano, a twenty-six-year-old writer from a town north of Naples that has long been a Camorra stronghold. When it was published in Italy in 2006, the book’s timing could not have been better. It sold some 700,000 copies, a huge number for a country whose book market is one fifth that of the United States. Saviano received death threats that have forced him to live under police protection.

With considerable prescience, Saviano’s final chapter, “Land of Fires,” describes the ways in which Campania had been turned into a kind of inferno with all the illegal burning of trash and dumping of industrial waste:

The Camorra clans became the European leaders in waste disposal in the late 1990s…. The bosses have had no qualms about saturating their towns with toxins and letting the lands that surround their estates go bad. The life of a boss is short; the power of a clan, between vendettas, arrests, killings, and life sentences, cannot last for long. To flood an area with toxic waste and circle one’s city with poisonous mountain ranges is a problem only for someone with a sense of social responsibility and a long-term concept of power.

That it took the garbage crisis, the recent killings, and Saviano’s book to make the Camorra a major issue is part of the tragedy. As Saviano readily acknowledges, most of the information in his book has been in the public record for years; it could be found in court records and government reports that have been piling up like the trash that reemerged in Naples in the last several weeks. Back in 1993, a report of the Italian parliament’s anti-Mafia commission issued a clear warning: “The Camorra is underestimated.”

Even then, Campania accounted for 21 percent of the country’s murders. More city councils had been shut down in Campania than in any other region because they were found to be under the direct or indirect control of local crime bosses (thirty-two as opposed to nineteen in Sicily). Sixty-four public officials were removed from their jobs for the same reason, and eight members of parliament came under investigation for association with organized crime. The parliamentary report said:

Today, the Camorra organizations, with approximately 111 clans and more than 6,700 affiliates, represent, for a region with 549 towns and 5,731,426 inhabitants, a genuine confederation for the government of the area with decisive influence on the economy, institutions, politics, and daily life of its citizens.

Since 1993 the Camorra has become even more powerful, but it has largely escaped wider notice until now.

When Italians have paid serious attention to organized crime they have chiefly been interested in Sicily’s Cosa Nostra, the subject of a vast literature and many films. It has traditionally been the strongest and best-organized crime group in southern Europe, with a powerful, ritualized culture that has lent itself well to dramatic treatment.

For a long time, the Camorra was wrongly dismissed as a less serious crime group. The Sicilians themselves tended to look down on the camorristi, who did not have Cosa Nostra’s hierarchical structure and internal discipline. Like Naples itself, the Camorra seemed somewhat anarchic: the clans were often at odds with one another; they permitted a great deal of low-level crime in their areas and wild gunfights in the streets. In the 1970s and early 1980s, the left-wing terrorist group the Red Brigades built a significant organization in Naples, something that never happened in Sicily, where Cosa Nostra maintained undisputed control of its territory. There was a less powerful omertà, or code of silence, in Naples, allowing many more camorristi to turn informant; the Neapolitans even let women have considerable power in their clans, which scandalized the Sicilians. And yet, because of the port of Naples, the Camorra was also very business-minded, running much of the traffic in contraband cigarettes and then in drugs and weapons. Already in the 1970s, Cosa Nostra actually allowed a leading Camorra boss to sit on its governing “Commission.”

The more loosely confederated gangsters of Naples and Calabria have grown considerably in power and sophistication in the past thirty years and they now rival Cosa Nostra in their control not only of their own region but of other parts of Italy and in their influence abroad. “Never in the economy of a region has there been such a widespread, crushing presence of criminality as in Campania in the last ten years,” Saviano writes, a debatable claim that is true enough about Campania but perhaps equally true of much of Calabria and Sicily.

 

Saviano’s strongly written book deserves the remarkable attention it has been getting. Shelves of books have been published about the Mafia during the last thirty years, many of them written on the fly by journalists who drew on large chunks of court documents and made little attempt to tell a coherent, dramatic story. Saviano’sGomorrah, by contrast, quite self-consciously (sometimes a little too self-consciously) models itself on such books as Michael Herr’s Dispatches and Truman Capote’sIn Cold Blood.

Saviano gives a telling account of the ways in which organized crime in southern Italy fits into a world system of contraband goods—textiles, appliances, arms, and drugs—with connections to China’s huge production of counterfeit goods, to off-the-books (but not necessarily criminal) employment in Italy, arms trafficking in Eastern Europe, construction and real estate in northern Europe, and the drug trade of South America. All of this adds up to an international underground economy that has implications far beyond its local boundaries.

The first chapter of the book—based on Saviano’s experience working as a hired hand unloading illegal cargo for a Chinese businessman—describes the Camorra’s central place in the growing world industry of counterfeit merchandise. Tons and tons of stuff you might see for sale on the sidewalks of Europe—fake Prada bags, pirated DVDs, electric gadgets bearing names like Bosch and Braun—are made in China and arrive in Europe through Naples. “The port of Naples is the hole in the earth out of which what’s made in China comes,” Saviano writes.

The clothes young Parisians will wear for a month, the fish sticks that Brescians will eat for a year, the watches Catalans will adorn their wrists with, and the silk for every English dress for an entire season—all pass through here in a few hours.

The port of Naples, he writes, handles 20 percent of the declared value of Italian imports from China, but more than 70 percent of the quantity:

It’s a bizarre thing, hard to understand, yet merchandise possesses a rare magic: it manages both to be and not to be, to arrive without ever reaching its destination, to cost the customer a great deal despite its poor quality, and to have little tax value in spite of being worth a huge amount.

The discrepancy between quantity and value suggests the levels of tax evasion, corruption, and accounting trickery that take place in and around the port of Naples. The Chinese, together with their Italian counterparts, flood the port of Naples so as to overwhelm the inadequate number of Italian customs agents available to check the merchandise coming through. And the Camorra is skilled at paying off and intimidating port officials. Saviano writes:

According to the Italian Customs Agency, 60 percent of the goods arriving in Naples escape official customs inspection, 20 percent of the bills of entry go unchecked, and fifty thousand shipments are contraband, 99 percent of them from China—all for an estimated 200 million euros in evaded taxes [each four-month period].

It used to be said that the Camorra was incompatible with modern commerce, but it has created a system particularly suited to the kind of cutthroat global capitalism in which Naples functions as an unauthorized “enterprise” zone, a porta franca without taxes, labor laws, or regulation. “Everything that is impossible to do elsewhere because of the inflexibility of contracts, laws, and copyrights is feasible here, just north of the city,” Saviano writes. “Structured around the entrepreneurial power of the clans, the area produces astronomical capital.” Saviano argues that the Camorra—precisely because of its loose structure and the fierce competition between its members—is the perfect crime organization for a world of savage capitalism in which the ethic is kill or be killed.

 

The region north of Naples and extending throughout much of southern Italy contains clusters of small sweatshop businesses that make high-quality clothes for the leading fashion houses of Italy. At the same time, the very same workshops, in cooperation with camorristi, produce identical clothes bearing counterfeit labels of leading fashion brands—Versace, Armani, Valentino. These sell throughout the world, often in stores and shopping centers owned by the Camorra. But, Saviano comments,

The clothes made by the clans aren’t the typical counterfeit goods, cheap imitations, or copies passed off as the real thing, but rather a sort of false-true. All that’s missing is the final step: the brand name, the official authorization of the motherhouse. But the clans usurp that authorization without asking anybody’s permission…. The Secondigliano clans [connected to the town of Secondigliano] have acquired entire retail chains, thus spreading their commercial network across the globe and dominating the international clothing market. They also provide distribution to outlet stores. Products of slightly inferior quality have yet another venue: African street vendors and market stalls. Nothing goes unused.

This form of capitalism suits a world in which retailers are competing ferociously to squeeze every last dollar of profit from each product and consumers look for every penny of savings; almost no one has any reason to question or complain about these well-made products of dubious origin. Despite the violation of their trademarks, the big fashion houses have been surprisingly slow to protest. Saviano suggests shrewdly that copying the brand may have actually served the interests of the big-name clothing makers. A new class of middle-income consumers may go on to buy the real thing:

The garments they turned out were not inferior and didn’t disgrace the brands’ quality or design image. Not only did the clans not create any symbolic competition with the designer labels, they actually helped promote products whose market price made them prohibitive to the general public. In short, the clans were promoting the brand.

The camorristi have allowed ordinary citizens to “invest” their savings in drug shipments, a poor man’s stock market in which an elderly pensioner might double her income in a month. And they have found a new way to run extortion rackets. Rather than holding up shopkeepers for their monthly pizzo, they started “taxing” wholesale suppliers and taking over the distribution of goods. Many clan members became the chief representatives of major food suppliers in the Naples area. The system has had advantages for the supply companies. Companies that submitted to the clan system, Saviano writes, “experienced a 40 to 80 percent increase in annual sales.”

Of course, the suppliers get the market advantage of a virtual monopoly for their products. Recent investigations have shown that the Camorra had a hand in two of Italy’s major financial scandals of recent years, the failure of the food conglomerates Parmalat and Cirio. In both cases, Camorra groups handled the distribution for both companies not only in Campania but in other regions as well.

While stressing the great market efficiency of the Camorra, and portraying the clan leaders as resourceful capitalists, Saviano ignores the disastrous economic effects of clan domination for the overall economy of southern Italy. “They’ve created a kind of Soviet economy,” according to Francesco Curcio, a magistrate in Naples who has conducted some of the most important Camorra investigations of recent years. “They are monopolies run by the Camorra. If someone presents a bid for a contract, the Camorra tells them, you make an offer of x and I will make one of x minus one.” In one case, Curcio did a study of the milk market in the area near Caserta, a town north of Naples, and discovered that milk cost more there than in Milan. “They strangle the economy by deciding who gets to participate and at what price,” he said. “People pay two sets of taxes, one to the state and the other to the Camorra. And naturally, no investors want to come here to Campania.”

Involving large parts of the population in illegal activity of one kind or another—even if only as off-the-books labor—has affected much more than the region’s economy. One of the more affecting passages in Saviano’s book is about a local schoolteacher who agrees to testify about a murder she accidentally witnessed in a café:

There was a group of kids near the bar…. They all lay down, face to the ground, fearing to be seen by the killer as potential witnesses. Only one person didn’t look away. One person stared at the killer without lowering her eyes…. A thirty-five-year-old schoolteacher…. Among the many reasons for keeping quiet, for pretending nothing happened…the Mondragone schoolteacher found one motivation to speak: the truth. A truth that seems natural, like an everyday, habitual gesture, an obvious and necessary act, like breathing. She testified without asking anything in return. She didn’t expect a stipend or police protection, didn’t set a price on her word….

And yet her confession made her life difficult…. She had been engaged, but her fiancé left her. She lost her job and was transferred to a protected location where she received a small state stipend, just enough to survive. Some family members took their distance from her, and a profound loneliness descended upon her…. What made the young teacher’s gesture scandalous is that she considered being able to testify something natural, instinctive, and vital. In a land where [lying] is considered to be what gets you something and [truth] what makes you lose, living as if you actually believe truth can exist is incomprehensible. So the people around you feel uncomfortable, undressed by the gaze of one who has renounced the rules of life itself, which they have fully accepted. And accepted without feeling ashamed, because in the end that’s just how things are and have always been.

To many, the indignities and corruption imposed by the illegal system are so widely accepted as to seem “natural.” Although he grew up inside the suffocating atmosphere of southern Italy, Saviano has the rare ability to step back and see it as if from a distance. For example, he shows, as no one else has, the importance of nicknames within the Camorra (as in the Sicilian Mafia):

No one chooses his own nickname; it emerges suddenly out of nowhere, for some reason, and someone picks up on it…. The anthology of nicknames is infinite. The Nuova Famiglia boss Carmine Alfieri got his nickname ‘o ‘ntufato, the angry one, thanks to the dissatisfied, angry sneer he wears constantly….

A well-calibrated nickname, such as Francesco Schiavone’s famous, ferocious Sandokan, can make or break the fortune of a boss. He earned this for his resemblance to Kabir Bedi, the star of the Italian television series Sandokan, the Tiger of Malaysia, based on Emilio Salgari’s novel. Or Pasquale Tavoletta, known as Zorro for his resemblance to an actor in the TV series. Or Luigi Giuliano, ‘o re—the king—also known as Lovigino because in intimate moments his American lovers would whisper, “I love Luigino.”…

Nearly every boss has a nickname, an unequivocally unique, identifying feature. A nickname for a boss is like stigmata for a saint, the mark of membership in the System. Anybody can call himself Francesco Schiavone, but there’s only one Sandokan. Anybody can be named Carmine Alfieri, but only one turns around when he hears ‘o ‘ntufato.

Hollywood, Saviano finds, has supplied the models for the Camorra lifestyle. He describes the female bodyguards of a female Camorra boss dressed up in yellow tracksuits like Uma Thurman in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill. The villa of one of the chief Camorra bosses of Casal di Principe was modeled down to the smallest detail on the villa of Tony Montana, the chief character (played by Al Pacino) of Brian De Palma’s ScarfaceCamorristi repeat monologues from Pulp Fiction and police keep turning up DVDs of famous crime movies in the hideaways of fugitive gangsters. By aping Hollywood, Saviano argues, the Camorra tries to create a kind of “culture” and give itself legitimacy. Identifying with Hollywood gangsters and the winner-takes-all, dog-eat-dog ethos they project, the camorristi (and their counterparts elsewhere) come to believe that enjoying unlimited wealth and the power of life and death over others is worth risking their own early death or life in prison.

Saviano’s first-person account gives drama and pathos to his book but at times he strays into narcissistic self-regard. At one point, he makes a kind of pilgrimage to the tomb of the director and writer Pier Paolo Pasolini in the northern province of Friuli, in which Saviano symbolically tries to inherit the mantle of the dead poet.

“I began to mumble my rage, fists clenched so tight that my fingernails pierced my palms, I began to articulate my own ‘I Know,’ the ‘I Know’ of my day.” Saviano goes on to imitate the syntax of Pasolini’s most famous political article—”I know”—in which he repeated over and over that he knew the names of a long list of political criminals but then added despairingly that “I have no proof, not even evidence.” Saviano writes, somewhat awkwardly: “I know and I can prove it. I know how economies originate and where they get their odor. The odor of success and victory.”

When it was published in Italy, Saviano’s book was categorized as a novel; its American publisher lists it as nonfiction. The author insists that everything he describes (some of it rather far-fetched) actually happened and most of the book is grounded in well-documented cases. Perhaps its most serious deficiency is the absence of any sustained political analysis. At one point, he writes: “Unlike the Sicilian Mafia groups, the Camorra clans don’t need politicians; it’s the politicians who need the System.” Saviano exhibits an odd form of organized crime campanalism—local pride—by repeatedly asserting the primacy of the Camorra over its competitors in Sicily and Calabria, when they are all terrible in quite similar ways.

It is true that the Camorra has thrived in recent years despite a hostile municipal government in Naples and regional government in Campania. But this begs an essential question: the powers of the Camorra—and its counterparts in other regions of the South—are inconceivable without the indifference, neglect, or collusion of large numbers of Italy’s politicians. In 1993, the parliament’s anti-Mafia commission clearly described the power of the Camorra in telling detail. In response to the assassination of magistrates in Sicily, the parliament passed a series of severe measures—a witness protection program, harsh isolated prisons for convicted gangsters, and incentives for them to cooperate with authorities. The result was thousands of arrests and serious, if temporary, problems for organized crime in southern Italy.

In 1994, this picture began to change. Candidates for Silvio Berlusconi’s “good government” coalition campaigned actively in southern Italy denouncing the excessive power of investigative magistrates and the damage done to the regional economy by organized crime investigations. “We will vote for Berlusconi,” Giuseppe Piromalli, a boss of the Calabrian criminal organization called the ‘Ndrangheta, declared in open court. And after Berlusconi’s coalition won virtually all the Sicilian seats in parliament, a Sicilian mafioso was overheard on a police wiretap saying, “Beautiful, all the candidates my friends, all of them elected.”

The center-left parties deserve an important share of the blame as well; they cooperated with Berlusconi and his allies in reforming Italy’s penal code in ways that have made it much more difficult to attain convictions in Italian courts. The trial of the biggest racketeering case involving the Camorra took more than seven years—and the appeals may last seven more. (Because all Italian prosecutions allow two levels of appeal after the trial, cases drag on.) By contrast, under Italy’s old penal code the Palermo trial of four hundred mafiosi that started in 1986 took only a year and a half.

This difficulty in getting convictions did not happen by accident. Many Italian gangsters operate on the principle that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Berlusconi has been—and continues to be—under investigation on a variety of criminal charges. It was distinctly in his interest to limit the power of the magistrates. “Berlusconi in order to resolve his problems has to resolve ours,” one convicted Sicilian boss lucidly explained in a wiretap.

It is a discouraging sign of the times that two prominent Neapolitan politicians—former members of the old Christian Democratic Party who were convicted of corruption charges but acquitted of collusion with the Camorra—are again sitting in the parliament. One is a member of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia; the other a member of a small party allied with the center-right. Both are sitting on the anti-Mafia commission. Berlusconi’s former campaign manager and the head of one of his largest companies was convicted of collusion with the Mafia but continues as a member of parliament with no pressure to resign while he appeals his case. Proven contact with organized crime figures is not a political liability. There are, in fact, twenty-four legislators with criminal convictions currently in parliament, and numerous lawyers in parliament represent both corrupt politicians and mafiosi also in parliament, all of them busy passing legislation to weaken the criminal justice system.

Rather than make a big issue of such behavior, the government of Romano Prodi passed a criminal amnesty shortly after assuming office. This allowed one of Berlusconi’s closest associates to avoid spending any time in jail despite a conviction for bribing judges. Last year there were expressions of shock in Naples when acamorrista who had just been let out of prison, thanks to the amnesty, was involved in a particularly bloody killing. This reaction was typical: politicians who don’t take the problem of organized crime seriously suddenly become indignant after a particularly atrocious crime.

Fed up with this state of affairs, hundreds of thousands of Italians have signed a petition to force a popular referendum that would prohibit politicians convicted of serious crimes from sitting in parliament. Years may pass before they have any chance of success. The same may be said of the small number of politicians who want to rewrite the Italian penal code. But simpler reforms could be made. “These people move around armed to the teeth,” Francesco Curcio, the anti-Camorra prosecutor, recently said. “If we had tougher gun legislation, we could stop them and put them away for weapons violations or at least limit their ability to operate.” Similar reforms have less chance than ever now that Prodi’s government has fallen and Berlusconi is campaigning vigorously to return to power in the elections scheduled for April 14.

Of course repression of criminal organizations will not be sufficient to revive Italy’s stagnant economy. But few honest companies are now willing to invest in Italy because of the danger and cost of dealing with local crime groups. Reform of criminal justice is a prerequisite for any economic progress. At the same time, the country needs to rethink the entire question of southern Italy. For a long time, most people assumed, wrongly, that Mafia groups were the residue of an ancient and archaic way of life in the poorest parts of the country and that they would gradually disappear as the region developed economically. Money was poured into the “Mezzogiorno” to build roads, factories, hospitals, and public works projects. In effect, this was like feeding growth hormones to local organized crime groups. Such misguided policies transformed relatively poor and disorganized gangsters into extremely rich, powerful, and highly organized criminals of the kind Roberto Saviano describes.

– April 17, 2008

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