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Italy: The Crooks in Control


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’s Gomorrah, by contrast, quite self-consciously (sometimes a little too self-consciously) models itself on such books as Michael Herr’s Dispatches and Truman Capote’s In 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,

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