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 …

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