The American (online)
By Roberto Saviano (translated from the Italian by Virginia Jewiss)
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 320 pp., $25
On his Vespa outside Naples, Robert Saviano once blew a tire by riding over a splintered human thighbone. The setting of Gomorrah, his gripping new account of the city’s vast criminal business empire, is so unrelentingly brutal that this grisly inconvenience takes up just a couple sentences. And by comparison with the ends of other players in Naples’s mob drama during the last decade, the lonely roadside killing of the thighbone’s owner seems hardly grisly at all. If slow deaths by shooting, stabbing, gouging, poisoning, burning, strangling, garroting, choking, kneecapping, and slicing happen with anything like the frequency suggested in Saviano’s book, then every Neapolitan gangster should carry a suicide-pill hidden in a false tooth. There are fates worse than death, and many of their colleagues seem to have met them.
Naples is an extremely active port, and like all ports it has a reputation for crime. What separates Naples from other backwaters is, first, the sheer volume of its business, and, second, the marriage of money and criminality that makes it work. Goods bound for all of Europe pass through Naples, which Saviano describes in a series of gastrointestinal metaphors as a place where the anarchy of the ocean disgorges its filthy merchandise into the hands of criminal retailers and middlemen. About 60 percent of the goods at the port (nearly all of them made in China) get smuggled in, and when unloaded they fall into the hands of the organization known as the “Camorra.”
“Camorra” means less to American ears than “Mafia” or “Cosa Nostra,” the Sicilian equivalents of the Neapolitan gang. Saviano’s task, for which he spent years working on the Camorra’s fringes and putting miles on his Vespa in Naples’s back alleys, is to see that it is known better. The Camorra’s reach is global, its influence geopolitical, and its savagery difficult to exaggerate. One observer points out that the Sicilian gangsters know honor and respect, but their ambitions never extended far beyond the political—that is, beyond absolute control over their own Mediterranean fiefdoms. But the Camorra acts like a business, and all businesses eventually grow large enough to seek foreign markets.
Indeed, the Camorra makes the Sicilians look like junior varsity mobsters. It resembles a huge multinational holdings company, an enterprise whose business runs easily into the billions of dollars annually, even though it appears on no Forbes list and its leaders’ faces are known only from their wanted posters. In the last ten years, its expansion beyond Naples has brought it to South America and the far corners of Europe, although North America appears to be mostly untouched.
It operates with an industrial base and a broad array of extremely profitable criminal sidelines. Cement businesses seem to be a favorite legitimate enterprise. Drugs and guns are standard sidelines. One clan, the Secondigliani, in effect revolutionized the drug trade by procuring and adulterating the product and then outsourcing its distribution. Saviano describes an evening of testing at which addicts clamor around the back of a distribution vehicle, as in “one of those scenes they show on the news when a truck of flour arrives in Africa.” The cocaine has been cut with something poisonous, and the mobsters wait until some desperate guinea-pig volunteers to risk his life for a free hit. It doesn’t take long before one does. If he lives, they sell their product.
Saviano says Caserta, Naples, and Calabrese clans control so much of the world’s small arms industry that they effectively have say over global prices for AK-47s, the popular assault rifles. (Experts, however, question this assertion: Italian gangsters might have some control over ex-Soviet materiel, but used and Chinese models make up enough of the market to keep them from exerting full control over prices.) For their own protection, the Camorra keeps a well-stocked armory of rifles, grenades, and even anti-tank weapons, generally of Eastern European origin. Occasionally they arm other non-state actors, such as the Basque terrorist group ETA, or even state actors, such as the Argentine military during the Falklands war. To practice, the arms dealers shoot up local shops; and since they own the glass manufacturers, too, they make money even with their test shots.
Most of the Camorra’s business consists of acts of pure evil: imagine Uday Hussein with an MBA. But some of their activities, though patently illegal, look less like psychotic violence than like products of systemic failure of the Italian and international economies, or at least failures of those systems to embrace and regulate sensibly the demands that the Camorra ultimately fulfills. What is striking about Saviano’s account is not merely the ugliness of the enterprise but its range, resilience, and cleverness. The port of Naples, he points out, is a mirror image of the Italian bureaucracy that for decades made the country a European laughingstock. “Here the proverbial slowness that makes the Neapolitan’s every move molasses-like is quashed, confuted, negated,” Saviano writes. The goods move through the port with lightning speed. In Naples, crime is the only way to do business.
One of the major quasi-legitimate enterprises of the Secondigliani is selling knock-off textiles, often bearing designer tags. Saviano points out that the high-end designers do not object much. One reason could be fear: no one wants the Camorra after him. But another reason is economic: to oppose those counterfeit products is to oppose the workers who manufacture them (and who, not incidentally, also have mob ties, as well as the backing of Italy’s absurdly pro-union, anti-worker laws). The designers’ access to cheap labor depends on their acceptance of a certain amount of counterfeiting. In addition, the fashion labels profit from exposure of their brand to the general public.
Among ordinary people, the Camorra has mechanisms for taking care of its own. A sort of underworld social worker, called a “submarine,” cruises the streets of Naples to distribute monthly welfare payments to the dependents of Camorra agents who have been killed or are in jail. So many people join Camorra enterprises—whether out of fear or because it is the best opportunity available—that in Casal di Principe alone, around 1,200 people have been sentenced for mob-related crimes; many more stand accused of crimes but not convicted. Casal di Principe is a town of fewer than 100,000 people.
There is, then, at least some confluence of interest among legitimate businesses, ordinary people, and the Camorra. Of course, the criminals themselves are the ones responsible for producing stacks of mutilated corpses, and it is more than a little perverse to suggest that the violence of the Campania region (one of whose towns is now Europe’s murder capital) is the fault of overzealous regulators. Saviano, an opponent of the Camorra who now fears for his life, suggests no such thing. But it does seem that at least some of this sick business is just that—business—and one must wonder whether at least part of it could be harnessed, and the bloodshed reduced, if law and order were applied a little more judiciously.