What is cocaine? It is, for one, an addictive drug usually derived from coca, a tropical American plant. It is also, says Roberto Saviano, what our world is made of. It is a package in a baby's nappy; a block of white stuff hidden in a container of bananas; the 1.78 tons in a drinking water tank in the hold of the Master Endeavour, a merchant ship heading for West Africa. It is a drug-swallower, previously stuffed with drug capsules, now serenely wearing a jacket impregnated with liquid cocaine. It is 65 per cent pure cocaine cut with Levamisole, used for treating intestinal worms in livestock, or it is ZeroZeroZero, an ironic name given to the best kind of cocaine, as 000 flour is the best flour for pasta.
It is the 13 million Europeans who have snorted cocaine at least once in their lives, and the £1bn a year that Britons spend on it. It is what oils the wheels of London. Step past Saviano's perplexing decision to format a chapter – an addition to the British edition – as some kind of anonymous confessional round-table, because the content is more important than the form. Ignore the sometimes feverish writing, and the frequent disregard for sentences with verbs, because this is a dense, dazzling, dizzying narrative about the terrifying violence of the cocaine trade, but also the vast, unassailable reach of it. Cocaine is everywhere. It lubricates the banking system, fills the pockets of law enforcement, dusts the ports of Africa, the "giant supermarket" for the Mexican cartels, a continent "white with snow."
Cocaine can numb you and so can the first part of the book, with too many chapters on one violent narco criminal after another so that the Beltràn Leyva brothers blend into the Kaibiles, and El Padrino into El Chapo. At one point, it inspired me to note: "it's Wikipedia, on coke". That was unfair, because among the familiar stories of Pablo Escobar and the Cali cartel, there are details that couldn't be found by searching online.
For eight years, since he wrote the astonishingly brave Gomorrah, about the Neapolitan Camorra, Saviano has lived a crippled, constricted life. He is always escorted by seven armed Carabinieri. He lives in hotel rooms or barracks, rarely for more than a few days at a time. But it places him in the heart of law enforcement, and his acknowledgements thank a lot of acronyms and drug investigations from Alga to White City via Flowers 2 and Magna Charta. The last is an in-joke: investigating trafficking using chartered sailboats. Seventy-seven per cent of all seized cocaine in Europe between 2008-10 travelled by sea. Narcos have their jokes too, such as the drug baron who called his money-laundering shop Poppy, and another who called his boat Overdose.
Their humour is as black as their activities. A Colombian priest, kidnapped by traffickers, was forced to eat his own severed fingers and castrated; hundreds of campesinos were killed with chain-saws in the Trujillo massacre of 1990. The murders by coke traffickers are as profound as their profits: any YouTube search of Los Zetas will show copious beheadings and dismemberment. Terror brings obedience, and protects profit and there is no product that gives a better return on investment than cocaine: in 2012, if you invested €1,000 in Apple shares, you would have earned €1,670 in a year. If you had invested in coke, it would be €182,000. Cocaine is a safe, anti-cyclical asset with constant demand. It "is easier to sell than gold, and the revenue from it can exceed that of petroleum".
The second half of the book is purer, less cut with unnecessary detail. The tale of Bruno Fuduli, a marble factory owner in Calabria with no clan connections who became a broker for traffickers, is chilling: it's on the thousands of blackmailed and threatened farmers, small business-people and others that the cocaine trade is built. Cocaine is not just part of the global market, writes Saviano. It is the global market. That's why he nicknames one cocaine broker Copernicus: because "Before it was cocaine that rotated around money. Now it's money that has entered cocaine's orbit, sucked into its gravitational field."
Wachovia Bank, HSBC, Bank of America: all have been found guilty of or investigated for allowing money-laundering by traffickers and let off with a fine or nothing. The stunning sums and profit of cocaine was, during the economic recession of the late 2000s, the only liquidity that kept some banks going, with 97.4 per cent of cocaine revenue laundered by Colombians passed through US and European banks. Cocaine's damage is not confined to wretched countries such as Mexico and Colombia. "I want to scream this loud enough so that people will know," writes Saviano, "so that they prepare themselves for the consequences."
Given how Saviano lives, it may not be fair to wish that some of the book seemed more alive, less a recitation of transcripts and second-hand stories. I also wish that I knew what he was thinking when he wrote that Natalia Paris, a Colombian model who became a narco wife, "was girlishly petite but with explosive breasts and glutes" (it wasn't poor translation: I checked the Italian). I wish his editor had picked up niggling repetitions, such as the wonderful phrase in a compelling chapter on two cocaine brokers, that there are two kinds of wealthy people: those who count their money and those who weigh it. It is less wonderful when it is repeated 30 pages later, and this time attributed to the person who actually said it (a lawyer).
But these are complaints about the intestinal worm powder in the pure coke. Saviano often says that the Mafia is not scared of him, but of his readers. He believes in the force of exposure, whether that is to legalise coke – "a horrendous response, perhaps", but the only possible one – or for you to read and understand, and look into what he calls the abyss that is the realisation of how the world spins on cocaine, and how fast and in such perpetual motion.Reuse content