Man who took on the Mafia: The truth about Italy's gangsters

Roberto Saviano's explosive revelations about the Camorra of Naples- a racket he says is bigger than Sicily's Mafia - have led to death threats and, belatedly, an armed guard. By Peter Popham reports

Tuesday 17 October 2006 00:00 BST

Roberto Saviano is in mortal danger. Yesterday he was - very belatedly - granted an armed bodyguard by the district of Naples where he lives. He is in grave danger of being shot, stabbed, blown up, and done away with because he has had the courage and the recklessness to spill a large number of beans about the Camorra, the Mafia of Naples. This sprawling network of criminal gangs, according to him, now dwarfs both the original Mafia of Sicily, the 'Ndrangheta and southern Italy's other organised gangs, in numbers, in economic power and in ruthless violence.

The mafias of Italy have never hesitated to kill, but for reasons of prudence, and to keep the police and the media off their backs as far as possible, they usually go to some lengths to keep the killing within the criminal underworld: there is nothing to be gained from collateral damage.

For those outsiders, whether magistrates, politicians or journalists, who meddle in their affairs, who dishonour them, spill their secrets or threaten to break their cosy arrangement with the courts, retribution is often swift and drastic. And this is what Roberto Saviano now fears.

His crime, in the eyes of the gangs, is to have published a book, Gomorra (a word play on Camorra, and a reference to the disastrously lawless situation of Naples) that digs deep inside the gangsters' world, naming names, spelling out criminal structures and their ways of working, drawing a detailed picture of a city which, in his analysis, has largely surrendered to the criminals.

Gomorra was published by Mondadori, one of Italy's top publishers, six months ago and has been on the best-seller list for five months: sales now top 100,000. Saviano was also awarded a major prize, the Premio Viareggio, for the book, his first, and it is soon to be published in Britain, America, Germany and France. But the greater his book's fame, the more irritating it has become for his subjects. The threats began as a subtle murmur in the background of daily life: the phone that went dead when he picked it up, waiters in local restaurants who told him, "You're not welcome here," shopkeepers who whispered in a pleading tone, "Must you really keep on buying your bread at this shop?".

Then there was the gesture of rejection by the top elected official in the city. When Rosa Rossa Iervolino, the Mayor of Naples, awarded him a prize for the book, she gave him a slap in the face with a barbed comment. "Saviano," she said, "is a symbol of the Naples that he denounces."

Clearly the temperature was rising. But the moment that Saviano realised his life was at risk came as a weird counterpoint to his new fame and prominence.

On 23 September a campaign conducted by the Ministry of Justice against the Naples gangs was wrapped up with a public meeting in Casal di Principe, a tough suburb of Naples, addressed by Saviano. The author did not mince his words. "Iovine, Schiavone, Zagaria," he told the crowd, naming the local Camorra bosses, "are worth nothing. Their power is founded on your fear, they must clear out of this land." It was a moment of great courage - and recklessness.

Nothing went amiss for Saviano that day. But the local newspaper, the Corriere di Caserta, put a striking spin on the story. In their report they noted that none of the city's MPs had shown up for the meeting. They also reported that a cousin of "Sandokan", another of the gang leaders named by Saviona, "pinned one man to the wall with his ferocious stare and made him say, one by one, who was applauding too enthusiastically." The report went on to say that "not everyone was impressed by the invective of Saviona". The small change of local press reporting, one might think - except for the fact that the newspaper's editor is soon to go on trial accused of blackmail.

As Saviona's book makes clear, to live in these badlands and not come to terms with the gangs who rule them is to put one's life at risk. And Saviona has not only made it very clear that he is deeply opposed to the gangs; his work has already had an effect.

According to L'Espresso, the magazine that has published much of his work, "Gomorra ... has forced the state to act. The Interior Ministry is putting in place a plan to restore public order in Campania, and there is a reawakening of resistance among the civilian population. While everybody has been looking at Naples and the outskirts, the book has put under the eyes of everyone the economic and military power of the clans of Caserta," the area at the heart of Gomorra.

When Italy's criminal gangs, which are always in league with powers deep inside the bureaucracy and the government, decide to eliminate an enemy, they do not strike without due preparation. The preparation consists of rendering their victim weak, friendless and alone. It was the strategy followed in the assassination of the Sicilian magistrates Falcone and Borsellino, and many others. Saviano's enemies seem to have been following a similar script themselves.

Now Saviano's friends have started to declare themselves. The first was the celebrated writer Enzo Siciliano, who just before he died said: "Let's remember that this is not just a good book; this lad's life is at risk, too."

As word of the threats spread, a supportive blog was launched. On Sunday the great Umberto Eco, author of The Name of the Rose, went on national TV news to appeal for Saviona's protection. "We must not leave Saviano alone like Falcone and Borsellino," he said. "In this case, appeals to writers for solidarity are of no use... We know where the threats are coming from, we know the Christian and surnames of those who are making them. What's required is a public intervention by the state."

Yesterday the Prefect of Caserta answered that appeal by granting Saviano a bodyguard. The writer himself is currently taking "a break" away from the Naples region. "Only a stay of a few weeks," reports L'Espresso, "to relieve the pressure and concentrate on new projects."

But how long it will be before Saviano can breathe easy again is anybody's guess.

A Vespa ride through 'the pusher's piazza'

From "The War of Secondigliano", chapter three of Gomorra: "I had been hanging out in Secondigliano for some time. Since he gave up working as a tailor, Pasquale (a friend) kept me up to date with the buzz in the area, a place that was changing at blinding speed...

I used to cruise around the area north of Naples on my Vespa. I liked the light in Secondigliano and Scampia. The streets were huge and wide, airy compared to the tangle in the centre of Naples... it was like being in the open country... Scampia was the rotten symbol of the architectural delirium (of the Sixties), or perhaps more simply a utopia of cement which was able to put nothing in the way of construction of the machine of the drug trade that wore down the social fabric of this part of the earth.

Chronic unemployment and a total absence of plans for social growth turned this into a place capable of storing tons of drugs, and a laboratory for laundering dirty money into legal commercial activity... In 1989, it was reported that the north of Naples had one of the highest incidences of drug dealers per head of population in Italy. Fifteen years later it had become the highest in Europe and among the top five in the world.

My face had become known for some time to the lookouts of the gangs, the "pali", and I was regarded as neutral. In an area riddled with lookouts like this one, at every second there are people who have a negative value - police, carabinieri, people working for enemy clans - and a positive value, namely the customers. Everything that is neither negative nor positive is neutral and useless. To enter into this category signifies not to exist.

The pushers' piazza has always fascinated me because of its perfect organisation, which contradicts its reputation as a place of pure degradation. The mechanism of pushing is as regular as clockwork. It's as if the individuals move exactly like the machinery that keeps the time ticking.

Nobody moves without causing the movement of somebody else. Every time I see it I find it enchanting. The wages are paid out weekly, €100 for the lookouts, €500 for the co-ordinator and the man who collects the money from the dealers in a piazza, €800 to the individual pushers and €1,000 to those who take charge of the warehouses and hide the drugs at home.

The shifts run from 3pm to midnight and from midnight to four in the morning. In the morning it's difficult to deal because there are too many police around. Everyone has one day off per week, and anyone who comes to the piazza late loses €50 from his wages for every hour missed..."

But the calm of the piazza was exploded by a feud between the Camorra clans, with dozens of deaths:

"I drove back and forth on my Vespa through this blanket of tension. Every time I went to Secondigliano during the conflict, I was stopped and searched dozens of times a day. If I had had as much as a Swiss army knife on me I would have been done for. The police stopped me, the carabinieri, the lookouts of the Di Lauro clan and of the Spagnoli. All with the same little authority, mechanical gestures, identical words. The forces of order took my ID papers and scrutinised them, the guards of the clans bombarded me with questions, checking for an accent, on the lookout for lies..."

From 'Gomorra' by Roberto Saviano, published and copyright 2006 Arnoldo Mondadori Editore. Extracted with permission

They knew too much

* The most celebrated and widely mourned victims of the Mafia in recent times were Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, both assassinated by car bombs in Palermo in 1992 in retribution for their success in bringing hundreds of high-ranking mafiosi to trial.

As seems to be the case with Roberto Saviano, it was not only the gangsters but their secret allies within the institutions of state that first isolated the two investigators, then plotted their deaths. The murders provoked the first ever mass demonstrations against the Mafia by ordinary Sicilians, and prompted a resolute attempt by the state to clamp down on the mob which resulted in the breaking of the leadership. The life and death of Falcone was recently made into a hugely popular television drama series.

* A celebrated investigative journalist, Mauro de Mauro, disappeared suddenly in Palermo in 1970 while in the middle of investigating Mafia crimes. His body was never found and his fate remained a mystery until last week, when a Mafia supergrass claimed that the journalist had been strangled and his body dissolved in acid.

* Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa, a general in the carabinieri, scored heroic successes in the fight against ultra-left terrorism in the 1970s, but was assassinated by the Mafia in Palermo in 1982 when he tried to repeat the performance.

* Francesco Fortugno, politician and vice-president of the regional council of Calabria, was shot dead by gangsters at a polling station in Locri, Calabria, one year ago. The murderers have yet to be arrested and the crime remains a mystery.

* Don Giuseppe Diana, a priest in Naples, was shot dead in his church while celebrating Mass on 19 March 1994. A popular scout leader, he had showed a defiant attitude to the Camorra and paid with his life.

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