Italy: Taking on The Mafia

Interview with Roberto Saviano

Italy: Taking on The Mafia

Roberto Saviano is the author of Gomorrah, a best-selling exposé of the Camorra Mafia in Naples. The 29-year-old first-time author spent five years researching the book, working undercover at a mob-owned construction site and even waiting tables at a Mafia wedding. Following the release of Gomorrah, Saviano received a series of death threats. He has spent the last two years in hiding under police protection.

Saviano recently spoke with FRONTLINE/World reporter Carola Mamberto by phone from a safe house in Italy, sharing his thoughts on the pervasive threat of the Mafia, his life in hiding and why he risked everything to expose the mob.

“I had a huge rage inside,” says Saviano. “I had a desire for vendetta, in the true sense of the term, against an extremely ferocious world that involves everybody. We’re all part of this mechanism,” he explains, “just by keeping quiet.”

Carola Mamberto: Roberto, how long have you been under police protection?

Roberto Saviano: Two and a half years.

What does that mean in terms of your daily life?

My police escort is made up of five carabinieri officers with two armored cars who are with me 24/7. I change residence very often. I basically can’t have a normal life. But I’m not the only one -- many in Italy have to live like this.

Let’s talk a little bit about your book, Gomorrah. Your role in it is somewhat blurred -- you’re in part a writer, a sort of narrator really, and in part an investigative reporter. You don’t exactly infiltrate the Camorra [the Naples-based Mafia syndicate], but you’re always very close to the action, on your Vespa, in the middle of risky situations. We “see” you -- I’m saying “see you” because frankly your book reads like a screenplay -- intercepting the radio frequencies used by the police, so you’re always among the first people to show up at the scene of a murder.  For a reader, it’s easy to forget that these are all real-life experiences and not fiction. Why did you do it?

All the kids of my generation talk constantly about the Mafia’s leaders, the bosses, the murders. There’s a real curiosity around it. There are even local newspapers that only cover these issues -- these stories, these wars. It has to be said that, as a writer, I realized that those were very powerful stories. You know, American film directors would never imagine the stories that actually take place in some small towns of Southern Italy or Russia -- in “Mafia countries.” The reality is much more complicated than the common perception.

Let me give you an example. In my region, when a feud erupted between two families and they needed to find some common ground for peace to stop the bloodshed, they decided to divide up various territories. One faction took possession of some Italian territories, and the other claimed parts of Andalusia and southern Spain. So here we have two families of a small Italian town who, in order to make peace, carve up parts of Europe, as if it were a game of Risk.

So I decided to write this because they were incredibly gripping stories, and I found myself to be part of them. But I also had a huge rage inside. I had a desire for vendetta, in the true sense of the term, against an extremely ferocious world that involves everybody -- from the doctor to the local police officer, from the postman to the naïve professor. Just by keeping quiet, we’re all part of this mechanism that I wanted to expose. That’s why I wrote Gomorrah.

When Gomorrah was first published in 2006, it quickly rose up the charts in Italy. Still, at the very beginning, you had no problems with the Mafia.

That’s right. That’s the interesting thing. [The Camorra Mafia families] weren’t bothered that I had written the book; it was the success of the book that bothered them. To be honest, we all thought it wouldn’t sell more than 5,000 or 10,000 copies. Those are the average numbers for Italian books that cover Mafia issues; they have very low sales. When [the Camorra] saw that we had sold more than 100,000 copies, it really hit them. They were terrified.

At the very beginning, they actually enjoyed your book, didn’t they?

Yes, absolutely. Copies of my book started circulating among Camorra circles. They would actually give copies of my book to each other as gifts, with pride.

The Camorra is very media savvy. The big crime syndicates want to have some media attention, but not too much. Being talked about among a few people allows them to control their image. So they let themselves be interviewed by one journalist, for example, who works for a newspaper that they manipulate by buying all its ad space through companies they control. They want some exposure, but not a lot. They’re afraid of big numbers. Because when you reach a lot of people, you turn the problem of the Mafia into a problem of everyone. That is exactly what happened with Gomorrah.

At first, [the Camorra] saw it as a book like many others. But when the word of mouth spread, when more than 50 countries bought the rights to publish it, this whole thing started terrifying them. Why? Because the book’s success led the media -- radio, TV, daily newspapers, big international networks -- to put the spotlight on them. This is what bothered them. In that sense, there’s a huge difference between my case and that of Salman Rushdie. When Salman wrote The Satanic Verses, Iran condemned him, with Khomeini’s famous fatwa,  just for the fact of having written the book. He could have sold one copy or 50 million -- it didn’t really matter. That fatwa would have been issued anyway. In my case, if my book hadn’t been so successful, if no one had read it, [the Camorra] wouldn’t even have bothered me. I always say, they’re not scared of me; they’re scared of my reader.

What happened next?

Many things happened after that initial success. Three years ago, a jailed Camorrista turned informant declared that the Casalesi clan, which controls the area where I come from, wanted to eliminate me as soon as possible. So authorities gave me full police protection. After that came a second signal from the Camorra. Two bosses, Antonio Iovine and Francesco Guidognetti, read a 60-page document in court, at the end of a trial against them, in which they blamed their arrests on me, a prosecutor and a local journalist. By doing so, clearly, the clan wanted to send a message -- that we would become targets if they were found guilty at that trial. Then, last October, unfortunately, there was a third episode. It concerned Carmine Schiavone, a very powerful boss turned informant. He declared that my police escort and I would be killed before Christmas near the city of Caserta [in Campania]. These were the three most difficult times for me, which forced me to change my life. As you can see, these “signals” all came from within the Casalesi clan, through bosses turned informants. I was aware, and the carabinieri were also aware, of the deep hatred that people from the areas I mention in the book felt toward me. Even Naples, a big part of Naples hates me, despises me. But both the carabinieri and I never expected such a strong reaction from the actual military wing of the Casalesi.

Does one ever get used to living under such constant threats?

Actually … yes. You do get used to it. You get used to it because you begin to see yourself as another person.

I know exactly how I’ll end up. There are always three phases. Anyone who has successfully laid a finger on these powers, who has obtained some results, has gone through these three phases. The first phase is that [the Camorra clans] start pressing charges against you. They sue you to try to take your money away -- the money that is vital for you to keep your work and your research going, so that you can keep writing about these issues. So at first they try to take that money away from you. They sue you and sue you and sue you for anything, anytime you open your mouth. Even if they end up losing the trials, you’ll still find yourself with huge legal bills to pay.

In the second phase, they discredit you. They basically say I’m a false person, a liar, a plagiarizer. “You stole information.” “You’re part of the Mafia.” “You’re worthless.” “You crossed the line.” This is very easy for them to do, because these people have a lot of visibility, so they can easily create a little wind of defamation around you. They try at all costs to denigrate you. The final phase is physical elimination, which only happens when you start to lose [popularity]. This will never happen when you’re protected by the spotlight and a large popular consensus. It happens when you begin to be seen as a guitto, someone who’s denounced and attacked by all sides. Obviously, this will happen to me as it’s happened to everybody else. I don’t think there’s hope that things can really change. What I do hope is that, over time, if the citizens really want it, these groups will become less and less powerful.

Clearly, you will remain under police protection for some time to come. What have been the consequences, so far, on your personal life and on your family? We’re the same age -- we’re both about to turn 30 -- and I can’t help but put myself in your shoes. How do you do it?

Well, obviously my family -- they all had to move. I feel terribly guilty about that. But what hurt me most these past few years was seeing my close friends disappear, one after the other. For a number of reasons, probably even rational reasons, they all stopped being in touch with me. Now I’m trying to rebuild a social life. You know, these are things that I usually find too difficult to talk about. Generally, here in Italy, nobody believes that I’m really going through this. In a country where everything always looks like a show, where nobody would be willing to sacrifice his or her own life for anything, my story is viewed with suspicion. So in order to avoid the sorrow of seeing doubtful faces around me, I never talk about it. But now that I think about it, yes, the most difficult thing to overcome is the solitude.

One part of Italy sees you as a hero. Even abroad you’re seen as a hero; last year, six Nobel Prize winners signed a plea asking Italian authorities to better protect you. And yet in your homeland, some people are full of rage. They say you’re making money off their backs.

Well, some of these feelings are a consequence of the Camorra’s campaign against me. Others aren’t. Others are genuine.

The first thing that comes to my mind is the recent statement of the captain of the Italian national soccer team, Fabio Cannavaro, who’s from Naples. He said that the book and the film “sent a wrong signal about Naples; they don’t help the city.” Well, this is the classic Italian obscurantism. Someone who states the contradictions of his own country is considered to be someone who’s attacking the country, who’s defaming its name. His denunciation is not seen as the solution to a problem. So I generally don’t feel very hurt by these hostile feelings. I’m not the one defaming my country -- it’s these criminal groups that are defaming it. It’s the front pages of newspapers around the world writing in shock about a city, Naples, drowning in garbage. It’s the political corruption, the two million people who have emigrated from Italy. It’s hard to find another Western country that has had an emigrating population of 2 million in the past 10 years. This is what spoils Italy’s image. I don’t think it’s the arts or literature, even when they deal with the country’s contradictions. Nobody picks on David Grossman when he writes about the war in Israel. Nobody picks on Scorsese or accuses him of showing America’s dark side or spoiling its image. But in Italy they pick on those who tell these “other” stories.

They’ve now made a movie based on Gomorrah, which premieres in the United States in February. It has won many awards in Europe but was not nominated for an Oscar. What do you think about the film?

The film is very different from the book, and that’s fine. It’s its own thing that doesn’t really concern me. But I liked it a lot. The Academy [Award members] didn’t like it at all. If they were expecting a Michael Corleone, as they usually do, they found themselves watching the wrong movie.

The director [Matteo Garrone] decided to re-imagine the criminal world, overturning the image that people in the United States still have [of organized crime]. Garrone did this by hiring actors from the streets, among other things. Some of these actors had even been arrested for criminal activities. This approach fully embraces the teachings of Italian neo-realism of directors de Sica and Rossellini, the idea behind it being that if you take your actors directly from the streets, you can demonstrate, on screen, that that world, the criminal world, really has no glamour, that it isn’t too far removed from a person’s brutal daily life.

And once you watch the film, you will see that all these disgusting, fat and sweaty characters in the movie are unlikely to arouse, in the viewer, any kind of enchantment. This was one of the main objectives with the film -- to avoid creating a [Hollywood] criminal epic.

Were you involved in the production?

I was just involved with the screenplay, along with many others.

Let’s go back for a second to this very romantic vision that Americans have of the mob: The Godfather, The Sopranos

Well, those are two examples of really great storytelling. The fictional aspect of them is very well done. I know The Sopranos very well; I even studied the show. What is dangerous is not the show itself, but the icons that it cements. The show is very interesting, almost necessary I would say. The authors were very good at illustrating the decline, really, of Italian American Mafia families and the daily lives of these characters. In fact, I was very saddened to see that sections of the Italian American community resented the series. The Sopranos really managed to deconstruct the image of the omnipotent, attractive Mafioso, surrounded by beautiful women, with a life lived in between courage, resistance and death. This is not what Mafiosi are about, and The Sopranos shows that.

It’s often happened that some female reader would come up to me and say, “What a Mafioso face you have!” But they say it as if they were paying me a compliment. When they see my grave reaction to their words, they realize that in Italy, maybe, it’s not a compliment, but for them, it is. For them, it’s synonymous with attractive, glamour. It’s a very dangerous attitude.

Roberto, these days you write for the Italian daily Repubblica and its sister magazine, l’Espresso. But whenever I read one of your stories, I’m always left wondering how you’re still able to report, given the circumstances.

Well, I work like an inmate. My sources are judicial acts, police interceptions and material from the carabinieri, which have become a big presence in my life. I basically live among them. I try to do what I can within the spaces and time frames that my police escort gives me. 

Your book and your articles have turned a giant spotlight on the Camorra, and you’re still reporting on these issues. What is the situation like today in Naples? What are the latest developments?

Naples is in a criminal stalemate. There have been numerous arrests in the city’s hinterland, and this has created a power vacuum, but there has also been a sort of regrouping, a new partitioning of the territory. In substance, the criminal organizations are still very strong, and their finances are still widely unknown to investigators. There have been some monetary seizures by the Italian authorities but not enough. Murders have gone down slightly -- there used to be one murder every day; now there’s one every three days -- but their power is still huge. I especially requested that a title card be placed at the end of the [Gomorrah] film with some statistics, including a fact that came out of a recent investigation: that the Camorra was trying to invest in New York to rebuild the Twin Towers. This gives you an idea of the economic power that they have.

The story I reported for FRONTLINE/World is based in Sicily, another Italian Mafia-dominated region, where things seem to be changing. People are tiring of Mafia control. There are more and more examples of citizens standing up to the Mafia. But the situation is very different in Naples.

That’s right. Cosa Nostra is in crisis, in part because of the huge effort of the Italian government in the fight against the Sicilian Mafia. Today, the Mafias that really count and that are the criminal future, not just of Italy but of Europe and to some extent of the Americas as well, are the N’Drangheta of Calabria and Camorra of Naples and Campania. These two words, “N’Drangheta” and “Camorra,” are actually only used by journalists. The real name of the N’Drangheta is Cosa Nuova (“The New Thing”), as opposed to Cosa Nostra (“Our Thing.”) In Campania, the Camorra’s true name is il sistema (“the system”). These two criminal organizations are very different from the Sicilian Mafia. The leadership is much younger. Families, or clans, are much more autonomous; there isn’t a real hierarchy.

This means that in Calabria and Campania there’s much more blood. Cosa Nostra, for example, decides from above about murders and massacres. Within the Camorra and the N’Drangheta, on the other hand, each family decides for itself. Also, the two organizations are less tied to politics compared to the Sicilian Mafia. They tend to tie themselves to politics through business instead of trying to “build” a politician who will one day procure them business deals, as the Sicilian Mafia notoriously does. The Camorra and the N’Drangheta are centered around businesses in any sector: from garbage collection to bread production; from clandestine horse races to gas distribution; from shoes and garment manufacturing to the construction trade; from the resale of IT products to milk and cheese production; butter sold to Germany’s most important confectionary companies. There is no industry that these criminal organizations don’t have a hand in.

The Italian government’s response to the Mafia has always been quite cyclical. Is this changing?

Unfortunately, the government only reacts when there’s some public attention on the issue. There is no way out of this until the Mafia problem becomes THE problem, not ONE of the problems. But no one will ever allow that to happen. In Italy’s political game, it always appears as if the Mafia problem is a problem only of Southern Italy [about half the size of the country]. So politically, if you launched a campaign denouncing the Mafia, you’d automatically lose half of Italy’s votes. And you don’t even gain the other half -- far from it. So raising the issue of the Mafia isn’t convenient for anybody, not even for those who believe that the Mafias should be defeated.

I’d like to ask you a question about us, about our generation. You were 26 when you published Gomorrah, and you’ve traveled all over Italy since then to promote your book. You must have met scores of young Italians. What do you make of them? Are we going to wake up or what?

Well, you know, our generation, especially in the South, lives in deep schizophrenia. The capable ones have to leave. Those who stay are often seen as failures. I’ve been crushed in this logic before. Those who stay settle for little and bow their heads down. If they try to resist, they make their lives impossible. Those who stay will hardly see their talents fulfilled. Those who leave will have a better life -- maybe not a happier life, but a life with more opportunities.

I grew up with the daily obsession of leaving the place where I lived. At one point, as the intellectual that I was trying to be, I said to myself, it’s impossible to leave. If we leave, nobody will try to change things. But that’s the way it is. Those who stay are gradually, slowly sucked into the system. They are tempted to leave things as they are, to float along.

You have to believe me if I tell you that none of the people I know with qualities, none of them, have remained in Italy. Every single one of them has left. This doesn’t help the South grow. It doesn’t help Italy grow. Despite this, it’s an issue that is just impossible to bring up in Italy. On top of that, there’s this economic crisis that’s suffocating not just the Italian young people, but young people all over the world.

Still, we have a deep advantage compared to our parents’ or grandparents’ generation. We want to understand, we want to change, regardless of ideologies or political affiliations. What matters to this generation is how to move forward independently from all these factions: right, left, Catholics, secular. Move forward. That’s the positive side of our generation, a message that I also tried to include in my book. I think that is why many Italians our age, which are the ones that made Gomorrah a hit in Italy, defend me.

Are you writing another book?

Yes, I am. It’s the only tool I have to prove that I’m alive.

I’m wondering, with everything that’s happened, do you think that writing the book was worth it?

It was worth it. But every morning I wake up hating my book more and more and hating myself for writing it. Still, I would do it again.