Striking Back Against the Mob

By Roberto Saviano
Sunday, June 29, 2008


I saw my first murder victim when I was 13, on my way to school. My family lived in Casal di Principe, a town of about 20,000 not far from Naples -- an area ruled by the Camorra, one of the most powerful criminal organizations in Italy.

My father, a doctor, was once called to the scene of a Camorra shooting and made the mistake of rushing the 18-year-old victim to the hospital. According to the unwritten rules of life under the Camorra, doctors were supposed to give hitmen a chance to come back and finish off their victims if they didn't die immediately. The thugs paid my father a visit that night, beating him so badly that he wouldn't show his face in public for a long time. By my count, 3,600 people have been killed in Italy by the Camorra since I was born 29 years ago.

Everyone in Naples lives with the mob in one way or another, and until very recently, that seemed unlikely to change. Much of the world has been unwittingly living with it as well. Directly or indirectly, the Camorra profits off of all business in and around Naples, starting with the port, where 1.6 million tons of Chinese goods -- clothes, toys, tools, everything imaginable -- are unloaded each year. Shipping rackets allow another million tons of merchandise to pass through tax-free. One Camorra gang set up clothing stores and warehouses in Germany, Spain, Ireland, the Netherlands, Finland and Serbia, to name a few places. They sold millions of knock-off designer jeans in the malls of New York, New Jersey and Chicago and practically owned the market in Florida.

After moving to Naples as a student and beginning to write about organized crime -- what mobsters call "the System" -- I learned how they control the construction, restaurant and fashion industries, as well as the drug trade. In my early 20s, I worked as an assistant to a photographer who took pictures at mob weddings. Riding my Vespa around Camorra-controlled neighborhoods, I got to know people at the bottom rungs of the hierarchy -- people such as the 12-year-old kids hired as look-outs and a "welfare officer" who delivered money to women while their mobster husbands sat in jail.

Two years ago, I wrote a book about my experience and the criminality that has overtaken the region. The good news is that more than 2 million copies have been sold worldwide (I'm told that it's the most sought-after book in Italian jails); the bad news is that I now have to live in hiding with round-the-clock bodyguards. When I leave my home, I travel in an armored car. Landlords are wary of leasing apartments to me. I wouldn't go back in time and unwrite the book, but I admit that there are days when I hate it -- and what it has done to my life and the life of my family.

Then there are times when I feel more hopeful. Times like now. Earlier this month, wrapping up a decade-long trial, an Italian court handed down life sentences to 16 Camorra ringleaders, including Francesco Schiavone, the boss of the Casalesi gang of Casal di Principe. Other defendants (among them two American women, former NATO officials who both had love affairs with Schiavone) received a combined total of 700 years in prison.

This trial -- which involved the investigation of more than 1,300 people and the testimony of 500 witnesses, and during which five people were killed -- was dubbed the "Spartacus" trial. The name honors the gladiator who led runaway slaves and other rebels in a revolt against the Roman army more than 2,000 years ago: At the Spartacus trial, the law itself rebelled against the criminals who have enslaved Casal di Principe, Naples and so much of Italy for so long.

Some people, no doubt, still consider the Spartacus defendants a deadly but run-of-the-mill gang of criminals, the umpteenth to come out of southern Italy. But the trial went a long way toward proving the extent of their economic power. In one of the most important moments of questioning, a witness explained the Camorra's grip on the region:

Prosecutor: . . . When they gave you the news that there was some work to be done, what did you do?

Witness: First we'd find out the name of the business that was going to do the work. Then . . . we'd call and we'd settle on the job and the payment to be made to the organization and on where . . . they would get the cement.

Fees for doing business in their territory, for cement, for subcontracts: This was the mob's empire. All the biggest public works in the area involved the Casalesi, from roads to a segment of the Rome-Naples highway to the Santa Maria Capua Vetere prison, where some of their members eventually ended up.

In two legal proceedings against the Schiavone family in August 1996, authorities confiscated 450 billion lire; a year later, they seized another 515 billion. That adds up to $788 million taken over two summers from just one of the many families that make up the Casalesi, an amount that would bring any business to its knees. But the Schiavone family and the Casalesi continue to prosper. All told, they are estimated to be worth about $47 billion.

The Spartacus trial was sweeping, covering events that began in 1988 and ended in 1996. Authorities needed almost a decade to figure out what had gone on with the Casalesi over the years, and this mother of all investigations spurred dozens of related homicide, drug and fraud investigations. In an earlier phase of the trial, the state even seized as assets two local soccer teams that the Camorra owned. All of that happened with next to no attention from the national or international media.

This time, things have been different. The trial was covered by journalists not just from Italy but from all over the world. The bosses hate this attention; Schiavone asked for permission not to attend the final hearing because he is not, he said, "a wild animal in a cage."

The Casalesi are afraid. They're afraid because they have never faced such blistering convictions. Their bosses never die in prison; they end their days free and far from their old territory. Schiavone, who has been in a high-security prison for a decade, wrote a letter to the Italian president asking for mercy. He once tried to pass as mentally ill and rustled up some psychiatric reports stating that he believed that strange ghosts visited him in his cell at night.

But now, with his life sentence, Schiavone has been brought to his knees. Only if he snitches on his friends and opens up about his own activities can he hope to get out early. If he and other bosses give in, then the sordid story of the Casalesi might finally come to an end.

With the end of this trial, I am reminded of the Camorra's victims, people killed for resisting the System's power who are honored only by the occasional street name and in the hearts of their families and friends. Salvatore Nuvoletta: a 20-year-old carabiniere killed in 1982 for his involvement in the arrest of one of Schiavone's relatives. Alberto Varone: a businessman killed in 1991 because his furniture factory made the mobsters in his town hungry for even more money. And Don Peppino Diana, a priest in Casal di Principe, shot in the church meeting room when I was 16 for denouncing the Camorra. The list grows longer still, to include people such as Domenico Noviello, gunned down a little more than a month ago, seven years after he accused the mob of extortion.

I hope that the Spartacus trial doesn't end like the life of Spartacus himself. He was killed in battle and his followers crucified along the Appian Way, the area where, in the ultimate irony, Casalesi-owned stores stand today. Night may have ended in southern Italy, but morning is not yet here.

Roberto Saviano is the author of "Gomorrah: A Personal Journey into the Violent International Empire of Naples' Organized Crime System." Published by arrangement with the Roberto Santachiara Literary Agency. This article was translated from the Italian by Outlook editorial aide Emily Langer.

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