Few people have paid such a high price for success as the Italian novelist and investigative journalist Roberto Saviano. In 2008, at the tender age of 26, he published Gomorra, a brutal, amphetamine rush of a novel based on exhaustive research he had done on the Neopolitan mafia, la Camorra.
At first, the mafia was nonplussed about the publication; some of its members were even proud to have been featured in the book. But then Gomorra went viral, selling 10,000,000 copies in 50 different languages. As Saviano told the Spanish journalist Jordi Evolé in a recent interview for the Spanish documentary series Salvados, that’s when the problems began. All of a sudden, the press was talking about the Italian mafia, governments were investing more money to combat organised crime, and the wheels of justice were moving faster.
Saviano’s success had turned him overnight into an enemy and threat to one of the world’s most powerful crime organisations. Since then, he has had to live his life on the move, under the radar and the constant protection of platoons of bodyguards. As he puts it, “my old life has died.”
None of that has stopped him, however, from continuing to write about some of the world’s least savoury and most dangerous individuals and organisations. “I am obsessed,” he told the Spanish daily El Pais. “The moment I came face to face with the story of the mafia, I couldn’t resist it. I knew that if I continued writing, my life would suffer. Not only because of the threats, but also the law suits for defamation I would face from the people I wrote about. But I was hooked, the addiction was stronger than me.”
His latest book Zero Zero Zero is a novel based on the Mexican and Columbian underworld, and features a wealth of fresh dirt on the global drugs trade, including little-known nuggets about the “European connection”. We’ve all heard about the so-called “narco states” like Columbia and my country-in-law, Mexico (which Saviano describes as the “pulsing heart” of the drugs trade) but what happens at the other end of the distribution chain, in countries like Spain, Italy and Germany?
To find out, Spanish-speaking readers should check out Evole’s engrossing interview with Saviano (the program also features interviews with other experts on the European drugs trade). For those of you whose linguistic repertoire doesn’t quite extend to the Spanish tongue, here’s a selection of some of the choicest quotes from the interview (translated by yours truly).
“Cocaine Governs the World“
Cocaine is a merchandise that is sold everywhere in the world, all the time. I used the expression [in the book] “governs the world” because the data are astonishing: More than 400 billion dollars of revenue per year… If I invested 1,000 dollars in an Apple share, in one year I would make back around $1,200, $1,500. If I invested the same amount in cocaine, I could make back $182,000. That’s the power of cocaine.
The Role of “Fast Ports” in the Global Drugs Trade
One thing that works in the narcos’ favour is that a port that handles containers slowly is as good as dead. A port that receives and processes many containers as quickly as possible is alive and kicking. To give a hypothetical example, if a port were to decide to check all of the containers it handled, no company would ever want to use it. The faster the port, the better. And it’s this paradox that helps to make the drugs trade possible.
Europe’s Drugs Trade Ranking
Spain is first, followed by Germany, then France… In terms of the overall business [not just trade] the absolute leader is Italy, but Spain moves more cocaine than any other country in Europe.
European Banks Open Their Vaults to the Drug Lords
These days, the big drug cartels do not use tax havens, or at least they use them less than before. Instead, they use European [and obviously American] banks. In the new book, I mention Antonio María Costa, the former Under-Secretary of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, who said at the beginning of the crisis that the European banking system had lowered its security barriers. In other words, they had opened the floodgates to drugs money. Costa has publicly stated that the European financial systems were as good as saved by the global drugs trade, yet no EU government has responded to his accusation.
La “Costa Nostra”
For 20 years Spain has been the European gateway for the cocaine market [It is also Europe’s leader in the hashish trade]. Apart from Spaniards, everyone knows that Spain is a country where narco bosses go to live… Whenever convenient, Spanish politicians ignore this huge problem. Among the first people to invest in Spain after the fall of the Franco regime were [the Italian mobsters] Antonio Bardellino, Nunzio de Falco and the Tano Badalamenti organisation. That’s why they call it the “Costa Nostra”.
The Role of the Global Drugs Trade in Spain’s Property Boom
Who’s behind Catalonia’s real estate speculation? Narco traficantes. Where did all the money that fed Spain’s property bubble come from? It came from the drugs trade. Speak to the police in Spain and they will tell you that they don’t have the resources to requisition the mafia’s money. They don’t have the means to arrest the big players. Spain has all the weapons necessary to fight the problem, but the political will doesn’t exist. As the Catalans say, “money is money”.
Chapo Guzman: The Steve Jobs of the Drugs Trade
Guzman invented a whole new way of working in this business. He realised that the real money could be made in distribution, not production. Chapo Guzman sold cocaine not to the world’s consumers but to all of the world’s cartels.
On Drug Legalisation
I detest all types of drugs, but I’m in favour of blanket legalisation. I understand that it’s a moral problem. But I also know that the only way to take the drugs out of the hands of the mafia is legalisation. There’s no other way… the world is drowning in criminal capital.
For the narcos, this criminal capital is the reward for the immense risks they take in their chosen profession. As Saviano says, the life of a capo is the life of a recluse; it is “a living hell”. Their friends will one day be their enemies, and one of only two fates ultimately awaits them: death or prison. Until that happens, they can make vast sums of money very quickly.
As for the senior executives that run the global banks, they assume no risks whatsoever in their pursuit of the immense rewards that can be made from laundering the booty from this bloody business. When, on the rare occasion, they are caught in the act, it is the bank, not the executives, that pays the price, and only in the form of the daintiest financial slaps on the wrist. As the banks’ rap sheet grows, the penalties for their “misconduct” shrink, until they become mere operational costs of subverting the law. For their part, governments and regulators take a tidy cut of the action in exchange for looking the other way.
In the wake of the recent highly publicised arrest of Mexico’s narco kingpin, Chapo Guzman, one thing is now abundantly clear: the only genuine untouchables left in today’s criminal hierarchy are the senior management of the world’s largest banks.