The Chicago Syndicate: GOMORRAH: A Personal Journey Into the Violent International Empire of Naples’ Organized Crime System
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Monday, September 21, 2015

GOMORRAH: A Personal Journey Into the Violent International Empire of Naples’ Organized Crime System

In the United States organized crime has entered a Tony Soprano twilight, as small-time bosses carve up ever-smaller wedges of a shrinking pie. In Italy, by contrast, all systems are go. In shipping, fashion and construction, to name just three booming businesses, the mob holds sway, often acting through, rather than despite, local government. All told, according to a recent report by an Italian small-business association, mob-related activity accounts for the single largest sector of the Italian economy.

Roberto Saviano, a young Italian journalist, counts the cost in “Gomorrah: A Personal Journey into the Violent International Empire of Naples' Organized Crime System,” his savage indictment of the Neapolitan crime organization known as the Camorra. Although less well known than the Mafia, its Sicilian counterpart, the Camorra has held the economy of southern Italy in a tight grip for more than a century. With time it has adapted and modernized, spreading from Naples to outlying towns, while adding financial services and real estate to its expanding portfolio.

“Never in the economy of a region has there been such a widespread, crushing presence of criminality as in Campania in the last 10 years,” Mr. Saviano writes.

The garment sweatshops of Secondigliano, a small town on the outskirts of Naples, provide Mr. Saviano with a case study. Day and night, highly skilled workers turn out low-cost counterfeits that compare favorably in quality with the originals from the big fashion houses. The factories are bankrolled by the Camorra, which lends money at low rates. Factory workers get their mortgages through the Camorra. Once completed, the clothes often find their way to boutiques owned by the Camorra all over Europe, many in Camorra-owned shopping malls.

The Camorra has come a long way since the days of cigarette smuggling. But despite the corporate face, it relies on age-old techniques of intimidation and violence, which Mr. Saviano describes in gruesome detail. When Cammoristi want to send a message, they do a thorough job. Enforcers make their point with one victim by sawing his head off with a metal grinder and blowing it up. The notorious Pasquale Barra, better known as the Animal, set new standards some years back when he ripped a target’s heart out with his bare hands and then bit into it.

Mr. Saviano, whose hometown, Casal di Principe, lies in the heart of Camorra territory, comes up with a total of 3,600 bodies since 1979, the year he was born.

Objective, analytic journalism is foreign to Mr. Saviano. The subject at hand is too personal, and in any case he takes a fiery, romantic view of the reporter’s mission. “I believe that the way to truly understand, to get to the bottom of things, is to smell the hot breath of reality, to touch the nitty-gritty,” he writes.

This passion for close-up, eyewitness reporting leads him to take small-time jobs in Camorra businesses, to show up whenever the police turn up a dead body and to mingle in the open-air drug market in Secondigliano, where fresh batches of heroin are tested on addict volunteers. If they drop dead, the batch is too potent.

The up-close style and the floridly noir prose make for vivid scenes. When he’s concentrating properly, Mr. Saviano also exposes the nuts and bolts of Camorra operations, complete with names and precise figures. His account of the drug trade, which the Camorra has shrewdly expanded to serve the casual, middle-class customer, is a model of muckraking journalism.

So are the chapters on the construction industry and the Camorra’s sinister trade in illegal waste dumping, much of it toxic. All over Italy highly trained experts in law and the environment make the rounds of Italian businesses, offering to ship everything from dead bodies to printer toner to illegal dumping sites in the south. This is worth billions of dollars a year.

From time to time Mr. Saviano takes flight on his own prose and, drunk with indignation, loses touch with the nitty-gritty. His chapter on the port of Naples, where Chinese entrepreneurs now control the illegal offloading of containers, makes for colorful reading, but Mr. Saviano neglects to explain how the Camorra fits in. Often names and killings speed by in a blur, devoid of context. Mr. Saviano never does explain the Camorra’s structure adequately.

Granted, it is a bewildering mess. The sheer scope of the Camorra’s businesses numbs even Mr. Saviano, who confesses to despair. Everything, he writes, seems to belong to the mob: “land, buffalos, farms, quarries, garages, dairies, hotels and restaurants.”

A small flicker of hope burns in a chapter devoted to Don Peppino Diana, a crusading priest who denounces the Camorra from his pulpit in Casal di Principe, organizes protest marches and sets up community programs to siphon support for the Camorra.

“He decided to take an interest in the dynamics of power and not merely its corollary suffering,” Mr. Saviano writes. “He didn’t want merely to clean the wound but to understand the mechanisms of the metastasis, to prevent the cancer from spreading, to block the source of whatever was turning his home into a gold mine of capital with an abundance of cadavers.”

On March 19, 1994, the name day of his patron saint, Don Peppino was approached in his church by armed men who shot him in the head at close range. He died instantly. Mr. Saviano, for his part, has been forced to live in hiding under police protection since his book was published last year in Italy.

Thanks to William Grimes

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