Author in Hiding From Mafia

Roberto Saviano's best-selling novel "Gomorra," a play on words about the Neapolitan Camorra, has won him much more than accolades and literary prizes. He has also received death threats from the Camorra, one of the bloodiest criminal groups on the planet. Saviano studied volumes of court documents and infiltrated the mob, working odd jobs to research his book. Now he lives in hiding and has armed guards protecting him 24 hours a day. His book has sold 900,000 copies in Italy and was just published in English in the United States and will soon be released in the United Kingdom, France and Germany. Saviano, 28, came out of hiding and, flanked by his bodyguards, spoke with NEWSWEEK's Barbie Nadeau, walking through the Villa Borghese in Rome. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: The Neapolitan Camorra say they want to kill you. Are you afraid?
Roberto Saviano: No, I am not afraid. This is simply something I have to deal with. I have certain apprehensions, and certainly there are things I have to do differently from before. I have to move in certain ways with the bodyguards. Maybe another person would be afraid, but I understand clearly that this goes with what I am doing.

You live under cover; you change houses frequently. What is that like?
It's strange. It's absolutely bizarre. Every day is different. I remember when it started; Oct. 13 last year was the day that my life changed. I suddenly had to go with bodyguards, ride in an armored car. It also made me realize that people I might meet may want to harm me. I was lucky to have great solidarity behind me. There were many who supported my work and believed in what I was doing.

Why do they want you dead?
It was when I had sold 100,000 copies of the book. This, fundamentally, bothered the clan [the Camorra], who prefer to disseminate their own information how they want rather than having someone do it for them. Essentially, these groups don't pay much attention when someone says something. If you say something, no one says anything. The clan does not have a big problem with freedom of speech. When they decided they wanted to take me out, it was because I didn't just say it, I wrote something, and when the book started selling more, it angered them because their story would be discovered by a larger audience. Traditionally, the clan's story is never heard. Their history is known only in local circles. You know, among the Camorra the death rate is one or two a day. The deaths don't even make the news unless they reach five or six in a day. But for me the visibility surrounding the book is a form of protection. The more famous I may become, the less likely they will want to create a scandal over my blood. But they also won't ever forget.

Do you ever regret writing this book?
No. The only thing I regret is that these threats have also affected my family. But my position remains firm and my belief in what I am trying to do is undivided.

What kinds of death threats have you received?
In reality, the most important threat was when the carabinieri of Naples discovered a plan to take me out through an informer. That's when they gave me the police escort. I didn't ask for it, but I understand based on the threats to me why I need them.

Do you think many Camorra associates have read the book?
In fact, the carabinieri recently intercepted telephone traffic where one boss said to another, "Have you read 'Gomorra'? Let's hope the judges don't read it."

You have been hailed as doing more damage to the Camorra than years of antimafia wars. Do you fully understand what you've done to shake up the Camorra?
I think the main thing I've done is not within the organization but how they are perceived in the outside world. When people read this book in England, in Finland, in America, they better understand the activities and how the clan keeps the population hostage. This information, in particular, is something [the Camorra doesn't] want. You know, in every other country they talk about the mafia, but not in Italy. In Italy we don't talk about the problem. There is this perception that if you talk about the mafia something bad will happen. Every other country associates Italy with the mafia, but not Italy.

Has the book changed anything in Italy?
I don't know yet. I think I have provided the instrument for change, but I don't know if it will result in change. I hope so, but I can't say it will.

Do you think it will stop anyone from joining organized crime groups?
I think I have described what happens if they do. But when you enter the mafia, when you join the clan, you don't know what to expect. Everything is beautiful; everything is clean. Only when you are in do you realize what it is really like, and by then it's too late. You know, the hopeless and curious often join for the same reasons. But at some point they start to want to die. Not because they are tired of living this life, but because they are convinced it is part of the responsibility of the organization. Death is not a risk, it is a part of being in the clan.

Is Italy making progress in the war against the mafia?
There are many initiatives, but they are small. So the progress is small. People's minds are slowly changing, but you've got to also make changes on an institutional level. And not just in Italy but across Europe. Did you know there is not an antimafia association outside Italy? There isn't one in England or France or Germany or Finland. All the antimafia prosecutors in Italy collaborate with the police forces in foreign countries, but they don't have antimafia laws in place that correspond directly with antimafia laws here. There are no European antimafia regulations that allow for the type of collaboration in investigation, extradition and interrogation that is required in mafia cases. The paradox is that there has never once been an antimafia investigation in Germany until the Duisburg incident last summer [when the Calabrian mafia executed six members outside an Italian pizzeria]. This opened Germany's eyes, and also Europe's. Maybe this is the step to the next phase, the step ahead. After Duisburg, organized crime can be defined as a European problem, not just an Italian one. The mafia understands this more than anything else. [The Sicilian] Cosa Nostra is not as strong as the Camorra and the 'Ndrangheta [the Calabrian mafia], but they have a much more global reach and have infiltrated many global industries. In fact the mafia understood the benefits of globalization 10 years before the rest of the world.

Is there any way to stop the mafia?
The place to start is in changing the minds of the people who collude with the mafia, but you must also change the political structure, and you have to change the economic rules across Europe. The mafia enters into various countries by investing in no-risk ventures, like restaurants and hotels. Then they move up to petrol companies or distribution plants. But they always play both sides of the legal line—they zigzag between legal and illegal activities, but always keep some portion legal. They even carry this through on a social level. Clan members may invest in China or control the toxic waste industry, but they won't let their women dye their hair because it's too erotic. They may order a hit on someone's daughter, but they won't tolerate their own daughters losing their virginity. They might sell drugs around the world, but they won't allow anyone to roll a joint in their house. There is always an element of good or pure in contrast.

Do you believe that Italy will one day be free from organized crime?
It's possible, but not if you only try to stop it in Italy. There has to be a concentration all over Europe. The new frontier for the mafia is Africa; there has to be an effort there. This particular government has made some moves in the fight, but we are only now at ground zero. 

How long do you think you will live?
I have to confess, I don't really have the feeling that I will live a long life. But I hope so. I really like living.