Inside Europe's Heroin Capital

Lorenzo Lipurali's apartment smells of ammonia and cheap pine air freshener. It is on the fourth floor of the condemned Le Vele housing project in Scampia, just north of Naples. A big man with fat hands and a gentle smile, Lipurali is sitting at a small table in the middle of his narrow living room. His light blue NAPOLI FOOTBALL sweatshirt is unzipped, splitting the NAP FROM the OLI. His 14-year-old daughter Anna serves espresso and mineral water in tiny white plastic cups. Lipurali, who says he is unemployed, slips a bootleg copy of "Gomorrah," a prize-winning new film about Neapolitan crime families, into his high-tech stereo system and fast-forwards to his favorite part. The widescreen TV shows the same view as the one from Lipurali's window; gunshots echo on the soundtrack. "There I am," he says with a grin, pausing the grainy bootleg. In the background of the frame, he is guiding a giant sofa suspended by ropes from one of Le Vele's upper apartments. As Lipurali lowers the sofa, two preteen boys from rival families philosophize about how they are now enemies who might have to kill each other the next time they meet. How many takes to get the shot right? "Six or seven," says Lipurali with a laugh. "The sofa kept swinging."

Like many who live in this condemned apartment block, Lipurali misses the irony of his 15 minutes of fame. Roberto Saviano's gritty book "Gomorrah," on which the film is based, was the first of its kind to expose the brutal Neapolitan Camorra to a global audience. But it is Matteo Garrone's movie that puts real faces on Saviano's characters. Garrone used locals like the two young boys, Lipurali and his daughter to add authenticity to the docudrama. What he ended up with was a tragic home movie about real life in Scampia and other crime-rich Neapolitan suburbs.

The movie follows the five stories that illustrate the Camorra's global reach: drugs, extortion, toxic-waste mismanagement, counterfeiting and murder. Saviano's book has sold more than 3 million copies worldwide, and the movie will likely receive an Oscar nomination for best foreign film. Earlier this month it won five European Film awards, including best movie, best director and best cinematography. But Saviano, an investigative journalist, lives in depressing solitude, accompanied by five state-issued bodyguards who move him around Italy to protect him from the Camorra, which has vowed to kill him by Christmas. Though satisfied with the impact his book and the movie have had, Saviano, 29, resents that he has had to give up his freedom. "I am no longer a threat to the clan," he said during a closely guarded interview in Rome. "It's the readers and those who see the movie that cause the real threat to them now."

The housing projects Saviano depicts in the book remain unchanged since he grew up in one in Casal di Principe. His reportage has had no impact on the clan's activities; bootleg copies of the movie sell for €3 on the streets of Naples. The drug trade and killings are as rampant as ever; anti-mafia police estimate that the various clans composing the Camorra kill at least one person every three days. Last spring the Italian government sent 500 troops to set up armed checkpoints around Caserta, Scampia and Casal di Principe. The Camorra clans responded by establishing their own checkpoints that even the soldiers wouldn't cross. "This is normal for these people," says Saviano. "No one is innocent there—even if they aren't criminals. Their daily life might involve watching someone murdered, witnessing a robbery, stumbling onto a drug transaction—things people in other parts of the world never see in their whole lives."

As "Gomorrah" makes clear, the Camorra's reach is vast and varied. It buys toxic waste from Northern European companies and makes financial investments in North America. But the local cocaine and heroin business is the most lucrative, bringing in an estimated €500,000 a day. In Le Vele, there are no legitimate stores, yet plenty of bustling drug workshops. Fewer than half the apartments have glass in the windows. The pavement is torn up and the walls gutted. The long corridors are all dead ends, and the views are dismal. After a major earthquake in 1980, many of the poorest displaced Neapolitans stormed the complex and claimed the abandoned apartments. In 1989 and again in 1993, the entire complex was condemned. Only 100 families live here legally; another 400 live as squatters. They coexist with the drug trade and even receive a house discount: half-price doses for residents. But few of them are users. They see where it leads.

International clients buy massive quantities of heroin and cocaine through seedy warehouses and underground storage facilities nearby. On the ground floor of each building in Le Vele, women run make- shift drug shops. They sit behind folding tables with cardboard boxes full of plastic syringes, which they sell for €1. They also sell candy bars and soft drinks to the kids who live here. Once customers purchase syringes, they are directed to the basement where they can buy a dose of heroin for €16 cash. They simply toss the used syringes in the grass on their way out.

Some patrons are dressed in suits and pull up to Le Vele in fancy cars. Rather than descend to the basement, they are met by runners—mostly teenage boys—who take the money and return with brown-paper containers. (Every few hours an SUV pulls up and a kid runs out with a brown envelope of money. It's collected often to discourage thieves and embezzlement.) The basement business is booming. By noon there are more than 20 cars in the parking lot and lines in the shops. By late afternoon, the cars are double-parked and the lines extend up the stairs. After school the children ride their bikes over the syringes and play football among the rats and garbage and stray dogs and cats.

It's nearly noon and Maria Amaro, 33, is still in her gray housecoat, sweeping the steps that lead to her apartment. Her three daughters, dressed in pink velour tracksuits, play inside on Barbie bicycles. She loved the movie "Gomorrah," but thought Garrone could have shown more of Le Vele's human side. "People are afraid to come here," she says. "Everyone thinks we're going to kill them." She describes a violent rainstorm a few days earlier. "I thought someone was throwing rocks down the roof," she says, pointing to the corrugated plastic roof over her tiny balcony. "But the rain was so strong the rats were falling off the roof like rocks." She laughs and points four stories down, where dead rats are piled on top of syringes. "It's bad for the children," she says. "They walk out of the house and they are playing on the syringes, playing with the rats."

Amaro, a stay-at-home mom, offers coffee inside her apartment, which is spotless. One of the most striking aspects of Le Vele is how clean family spaces are. Women constantly mop the plastic floor runners and sweep the cracked concrete stairs. There is something symbolic and disturbing about the frantic mopping and cleaning. The windows sparkle, the floors shine, the children are perfectly dressed. Amaro serves her espresso in the same white plastic cups as Lipurali. Her house is neat and orderly: the curtains are pressed, the dish towels folded, stickers of Padre Pio—Italy's patron saint of suffering—line the door; a china cabinet reveals expensive liquor and silver photo frames. The children are watching cartoons on satellite TV.

Amaro's neighbor Maria Mottola, 38, mother of four, liked the movie as well. "The attention from the film isn't bad for us," she says. "The reality is much worse even than what they show, but maybe this is an embarrassment for the country. When [Silvio] Berlusconi comes to Napoli, he never makes it here to Le Vele." Mottola's husband is in jail, but she won't say why. The cops drag people to jail "just to scare the rest," she says. "We hope to get through today and that tomorrow will be better."

At the top of the steps to the basement, Vicenzo Sperino is carrying a wrench and a handful of washers. He didn't see the movie. "I don't need to," he says. "I see the film every day in my real life. The government should be embarrassed. They show this filth and this criminality." As if on cue, a man in a black tracksuit staggers up to ask where to buy a syringe. Sperino takes his wrench and pretends to hit the man on the head. "I should have done it," he says with a laugh after the man staggers away. "One less. Get rid of them one by one." He worries for his children—ages 9, 8 and 6— but says he wants the same things most other people do: "For them to live happy and to be healthy. We live in hope. Basta."

Even in the current economic climate, the Camorra manages to keep business thriving. Saviano says the clans are the only ones still lending money to locals in southern Italy and that their business interests aren't suffering. "Naples is a city on its knees," he says. "But the clan is still profiting, and the profit comes at the expense of a normal existence for a lot of people."

At Le Vele, normality is a relative concept. The children play and laugh, oblivious that they are growing up in the heroin capital of Europe. "The children who grow up here are so happy because they don't know better," says Amaro. "We have no choice but to make it normal and to pretend it is OK. But we know better. This isn't as bad as the film," she says. "It's worse."