Mafia hunter Roberto Saviano: I'm a monster

MAFIA HUNTER: Italian writer Roberto Saviano has dedicated his life to fighting the Mafia.
Peter Rigaud/RED BULLETIN
MAFIA HUNTER: Italian writer Roberto Saviano has dedicated his life to fighting the Mafia.

It was Friday October 13, 2006, when Roberto Saviano's life took a brutal turn. The Italian journalist was on a train from Pordenone to Naples when his mobile phone rang. It was the military police. The Carabinieri had intercepted messages from incarcerated Mafiosi. The Camorra bosses wanted Saviano dead.

The 35-year-old has lived ever since with 10 bodyguards who take turns to watch over him. Like him, his parents and brother have had to leave their homes and go into hiding. And like him, they've lived under police protection for eight years. What sparked all this subterfuge was the fact that Saviano had become too dangerous for the Mafia's liking.

His best-selling book Gomorrah was published in 2006. It was an exposé of the Neapolitan Camorra and was more revealing than any Mafia book before it.

The book has now been published in 43 countries. The film of the same name won awards in 2008 at Cannes, the European Film Awards and elsewhere. Now there's a TV series, also called Gomorrah, which portrays the power struggles within a Neapolitan clan, and is being hailed as Europe's answer to The Wire. In Italy it's been a ratings success and is set to be broadcast in 50 countries.

The international launch of the TV series is why Saviano has come out of hiding and made himself available for an interview. In Munic but only after a couple of false starts.

"I feel like I've been shot to pieces inside," Saviano says, opening the conversation. "I work out a lot. That helps. But I miss my familiar surroundings, my book collection. I'm always waking up in strange houses." He mentions insomnia, but would rather that wasn't printed. "For the last six months I've been abroad. The distance has helped me find a bit of inner peace again."

Does he see himself as a hero? "You don't automatically feel solidarity when you fight against organised crime," he says. "Some people think of you as a traitor."

Notwithstanding, Saviano is a national hero in his homeland, with fame that extends beyond his books. Internationally he has long been seen as a crusader, a symbol of the fight against organised crime. His latest book, ZeroZeroZero, published in 2013, is about the global cocaine trade.

"I'm obsessed with the Mafia," he says. "I have this feeling that I'm useless if I don't devote myself to such matters. I want to show readers a world they can't imagine and yet very close to them."

He gathered material, hung around Mafia meeting places, waited tables at their weddings. "Today I'd be a lot more cautious," he says. "When I think of how openly I promoted my first book, that was very rash."

There's a short pause. And then a confession. "I regret writing Gomorrah," he says. "It's made my life very difficult."

But as Saviano admits, his work hasn't just changed his life on the outside. "In ZeroZeroZero I wrote, 'When you look into the abyss, you end up turning into a monster sooner or later.' I've turned into a monster myself by analysing and studying the world of organised crime from every angle."

With some momentum starting to build behind Saviano's anti-Mafia stance, the big question is now how the Camorra and those like them can be defeated.

"One step would be to legalise drugs - first the less serious ones and then all, even the harder drugs," says Saviano. "That would see the Mafia lose one of its biggest and most important sources of income. Tightening laws against money-laundering is also extremely important. State contracts also need to be handed out within tighter parameters. Currently, it's usually the company that makes the lowest bid which is awarded the contract."

Find the complete Interview in the November issue of The Red Bulletin