Pubdate: Sun, 27 Dec 2015
Source: Guardian, The (UK)
Copyright: 2015 Guardian News and Media Limited
Author: Ed Vulliamy
Note: The New Review is a sunday supplement with The Guardian
Note: Write to us at Zero Zero Zero is published by Allen Lane (UKP20).


Roberto Saviano is determined to uncover capitalism's complicity with 
the narcolords of South America, writes Ed Vulliamy

Pablo Escobar was "the first to understand that it's not the world of 
cocaine that must orbit around the markets, but the markets that must 
rotate around cocaine".

Of course, Escobar didn't put it that way: this heretical truth was 
posited by Roberto Saviano in his latest book Zero Zero Zero , the 
most important of the year and the most cogent ever written on how 
narco-traffic works. It speaks what must be told at the end of 
another year of drug war spreading further and deeper, that tells 
what you will not learn from Narcos , Breaking Bad or the countless 
official reports.

The realisation that cocaine capitalism is central to our economic 
universe made Escobar the Copernicus of organised crime, argues 
Saviano, adding: "No business in the world is so dynamic, so 
restlessly innovative, so loyal to the pure freemarket spirit as the 
global cocaine business." It sounds simple, but it isn't - it is 
revolutionary and, says Saviano, it explains the world.

Saviano - who lives in hiding under 24/7 guard, after death treats 
arising from Gomorrah , his book about the Neapolitan mafia - and I 
were due to discuss Zero Zero Zero at the Hay Arequipa book festival 
in Peru this month. But Saviano was unable to make it, because of 
difficulties in arranging his movements. A video link to Peru proved 
too complicated, but what Saviano had to say was too important to let 
go. In the end we spoke by telephone last weekend.

"Capitalism," says Saviano, "needs the criminal syndicates and 
criminal markets... This is the most difficult thing to communicate. 
People tend to overlook this, insisting upon a separation between the 
black market and the legal market. It's the mentality that leads 
people in Europe and the USA to think of a mafioso who goes to jail 
as a mobster, a gangster. But he's not, he's a businessman, and his 
business, the black market, has become the biggest market in the world."

This is Saviano's sagacious heresy. For decades, writing on global 
mafia has presumed a Manichean schism between cops and robbers. But 
the trail blazed by Saviano and very few others demolishes that 
account, backed by every recent development in Mexico's 
narco-nightmare, including the escape, again, of the heir to 
Escobar's mantle, Joaquin "Chapo" Guzman, from supposedly 
maximum-security jail. Narco cartels like Guzman's are not 
adversaries of global capitalism, nor even pastiches of it; they are 
integral to - and pioneers of  the free market. They are its role model.

Here it is, the lie of any dividing line between legal and illegal. 
Here it is, laid bare: cartel as corporation, corporation as cartel; 
cocaine as pure capitalism, capitalism as cocaine, known in its 
purest form as zero-zero-zero - a wry reference to the name of the 
best grade of flour, ideal for pasta.

Saviano writes in his own distinct style of narrative literary 
reportage, at once factually informative and impressionistic. He 
opens Zero Zero Zero with a scathing tragicomic reflection on who in 
your life uses cocaine: "If it's not your mother or father... then 
the boss does. Or the boss's secretary... the oncologist... the 
waiters who will work the wedding." Within three-score pages he has 
stripped bare the system whereby - and why - the white powder got up 
their noses. "Cocaine," he concludes, "is a safe asset. Cocaine is an 
anticyclical asset. Cocaine is the asset that fears neither resource 
shortages nor market inflation." Of course, cocaine capitalism - as 
brazenly as any other commodity - has "both feet firmly planted in 
poverty... [and] unskilled labour, a sea of interchangeable subjects, 
that perpetuates a system of exploitation of the many and enrichment 
of the few".

"Cocaine becomes a product like gold or oil," he adds in 
conversation, "but more economically potent than gold or oil. With 
these other commodities, if you don't have access to mines or wells, 
it's hard to break into the market. With cocaine, no. The territory 
is farmed by desperate peasants, from whose product you can 
accumulate huge quantities of capital and cash in very little time.

"If you're selling diamonds, you have to get them authenticated, 
licensed  cocaine, no. Whatever you have, whatever the quality, you 
can sell it immediately. You are in perfect synthesis with the 
everyday life and ethos of the global markets  and the ignorance of 
politicians in the west to understand this is staggering."

In a previous book, soon to be translated, called Vieni Via Con Me - 
Come Away With Me  Saviano talked about the "ecomafia" for which it 
is "always fundamental to be looking for terrain and spaces in which 
to conceal and proliferate itself", just as a corporation carves out 
markets. In Zero Zero Zero, he writes about what might be called the 
genealogy of narco-syndicates, from their paternalistic period of 
"conservative capitalism" to the lean, mean multinational 
corporations they have become: buying failing banks, working the 
credit economy, taking over interbank loans. Permeating the system 
until (writes Saviano in Vieni Via Con Me): "democracy is literally 
in danger", and we become "all equal, all contaminated... in the 
machine of mud".

"So the story of narco-traffic," he says now, "is not something that 
happens far away. People like to think of this disgusting violence as 
something distant, but it's not. Our entire economy is infused with 
this narrative."

For some reason, he says, the AngloSaxon world is slower to 
understand the innate criminality of the "legal" system than Latin 
societies. "I think the Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-American world is infused 
by a kind of Calvinist positivism; people want to believe in the 
health of their society," says Saviano, even though "what this all 
means is that, for instance, the City of London is a far more 
important centre for laundering criminal money than the Cayman Islands".

The mafia, he argues, has a particular way of entrenching its 
presence, in a manner almost Darwinian: "If a mafioso messes up, he 
dies - and thus they develop a system of survival. When they make a 
mistake, they are killed and replaced by someone even more ruthless, 
so that the organisation becomes even stronger."

At the start of this year, writing from New York, Saviano described 
his threatened life under guard in our sister paper, the Guardian, 
and in this book that followed he asks himself, poignantly: "Is it 
really worth it?"

"I write about Naples, but Naples plugs her ears," he laments. It is, 
he writes, "my fault if the articles I keep writing about the blood 
spilled in the cocaine markets fall upon deaf ears". Any reporter or 
writer on these subjects feels a version of these feelings, but - 
apart from our colleagues in Mexico or Colombia - with so much less 
to pay than Saviano has paid: with his liberty and security.

"Sometimes I think I'm obsessed," he reflects in the book, but "other 
times I'm convinced these stories are a way of telling the truth". 
Here we have it. Whether obsessed or not, Saviano realises the brutal 
truth: that to understand narco-traffic is to understand the modern world.

A remarkable passage in Zero Zero Zero explains why: a transcription 
of an FBI tape recording of a seasoned Italian mafioso in New York 
schooling young Mexican footsoldiers in the difference between law 
and "the rules". Laws are there to be broken, he urges, but the rules 
of the organisation are sacrosanct, on pain of death. "The law is 
supposed to be for everybody," Saviano tells me, "but the rules are 
made by the so-called men of honour. This is how narco-traffic 
explains the world, by embracing all the contradictions of the world. 
To succeed in narco-traffic, you apply the rules to break the law. 
And today, any big corporation can only succeed if it adopts the same 
principle - if its rules demand that it break the law."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom