My life under armed guard
As a young writer growing up in Caserta, a suburb of Naples, I felt myself getting more and more angry. There was a war going on between two mafia clans for control of the territory, and violence between them spilled into the streets. I wanted to tell the world what this war zone was like: the victims’ families tearing their clothes, the stink of piss from a man who knew he was going to die and couldn’t control his fear, people shot in the street because they looked like the intended victim. I got to know the workers in industries run by the Camorra. I got to know the messengers, the look-outs who worked for the clan. I read court records, news reports, trial transcripts. I pulled their stories together, the stories of my neighbourhood, and published a book called Gomorrah. Something about it touched a nerve. It became an instant bestseller – so many people bought it that the Camorra couldn’t ignore it.
Not long after the book came out in 2006, someone left a leaflet in my mother’s postbox. I was living in Naples, but she was still in Caserta. It showed a photograph of me, with a pistol to my head, and the word “Condemned”. Soon afterwards, I was invited to give an address at a gala to inaugurate the new school year in the town of Casal di Principe, home of the most powerful Camorra clan, with one of the highest murder rates in Italy. I singled out the Camorra bosses from the stage, naming them publicly, which local people had been too intimidated to do. I told them they should leave. The then-speaker of the Italian parliament was there with his bodyguards. After the event, they told me it would be too dangerous to go back to Naples on public transport, so they took me with them. The following day the local paper denounced my intervention as an insult to the Camorra. A few days later, someone followed me on the street in Naples and got on the bus behind me. He said: “You know that they are going to make you pay for what you did in Casale [Casal di Principe], right?”
Less than a month after that, returning to Naples from a literary festival, I was met at the railway station by two carabinieri. As we drove away in an armoured car, they said they had been assigned to me for my protection. Over that winter, the security detail was doubled after rumours emerged from prison that the Camorra was planning to kill me. The mafia boss Salvatore Cantiello, watching a feature about me on the TV news in prison, reportedly said, “Keep talking because soon you won’t be talking ever again.”
For the last eight years, I have travelled everywhere with seven trained bodyguards in two bullet-proof cars. I live in police barracks or anonymous hotel rooms, and rarely spend more than a few nights in the same place. It’s been more than eight years since I took a train, or rode a Vespa, took a stroll or went out for a beer. Everything is scheduled to the minute; nothing is left to chance. Doing anything spontaneous, just because I feel like it, would be ridiculously complicated.
After eight years under armed guard, threats against my life barely make the news. My name is so often associated with the terms death and murder that they hardly register. After all these years under state protection, I almost feel guilty for still being alive.
This life is shit – it’s hard to describe how bad it is. I exist inside four walls, and the only alternative is making public appearances. I’m either at the Nobel academy having a debate on freedom of the press, or I’m inside a windowless room at a police barracks. Light and dark. There is no shade, no in between. Sometimes I look back at the watershed that divides my life before and after Gomorrah. There is a before and after for everything, including friendship. The ones I lost, who drifted away because they found it too hard to stand by me and those I’ve found – hopefully – in the last few years. The places I knew before, and the places I’ve been since. Naples has become off-limits to me, a place I can only visit in my memories. I travel around the world, leaping from country to country as though it were a checker board, doing research for my projects, searching for any tattered remains of freedom.
I was working on this article in New York when I heard the news about Charlie Hebdo. It was intensely painful to me. I didn’t know the magazine’s editor, Stéphane Charbonnier, but I knew he was living under armed guard, like me. I knew about his situation and the risks he was taking.
With the shooting in Paris, Europe has rediscovered that writing can be dangerous. We had forgotten. Perhaps Italians hadn’t forgotten, at least not those of us who write about the mafia. Ten Italian journalists currently live under police protection after being threatened by the mafia, including Lirio Abbate, whose bodyguards found a bomb under his car after he wrote a book about Cosa Nostra boss Bernardo Provenzano. Freedom of expression is not a right we are granted in perpetuity – if we neglect it, it will wither like a plant you forget to water.
I was struck by something Charbonnier said in 2012: “I’m not afraid of reprisals. I’ve got no children, I haven’t got a wife, I don’t own a car, I’ve got no debts. Pompous as it may sound, I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees.” For a lot of people, writing is just a job you do, there are no consequences. But for others, it’s not like that.
If Gomorrah had been just another book read by a few thousand people, the Camorra wouldn’t have taken any notice. The reason they objected to it was because I told the truth about organised crime to such a massive audience. Their worst fear is to be under the spotlight. As one penitent former boss has said, the camorristi want to be VIPLs: very important persons at a local level; they want to be famous in their own territory, feared for their military power, but on a national or international level, they want to be anonymous. Having their exploits told to a wider audience than the local press was a major blow because it drew public attention to their illegal affairs.
I am often asked why the Camorra, this great, powerful criminal organisation, is afraid of me. I always try to make it clear: they’re not afraid of me, they’re afraid of my readers.
My life, before and after
Before. Trudging endlessly around the suburbs until I got wind of a story, then a frantic drive across town on my Vespa to get to the crime scene first, to see the body before it was moved. To get there before the family did, with their terrible grief-stricken cries. I’d ride my Vespa from crime scenes to courtrooms to prisons. I was following the battle for dominance between Secondigliano bosses the Di Lauro clan and a splinter group known as the Spaniards because the leader had moved the centre of their operations to Spain, where he lived in hiding. It was like being a war reporter: two or three murders a day, arson attacks – firebombing people’s homes. It was incredible that something like that could be going on in the middle of Europe.
After. Living with bodyguards changed everything; it’s so complicated trying to work with an armed escort in tow. If I’m in Italy I have to decide what I’m doing three days in advance. I live in this permanent three-day time lapse, so I always feel like I’m late for everything. Whatever I want to do, I let the bodyguards know, and they decide the best way to do it.
If I want to travel abroad, I have to inform the government security department weeks or even months in advance, exactly where I am going and what my schedule will be. Where I will stay, the places I’ll visit, the people I’ll be meeting. Then I have to wait for permission to travel – to find out if the country I want to visit considers me welcome. When I’m there, it takes a few days to establish a rapport with the local police escort. At the beginning, there’s a sense that I’m an inconvenience, a burden, a problem to manage, especially when there’s a public event.
I don’t trust anyone any more. I’m afraid of getting close to someone and letting my guard down. I’m always expecting people to let me down. It’s the usual prisoner’s paranoia.
There are new friends, new places, new routines, but there’s also a new Roberto Saviano. Circumstances have changed him; he’s different from the person he was before, and from the friends he had then. Probably a worse person. More withdrawn, detached, because he’s constantly under attack. And more focused on himself, because he’s become a symbol.
I realised the dream of every writer, the dream most of my colleagues wouldn’t dare imagine. An international bestseller. A huge audience. But everything else is gone: the chance of a normal life, the chance of a normal relationship. My life has been poisoned. I’m suffocated by lies, accusations, defamation, endless crap. In the end you’re scarred by it.
Since 2006 my life has been a continual search for somewhere to live, somewhere to write. I have lived in so many houses, so many different rooms. I haven’t lived anywhere for more than a few months in all that time. Small rooms, all of them, some of them minuscule. And every single one was dark. I would have liked a bigger room, a lighter room. I would have loved a balcony, a terrace: I’ve longed for a terrace as I once longed for the chance to travel. But I had no choice in the matter, I couldn’t make a decision about where I was going to live. I couldn’t go round looking at houses: two bulletproof cars and seven body guards don’t exactly make it easy to get around unnoticed. Once I finally found somewhere to live, as soon as people figured out where I was living, which street, which number, I would have to move.
In Naples, it was impossible to find a home. The carabinieri who were my bodyguards tried to help me find somewhere to rent, through their contacts. Easy enough until the landlady found out it was for me. As soon as they saw me it would be, “I can’t, I’m sorry, I’ve got children,” or “I can’t, I’ve just rented it to someone else.” And back I went to the barracks. I’m still looking for a place of my own.
Meanwhile, I live in these stripped back, monastic spaces, every move controlled.
My luggage: one bag for socks, pants, T-shirts and trousers. One for shirts and jackets. One with medicines, toothbrush, toothpaste and mobile phone chargers. One bag for books, papers. And the laptop. That’s it. That’s home.
A lot of what I’ve written in the last few years, this piece included, has been written in hotel rooms. Those featureless, identical hotels that I’ve come to loathe. These hotel rooms are dark, with windows you can’t open. I have visited countries – sometimes places I’ve always longed to go to – and all I see is the inside of a hotel room and the skyline of a city through the darkened glass of a bulletproof car. Most countries don’t dare let me out for a short walk, not even with the armed guards they’ve assigned to me. They usually move me to a new hotel after one night. The more apparently civilised, calm and peaceful a place, the farther it is from the mafia and the more I feel safe there, the more they treat me like an unexploded bomb that could blow up in their faces at any moment.
In Italy, and particularly in Naples, I mostly stay in carabiniere barracks, with the smell of my roommates’ boot polish; the noisy commentary from the football game on TV, the groans when they were called back on duty or the opposing team scored; Saturday, Sunday, deadly days. Days spent in the empty belly of a whale. You can hear shouts outside, you can sense people moving around, you know it’s sunny, summer has begun. I remember early on in my bulletproof life, waking up one night in the barracks, it was dark and I didn’t recognise anything. I had no idea where I was. Since then the same thing has happened many times, I wake up with a start in the night and don’t know where I am. The last time I was in Naples I stayed in a barracks that used to be a monastery. It has a terrace and you can see the sea from up there. I managed to watch dawn break over the most beautiful bay in the world.
I’m often asked if I regret writing Gomorrah. Usually, I try to say the right thing. I say, “As a man, yes, as a writer, no.” But that’s not the real answer. For most of my waking hours I hate Gomorrah. I loathe it. At the beginning, when I told interviewers that if I had known what was coming, I would never have written the book, their faces would fall. If it was the last question in the interview, I’d go away with a bad taste in my mouth, feeling like I hadn’t come up to scratch. I realised that I should have said, of course, that I’d do it all again tomorrow. That I would sacrifice everything, all over again. But so much time has passed now I feel like I’ve earned the right to share my regrets, and admit, I miss the time I was a free man. Whatever I would like my life to be, the fact is, I wrote Gomorrah, and I pay the price every day.
Living in fear
In March 2008, two years after Gomorrah was published, the mafia escalated its threats against me. In the course of the historic “maxi-trial” known as Spartacus – in which 24 members of the Casalese clan were tried for murder, extortion, corruption of public officials and rigging elections – a lawyer for two of the Camorra bosses read aloud a document that threatened me and another journalist, Rosaria Capacchione, by claiming that it was only because of our reporting that they had been arrested. With this announcement, the clan sent a clear message: if they were found guilty, we would become targets. The two bosses, Antonio Iovine and Francesco Bidognetti, were convicted at the end of the 12-year Spartacus trial. Before it was over, they and their lawyer were charged with issuing threats in the document that was read in court. When this case concluded in November last year, the bosses were acquitted, but their lawyer, Michele Santonastaso, was convicted of making “mafia-style threats”.
I was sitting in the courtroom in Naples when the verdict was delivered. My bodyguards were there, and Rosy’s, as well as our lawyers and the defendants’ legal team. Only the two bosses were not in court, but watching proceedings on video links from prison. Behind us was a bank of television news cameras and journalists. There were very few people I knew in court; when you live like I do everyone gets used to seeing you from afar, or just following your life on social media. To me, the fact that two mafia bosses were acquitted while their lawyer was convicted for mafia-related crime seemed absurd. I was disappointed but nothing surprises me anymore. There were foreign journalists in court but I’m not sure they understood the verdict. I can’t blame them. Santonastaso has since been given 11 years for mafia association, aiding and abetting and perjury but that got barely any coverage at all. The bosses got away with yet another attempt to intimidate journalists into silence, so I felt ambivalent at best. Nonetheless, this was the first conviction of its kind, so it was a historical moment of sorts. I hope this sentence may be the first step towards freedom for myself and other writers, currently living under armed guard, who may eventually be able to reclaim our lives.
People often ask me if I’m afraid the mafia will kill me. “No,” I say, and I stop there. I realise most people won’t believe me, but it’s actually true. It really is. I’m afraid of many things, but dying isn’t one of them. I do sometimes think about the pain, about what it would be like to die painfully. But generally speaking, surprising as it may seem, I don’t think about dying all that much.
There are other things that scare me. More than dying, I’m afraid that my life will never get back to normal. I’m more scared of living my whole life like this than of dying.
There’s another fear, worse than anything else. It’s the fear of being discredited. It’s happened to everyone who has ever been killed for what they believe in. It’s happened to everyone who has reported crimes or told uncomfortable truths. They did it to Don Peppe Diana, the priest who was shot dead in Casal di Principe 1994 for preaching against the mafia and threatening to refuse to give the sacraments to Camorra members. After his death he was subject to a smear campaign accusing him of lewd behaviour and links to the Camorra. Federico Del Prete, the trade unionist murdered at Casal di Principe in 2002, was pilloried with false accusations on the day of his funeral. They did it to Giovanni Falcone, the anti-mafia magistrate killed by Cosa Nostra in 1992; they did it to the journalist Pippo Fava. And somehow, they always find willing ears to hear ill of the dead. The media will have barely started covering my death than the nasty rumours will start. As soon as a kid is killed in a fight, or a priest is stabbed while saying mass, rumours begin to buzz like flies. And the wheel turns. The media circus must keep moving.
I’ll never forget what the ex-husband of murdered Russian investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya said the day after her death: “It’s better like this: better to die than to be discredited. Anna couldn’t have borne it.” I have been told that they had been planning to set her up. Not long before she was killed, they tried to kidnap her. The plan was to drug her, make pornographic films of her, send them around the world, discredit her campaign for freedom of information. This is what drags me down: the fear that I will be discredited somehow, that it’ll creep up on me and I won’t be able to defend myself, or my writing. I feel it’s happening already, that the people who say, “He’s lying, he’s plagiarising, he’s libelling us” will end up having more importance than my own research, my own attempts to investigate how things work. I’m constantly accused of trying to make money out of the mafia, of insulting Naples, of making stuff up. It’s a way of turning down the volume of what I’m saying. “We know all this, it’s already been written about,” that’s one of the things they say. If they said, “None of it’s true,” we would know they’re just mouthpieces for the mafia. But if they say, “We’ve heard it all before,” it’s a more subtle way of undermining me. I’m attacked not just by the Camorra, but also by parts of civil society and even by journalists who are ashamed that they’ve never spoken out against the mafia, and that their silence makes them complicit.
People close to me tell me not to worry, that it’s just envy. Given everything that’s happened, enduring this kind of criticism is not such a terrible price to pay. I was so young when I wrote Gomorrah, I didn’t have time to be corrupted or tainted, to compromise my ideals. To ask for favours and be in someone’s debt. Most people have had to sell themselves at some time, it just happened that I didn’t. And this is unforgivable.
I can’t afford to waste time thinking about the people who want to attack me. If I responded, it would only make things worse. The only thing I can do is focus on my work, on my audience, who – almost more than my armed escort – protect me. That I have an audience guarantees my freedom, in spite of all the restrictions. All in all, mine is a privileged existence. My very public profile exposes me to vicious criticism, but it also protects me.
I think about the huge number of people in Italy who live like me, under state-provided armed guard: 585 of us. People whose names nobody knows face threats alone and unprotected, every day of their lives. I think about people who, even though they were known targets, had no protection. The deaths at Charlie Hebdo should make anyone who isn’t trying to change the world feel guilty. It’s easier to say the satirists brought it on themselves than to look in the mirror and confront the image of our own inertia.
Since I wrote Gomorrah, there’s a greater understanding of the mafia, and in Italy successive governments have been shamed into investing in fighting organised crime. They can’t pretend they don’t know what’s going on any more, and public opinion won’t let them off the hook. If you pushed me, I’d say the perception of the problem has changed radically. This is the power of the non‑fiction novel, the kind of book I’ve tried to write. To tell true stories with the rigour of a journalist and the literary style of a novelist.
There’s a line from Truman Capote I often come back to: “More tears are shed for answered prayers than unanswered ones.” If I have a dream, it’s that words have the power to bring about change. In spite of everything that’s happened to me, my prayer has been answered. But I’ve become someone different than I imagined. This process has been painful, I’ve found it difficult to come to terms with, until I accepted that none of us is in control of our own destiny. We can only choose how to play the role we are given.
Translated by Clare Longrigg