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ZeroZeroZero – Roberto Saviano

Translated by Virginia Jewiss, Allen Lane, London 2015

Book Review

ZeroZeroZero is the latest book by Roberto Saviano, the author of Gomorrah, which describes the clandestine activities of the Camorra clan. Saviano’s life has been threatened and he has a permanent police escort. In 2008 Reuters reported that the informant Carmine Schiavone, cousin of the imprisoned Casalesi clan boss Francesco Schiavone, revealed to the authorities that the clan had planned to kill Saviano and his police escort on the Rome and Naples motorway with a bomb. Saviano told Reuters, it was the millions of people who had bought the book who really worried the mafia. “It’s the readers who have frightened the crime bosses, not me.”[1]

ZeroZeroZero, is a study of the global business of cocaine production and trafficking, and its title ZeroZeroZero is a reference to the purest grade of cocaine – 000. Saviano examines the whole cocaine industry, from its users, producers in South America, but he concentrates on the process of trafficking, or transportation of the drug. He looks at the cartels of Latin America, the Italian Mafia families, their associates in Russia, Nigeria, and elsewhere. The unprecedented violence of the narco-gangs of Mexico, is covered extensively, he also acknowledges the skill and knowledge needed to successfully transport cocaine around the world, bypassing the authorities, bribing, and at all times trying to stay ahead of police and customs officials. But above all, he emphasises the enormous profits that cocaine generates for those dealing it.  He also details how the profits from cocaine are laundered into legal businesses by international banks. At times narco-dollars have offered banks essential sources of liquidity. Banks have been found to have ignore money-laundering protocols, thus allowing narco-dollars to enter the legal market.  In the case of Wachovia Bank in the US, Saviano  claims that from 2004 several billion dollars were moved from the Sinaloa cartel “cash box” to Wachovia bank accounts. Saviano says, “it emerges that for three years the bank did not respect money-laundering protocols when transferring $378.4 billion. Of this at least $110 million were from drug trafficking, which had entered international banking circuits in this way.” (p. 266) He added, “about $13 million were deposited and transferred to Wachovia accounts to purchase aeroplanes for drug trafficking.  More than 20 tons of cocaine was seized from these planes.” (p. 267) When the American authorities finally took action against Wachovia the bank was granted a deferred prosecution; in 2010 it paid the US government a $110 million forfeiture for accepting transactions linked to drug trafficking, thus violating anti-money laundering norms, plus a $50 million fine. As Saviano notes, “Not one bank employee or director had to see the inside of a jail cell, even for a single day. No one is guilty; no one is responsible. Merely a scandal, which quickly sinks into oblivion.” (p. 268)

Saviano also quotes Jennifer Shasky Calvery, when she gave her testimony to the US Congress on the 8th February 2012, “As evidence of transnational organised crime’s (TOC) global economic might, one need only consider the most recent estimates of the amount of money laundered in the global financial system – $1.6 trillion, of which an estimated $580 billion is related to drug trafficking and other TOC activities, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s research report published in 2011. These staggering amounts of money in the hands of the worst criminal element create a terrifyingly vicious cycle – money enables TOC to corrupt the economic and political systems in which they operate, thereby allowing them to consolidate and expand their power and influence, which gives rise to more opportunity to commit crime and generate revenue.” (p.272)

Saviano also explains the attractions of the cocaine business, he says, “Everybody wants it, everybody does it, everybody will start using it needs it. The costs are minimal; you can place it immediately, and the profit margin is extremely high. Cocaine is easier to sell than gold, and the revenues from it can exceed that of petroleum.” He adds, “you could discover an oil well in your backyard, or inherit a coltan mine and supply all the cell phones in the world, but you wouldn’t go from nothing to villas on the Costa Smeralda on Sardinia as quickly as you would with cocaine.” He says that in comparison to cocaine trafficking other investments pale, “The most reckless disinvestment, the most forward looking speculation, fastest movements of vast sums of money – which affect living conditions on entire continents – none can compare with cocaine’s multiplication of value.” Saviano concludes that “If an entrepreneurial group manages to get its hands on coke, it holds form of power impossible to achieve in any other way. Which is why, whenever coke is traded, there is always a violent ferocious clash. With cocaine there is no mediation. It’s all nothing. And all doesn’t last long.” (p. 96) It is this explanation of the economic power of cocaine which is at the heart of this book, and which explains its strength and relevance, because at the centre of the cocaine trade is a raw and dynamic form of capitalism, unfettered by law, ready to commit extreme violence, ready to corrupt, and to subvert government institutions.

The cocaine business, is analogous to terrorism, which it resembles in many ways, and with which it overlaps in many cases. The IRA, Hezbollah, and other terrorist organisations, finance themselves in part from drug dealing, these secretive and illegal organisations, are ideally placed to work with cocaine distributors.

This is an important book, which should be widely read, not merely because of its description of the cocaine trade, but because it describes how illicit businesses have become intertwined with legitimate commerce and are a large element in the global economy. The capacity of large criminal organisations to undermine the institutions of states, and corrupt officials at all levels, within many countries, is a profound, and to often disregarded threat, that must be better understood by those concerned with governance and the maintenance of law and order.

As Saviano says, “Reading is a dangerous act, because it gives shape and dimension to words, it incarnates and dispenses them in all directions. It turns everything upside down and makes change and tickets and lint fall out of the pockets of the world. To get to learn nacro-trafficking, to get to know the connection between the rationality of evil and money, to rip open the veil that obscures the supposed familiarity with the world. To know is the first step towards change.” (page 397)

[1] Stephen Brown, “Mafia wants author dead by Christmas”, Reuters, 14 October 2008, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mafia-writer-idUSTRE49D6D220081014?feedType=RSS&feedName=oddlyEnoughNews&sp=true

© Andrew Palmer, 2016

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