On a Friday in autumn 2006, local newspapers and prosecutors in Italy’s south-western region of Campania received the same anonymous letter. Computer-typed and delivered by hand in the early morning, it detailed the Neapolitan Mafia’s plan to execute a 26-year-old Italian writer. His name was Roberto Saviano and his book, Gomorrah, a devastating denunciation of the Camorra’s criminal activity, was on its way to becoming a bestseller.
The unpublished letter, seen by the Observer, refers to a meeting held in a betting office in Casal di Principe, Saviano’s hometown, in which local bosses, known as some of the most violent in the Camorra, decreed that Saviano must die, saying that his murder would take place “when the waters are calm”.
The letter stated that Saviano “must be punished”, that the bosses knew where his mother lived, that they’d been following him for weeks and that two hitmen had already been commissioned to murder him. It explained that “the weapons that will be used for the execution have already been placed” in an associate’s house. It concluded with a threat in bold type and underlined: “If he shuts up, he’ll be spared.”
A lot has changed since that day. Gomorrah, which has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide, has been translated into more than 50 languages and inspired an award-winning film and a TV series that ran for five seasons. The Casalesi clan, once one of the most powerful Mafia groups in Europe, is in decline and many of the mobsters are now behind bars.
Saviano, who is now 42, did not give in to the threats. He never kept quiet. He continued to denounce the Camorra’s business dealings and point a spotlight on one of the most powerful criminal organisations in the world. But although he survived an assassination plot, Saviano has nonetheless paid a high price. Since that autumn day in 2006, when the Italian authorities informed the writer that his life was in danger, he has lived in hiding, emerging only under police escort.
Since then, he has not spent more than a few nights in the same place, and often sleeps in police barracks. He cannot go out alone, take a stroll in busy places or go to the sea.
I visited him on a recent Monday in a minuscule apartment in Rome. Outside the building, two men meet me and escort me up, while another remains on guard at the entrance. The first thing you notice are the thousands of books that line the walls. The second is the lack of windows. Both, in some way, seem to represent the man of letters forced to live like a prisoner.
Saviano’s eyes speak of sleepless nights, and his face is tense – the consequences of a life lived, since 2006, in a constant state of agitation. “A part of me is always at war,” he says. “At war with the world, at war with the Camorra, at war with myself. Sometimes I’ve even thought that dying would be better than living like this. Death would be more acceptable than this constant pressure, the state of anxiety and emptiness in which I’ve been living for so long.”
Fifteen years under police escort is a milestone and, for this reason, three armoured vehicles and seven policemen await us downstairs. For two days, the Observer will accompany Saviano on a road trip from Rome to Naples, into Camorra strongholds, some of which he hadn’t visited in years.
He left as a young man and returns as the most famous living Italian writer, and international symbol of the anti-mafia struggle – hated by the right for his pro-refugee pronouncements and by some of his fellow citizens who accuse him of having tainted the image of his home territory.
We set off in the first armoured vehicle. Saviano and I are sitting in the back. Two police officers are in front.
“When I wrote Gomorrah, I knew I was writing stories that many reporters already knew,” says Saviano, who last week launched a graphic novel about his life illustrated by Israeli comic book artist Asaf Hanuka. “But I also knew those stories had never received an anthropological interpretation. I knew I had something literary in my hands, and I knew it would be explosive. But I never could’ve imagined what would happen next.” After Gomorrah was published, Saviano started to receive mysterious phone calls: the phone would ring, but when he answered no one would speak. Then the threatening letters started arriving. One day, his mother found in her mailbox a photo of Saviano with a gun pointed at his temple: above was written “sentenced”.
In September 2006, during an anti-mafia rally in Casal di Principe, a town where it’s said there are more guns than forks, Saviano challenged the bosses from the stage, calling out their names, and shouting: “You don’t belong here! Get out!”, inciting the crowd to rise up against the clan. This event, according to mafia turncoats, infuriated the bosses, who made a plan to assassinate the writer in an attack on Christmas day, 2008, on the motorway between Rome and Naples.
“I named names, in front of their people, which was the same as taking God’s name in vain”, says Saviano. “In their eyes, I committed a mortal sin.”
According to witnesses, the Camorra was planning to kill Saviano in a spectacular blast reminiscent of the 1992 Capaci massacre, when the Sicilian mafia killed the anti-mafia magistrate Giovanni Falcone, his wife, and the members of his police escort with 300kg of dynamite that left a crater on the motorway near Palermo. The authorities took the threats seriously.
“At first I thought I’d be under protection for two or three days, and that soon I’d be able to go back to my normal life.”
He looks out of the window as we race past the so-called “Land of Fire”, an area in the countryside of the province of Caserta, where the Camorra buried tons of toxic waste beneath roads and land. “I realised that the situation was more serious than I thought when, during a war between rival Camorra clans, [the police] took me to a secure location on a remote island. They put me in a house that was only accessible by sea. There was no mobile phone service, and to make calls a police agent had to ferry me out to sea.”
Under such tight security, it’s complicated even to go to the toilet. An hour into our journey, Saviano asks the agents to pull over at a motorway service station so he can use the bathroom. Two men alight from one car and check that the bathroom is secure. Then they motion Saviano to enter, while the other agents remain outside to guard the door.
“The price I’ve paid is higher than anything I could have imagined,” says Saviano, getting back in the car. No crafty cigarette break. “But what really bothers me is seeing my family have to move from town to town. I feel guilty every day of my life for this.”
Over the years, several European countries have offered Saviano protection, including a Scandinavian country which offered him asylum. In exchange, Saviano would be required to give up his fight against organised crime: no more interviews, no compromising articles.
“I’ve thought long about leaving Italy,” he admits. “But in the end, a sort of idealism has always prevailed. I was committed to changing the status quo. I wanted to fuck the Camorra. If I could go back, I don’t know if I’d do it again.”
Saviano has attempted to live a normal life. At one time he lived in New York, where the US government, to protect him, gave him a new identity as David Dannon. He realised it didn’t work when, inside a building in Manhattan, a man greeted him: ‘Ah! The Italian writer!’”
“Even when I was abroad, in some countries I was forced to live under police guard,” he says. “At a certain point I was being transferred to cities I didn’t even know existed. One of the days I felt the freest in years was in London, when I met Julian Assange. I went from the airport to the city centre by myself, with no one escorting me, and it was spectacular.”
Around noon, we arrive in Castel Volturno, in a landscape of uncommon beauty between Mount Dragone and the island of Ischia. On this idyllic coastline, 24,000 illegal constructions have been built. Thousands have been confiscated, and the derelict ruins are spread over 17 miles of beach – like archaeological artefacts from a post-apocalyptic disaster. Many of the houses there belong to members of the Camorra. Here, in 2008, killers from the Casalesi clan murdered six African immigrants. They were chosen at random to send a message to the African drug gangs. The massacre inspired the episode African Blood in the first season of the TV series Gomorrah.
Saviano hadn’t been to Castel Volturno for years. The escort vehicles stop at the ruins of an abandoned tourist village, a short distance from the seashore. We decide to stretch our legs along the beach. The sky is cloudy and the sea rough. Saviano strolls along the beach, breathing the sea air.
The next stop is tense: Scampia, one of the biggest drug-dealing centres in Europe. For decades, Scampia’s rundown, sail-shaped tower blocks, known as the Vele, have been the scene of bloody wars between Camorra clans. Erected between 1965 and 1980, these buildings were designed to replace the slums of the medieval city centre of Naples. The idea was to recreate housing complexes that would evoke the narrow alleys of the “old city” to encourage community relations. But, because of corruption, many of the blocks were left unfinished, and the alleys were soon transformed into a warren for dealing heroin.
Two additional armoured vehicles join our escort to accompany us to the Vele. Saviano gets out briefly – just enough time to have a quick chat with the officers at the police station in Scampia and leave in haste. He isn’t well liked around here. On the walls of the neighbourhood are written slogans like “Scampia is not Gomorrah”. It’s not only the bosses who don’t like his presence here; many residents have expressed their displeasure.
And yet, if Scampia today has changed, if the state has intervened to rid the quarter of several mafiosi, it’s also because Saviano brought attention to the place.
While Saviano can count on millions of supporters, he is also the target of thousands of haters, the majority of whom accuse him of having earned millions of euros by tarnishing Naples.
And there are those who argue that Saviano does not need an escort; that, if the Camorra had really wanted to kill him, they would have already done so.
The far-right ex-minister of the interior, Matteo Salvini, threatened to remove Saviano’s escort after the writer attacked him for his anti-immigration policies. ‘‘Many people have forgotten how this story began and why I am under escort today,’’ says Saviano. “Many think being under escort is a privilege. As if it were my decision. Some people even see the escort as a sign of success, but I am not a hero. I have never felt like a hero.”
Salman Rushdie, who was forced into hiding after receiving death threats over his novel The Satanic Verses, said when he met Saviano in 2008 at the Nobel Academy in Sweden: “People blame me for being alive – to keep going to parties or to write books. They will blame you for your life.” “For the people, I am a martyr who is not dead,” Saviano says. “They blame me for still being alive. It might have been better if they had killed me. I thought about that. I often still think so.
“In the darkest, most disheartening moments, I feel like everything I’ve fought for has been for nothing. It happens when you feel you cannot free yourself from this life. It happened to me, recently, after the ruling of the Court of Rome, condemning the mafia men who had threatened me.”
Last May, judges ruled that a Camorra mafia boss, Francesco Bidognetti, and his lawyer had threatened Saviano’s life, and that of a journalistic colleague – Rosaria Capacchione. It was a landmark ruling – the first time someone had been held accountable for Saviano’s plight.
As our journey draws to a close at the foot of Vesuvius, in front of the sea, and with the beauty of Naples unfolding before us, Saviano says: ‘‘I should have celebrated that ruling. The boss who condemned me to this life was finally sentenced. But, no. I thought, I was only 26 when they sentenced me to a life under armed guard. It is said that, before you die, all the beautiful things you have done in your life flash by you. At that moment, after the ruling, I relived everything I have not been able to do in the last 15 years.’’
It’s time to say goodbye. Before returning to his armoured vehicle, Saviano waves his hand with a smile. A smile that seems to hide his anger; a smile that reminds me of the final line of Gomorrah: “Damned bastards, I’m still alive.’”