How The Cocaine Trade Affects Everyone’s Lives

The author—who lives under police protection—talks about drug barons, money laundering, and grisly murders.

The annual trade in illegal drugs is worth $352 billion. At the heart of it is cocaine. In ZeroZeroZero (the title alludes to the finest grade of the drug) best-selling author Roberto Saviano, who lives under police protection, uncovers the global tentacles of the trade, from the jungles of South America to Mexico, New York, and Italy; lays bare the appalling violence that accompanies it; and describes the complex mechanisms by which drug cartels launder their profits.

Speaking via email, from a safe house in Italy, he explains why, even if you are not a user, cocaine is part of all our lives; why he believes legalization is the only way to solve the problem; and how writing this book was like entering an abyss that undermined his faith in humanity.

Your first book, Gomorrah, was an inside look into the world of the Neapolitan crime syndicate. What made you want to write about the cocaine trade? Are there connections?

In Gomorrah, I tried to use Naples as a lens to describe the world because the power dynamics are identical everywhere. With ZeroZeroZero, I tried to recount the world through cocaine trafficking: the place of origin, the drug’s route, the people who produce, transport, hide, and sell it. And then, the revenues: where they come from and, above all, where they end up. Everything that has to do with coke has to do with us, even those who don’t use it, because the capital that comes from drug trafficking has literally infested the legal economy.

Since 2006, as a result of Gommorah, you have lived under police protection. Give us a picture of your daily life and how it affects your research.

My daily life is the negation of life itself. I can’t go out freely. I can’t decide suddenly to go out, but only after having coordinated the schedule and routes with my bodyguards. My life is missing that which makes life interesting: chance. Nothing happens to me that wasn’t planned beforehand. Additionally, my life exhibits a strange form of schizophrenia: I go from being closed behind four walls (military police barracks, hotel rooms, or safe houses) to maximum visibility at public events or on television programs in which I speak to millions of viewers.

My work has also been enormously affected. Because of my visibility, it is much easier for me to be in contact with foreign police departments, judges, former drug dealers and organized crime members. But what really emerges from my writing is the claustrophobic dimension my life has assumed, a dimension from which everyday, with every single cell of my body, I try to free myself.

You write, “to understand cocaine you have to understand Mexico.” Explain.

Mexico is the heart of the global drug trade. While in the past, Colombia was considered the epicenter of drug trafficking, in the 1990s Mexico took on an ever-growing role, caused by the fall of the major Colombian cartels (the Medellin and Cali cartels). In just a few years the Mexicans moved from being simple transporters for the Colombians to being major distributors of Colombian coke in the U.S. As in other types of business—for example, in oil—the distributor, not the manufacturer, is the one who achieves higher margins and becomes king of the industry. It’s also important to remember that the border between Mexico and the United States is 3,145 km (1,954 miles) long and that the United States consumes 25 percent of drugs worldwide. These two facts have made Mexico the main world power for drug trafficking.

Mexican drug barons like El Chapo are often seen as heroes in Mexico. Why?

I call El Chapo ‘the Steve Jobs of cocaine trafficking.’ He is the undisputed boss of the Sinaloa cartel, an organization that handles about a quarter of the drugs that enter the United States. On his watch, the Sinaloa cartel has also succeeded in laundering billions of dollars through American and European banks. He is a man of the people: son of a farmer, who was able to become one of the richest men in the world.

In a land in which work is scarce and in which there is no trust in institutions, narcos like El Chapo are able to guarantee work and protection. In some sense, they substitute the State. They are called “Robin Hood narcos” because they take from the rich and give to the poor.

The fact that El Chapo was able, on more than one occasion, to ridicule the State that the people despise, gives him a mythic, respected status. Moreover, his escapes from two different maximum-security jails–hiding in a laundry cart or using a tunnel dug underneath the shower of his cell–are scenes that would be hard to believe even in an action film.

The cocaine trade is associated with gruesome murders and gang wars, particularly in Mexico. Tell us about Los Zetas  and the methods they use.

The amount of violence to which Mexico has become accustomed as a result of the drug war is unimaginable, such that among Mexicans, violence has become almost a habit.  The old honor rules and “respect” by which narcos formally abided have become less important, especially among the new generations of cartels, like Los Zetas.

Today, the only rule is that there are no rules. Cruelty is flaunted. Violence is a showcase, a media event. Los Zetas have understood the importance of the web to their success: they often record killings, tortures,  decapitations (their signature method) and upload the videos on YouTube. The body of one’s enemy is spared no humiliation because it serves as a warning for the living. Sometimes the genitals of the victims are cut off and put in their mouths. One time the face of a man was even removed and sewn onto a soccer ball.

The U.S.-Mexico border  is one of the busiest transshipment routes. Give us a picture of the scale and methods of the smuggling operations.

Every foot of the 1,954 mile long border can be used to pass drugs, whether above or underground. There are simpler methods, such as hiding the cocaine underneath a false bottom in the trunk of a vehicle or under the gas tank. The checkpoints are stimulants for the imagination of narcos. In recent years, they have even constructed drug-catapults that launch bricks of drugs over the border. Or they use hang-gliders. They attach a kind of metal cage containing bricks of cocaine underneath the pilot’s seat. Once they’ve entered U.S. airspace, the cage is released from the aircraft and falls to the ground. Then the hang-glider returns to Mexico. It’s possible to transport between 70 and 120 kilos (154 to 265 pounds) of drugs that way.  

Italian police recently announced the seizure of assets worth two billion euros ($2.2 billion) and issued 41 arrest warrants against the 'Ndrangheta crime syndicate. Many readers will not be familiar with it. Explain its origins and how it differs from the Mafia.

The ‘Ndrangheta is a criminal organization with origins in Calabria, a region in the south of Italy that is still very poor. The region lacks major highway connections, infrastructure and economic policies. Criminal organizations proliferate where resources are scarce.

In many ways, they substitute for the state. Where law enforcement has no power, order is maintained by criminal organizations. Where the state is unable to stimulate the economy, criminal organizations supply services to companies, offering transport at low costs and cheap fuel, as well as debt collection services. Forced payment of fees (racketeering) represent the other side of the coin.

The ‘Ndrangheta is among the most dangerous mafias in the world because it maintains a very strong and visceral bond with the land of its roots, its motherland. This bond translates into a firm respect for rules, not only those concerning blood, meaning membership, but also rules connected to the business deals in which its members are involved.

That’s why the ‘Ndrangheta is considered the most trustworthy of the mafias. And that’s why its ‘ndrine (criminal groups) control the majority of coke traffic between South America to Europe.

Drug smugglers deal strictly in cash. But they have to “clean” their ill-gotten gains. Talk about money laundering–and the role of banks in the cocaine trade.

I always say that the biggest problem criminal organizations have isn’t making money, but laundering it. Criminal organizations always have cash available in large quantities, a trait that makes them very attractive clients for banks, especially in periods of crisis when banks have liquidity issues.

In December 2009, the then head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Antonio Maria Costa, made an astonishing announcement that profits from criminal organizations were the only liquid assets available to allow some banks to avoid failure during the crisis in 2008.

During that period, the financial system was practically paralyzed because of the reluctance of banks, which lacked liquidity, to make loans. Thus, the banks lowered their defenses and allowed dirty money from mafias to enter their system. Interbank loans were financed by money coming from drug trafficking and other illegal activities.

A large part of the 352 billion drug dollars—the estimated annual revenues from drug trafficking—was thus absorbed into the legal economic system. Yet no one seemed scandalized by this declaration, which should have truly alarmed any Western government.

Until politicians understand that organized crime is not merely one problem among many, but, rather, the problem, it will be impossible to truly solve it.

You suggest that cocaine should be legalized. Can this really be a solution? Or will it make the situation worse?

Prohibitionist policies have failed across the board, everywhere, and at all times. I hope for the opening of a debate that both keeps in mind the opposition of those who consider it immoral for a country to manage the production and sale of drugs, but also contemplates a different direction: a debate with a strong foundation, that recognizes prohibitionist policies are the primary cause of the proliferation of criminal organizations overseeing drug trafficking.

If we can be certain of anything it is this. As of today in Europe, there has been no serious discussion of this. Governments prefer to avoid the problem by insisting that the police must resolve it. But repression only results in prisons full of small time dealers and drug users, while those who manage the trafficking remain on the outside.

At the end of the book you say, “ I looked into the abyss and I became a monster.” How did writing this book change your life?

After the publication of Gomorrah my ambition was to tell criminal stories that had an international reach. To do so, I contacted and spoke with law enforcement in every country I visited. I also met with police informers, ex-members, ex-bosses, murderers, and minor and major drug dealers. I entered into a world that is only different from ours on the surface.

Looking at the abyss, I realized that those who believe they are on the good side, who believe that they are light years away from the “evil” I describe in my books, are living a pipe dream. There is no separation between the two sides. If you look into the abyss, the abyss sucks you in. You understand that the person on the other side is a human being like you, so you start to ask yourself why you are different from him, whether you are really different or if the difference is only an illusion.

Looking into the abyss, investigating and describing it, doesn’t make you a better person. You don’t become wiser. You don’t come to understand the meaning of life. Rather, you understand that life maybe has no meaning.

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