After Gomorrah was published, Saviano’s parents were forced into hiding; nearly all his friends abandoned him. Lonely and consumed by regret for what he’d done to his life, he considered never writing again. But as the feeling wore off, he turned back to his old preoccupations. “Every hour seems pointless, wasted, if you don’t dedicate your energies to discovering, flushing out, telling,” he writes in the new book.
ZeroZeroZero is dizzying. It charts the bloody rise of the Colombian and Mexican cartels that control the global cocaine market, connecting them to a host of far-flung collaborators: Wall Street banks, the Calabrian mob, mariners in Greece, a son of a former president of Guinea. As in Gomorrah, Saviano spares no grisly detail—the book is rife with murdered police informants and severed limbs. But whereas he wrote Gomorrah in the belief that speaking out was in itself a powerful check on the Camorra, Saviano concludes ZeroZeroZero with a policy recommendation for how to undermine the cartels: “total legalization” of the drug. He knows the idea is a hard sell. “Finding cocaine in a pharmacy? Sure, it’s not the vision of a perfect society,” he told me. “But in time it will destroy the drug trade.”
When, in the course of reporting Gomorrah, Saviano wanted to make clear that the mob had its hands in the Italian fashion industry, he worked his way into a Camorra-connected sweatshop; when he wanted to show a mobster’s villa, he sneaked into one (and peed in the bathtub). In ZeroZeroZero, we get profiles of fascinating people—the Colombian supermodel Natalia Paris, who was the girlfriend of one of the DEA’s top cartel informants; the Wachovia whistle-blower Martin Woods. But many of the sketches lack the first-person vitality of Gomorrah. To some degree, this reflects Saviano’s changed circumstances: while reporting the new book, he visited about a dozen countries, but security concerns tended to keep him from venturing beyond local police stations.
Even in New York, where his celebrity isn’t strong, some people do recognize him. While apartment hunting last fall, he told me, he was waiting to see a one-bedroom when he noticed the building’s doorman staring at him. “I saw you on TV in Mexico!” the doorman said. (The Spanish translation of ZeroZeroZero had landed on Mexican best-seller lists.) “You’re the Italian writer!” Saviano denied it, but the doorman insisted, “It’s you!” He took his phone out for a selfie, which Saviano refused, and when the apartment owner arrived, the doorman explained who Saviano was. The owner looked nervous. Saviano pleaded in English—“No mafia problem! No mafia problem!”—while the doorman insisted, “This guy is a hero! A hero!” Saviano didn’t get the apartment.
Italian authorities, working with the NYPD and the FBI, have established strict rules for Saviano’s life in New York. He has a midnight curfew and a mandate to stay in the state unless he gets permission to leave. Every time he lands at JFK, he is detained—sometimes for hours—until the authorities clear his entry. His wallet reveals various fake identities. At one point in our conversation, he fished from his pocket an old ID from New York University (where he’d taught a course in 2011 on the organized-crime economy) and passed it to me, chuckling. A photo of a dour and very Mediterranean-looking Saviano sat incongruously above a name more fit for a British parliamentarian: David Dannon. When he returned to the U.S. last fall, he was issued a new ID—this one with a three-part Spanish name. “It’s better than Dannon,” he said.