Gomorrah Author Saviano Marks 10th Year in Protective Custody (Sort Of)

The people and elected official of Naples started backing away from Saviano when the police decided to snatch him
Roberto Saviano wrote an acclaimed best seller -- and has
lived under severe restrictions ever since. 

In October 2006, precisely 10 years ago yesterday, Roberto Saviano, the award-winning Italian writer who lives under police protection, received the phone call that changed his life.

Saviano's widely lauded Gomorrah was issued earlier that year in his homeland by Mondadori, one of Italy's top publishing houses. (It wouldn't be available in the U.S. until 2008.) It was the source material for an acclaimed film, an award-winning play and a television series in production today.

The Camorra, the Mafia in Naples -- the inner working of which Saviano's book had laid bare --initially chose to ignore the writer, reportedly under the belief that simply shooting him dead in the street wasn't worth the heat from both law enforcement and the media, which are feared equally in Italy, unlike in the U.S. But Saviano's influence continued to grow, which stimulated, then fed the Neapolitan Mafia's anger.

Consequently, Saviano started to receive hints that all was not well in his world. His phone rang late at night; he'd answer to hear the caller hang up. Soon, local shopkeepers openly expressed their irritation at his presence.

Saviano was publicly humiliated by Naples's top elected official. Mayor Rosa Russo Iervolino slapped him across the face at an award ceremony for his book.

"Saviano," she later derisively said, "is a symbol of the Naples that he denounces."

Naples Mayor Rosa Russo Iervolino slapped Robert Saviano across the face at an award ceremony
Rosa Russo Iervolino, mayor of Naples who slapped Saviano across the face.

The UK Independent noted: "Clearly the temperature was rising. But the moment that Saviano realized his life was at risk came as a weird counterpoint to his new fame and prominence."

On September 23, 2006, the Ministry of Justice held an anti-Mafia rally in Naples. The event concluded with a public meeting in the Naples suburb of Casal di Principe. Saviano spoke there and "did not mince his words." He proclaimed to the masses: "Iovine, Schiavone, Zagaria," all local Camorra bosses, "are worth nothing. Their power is founded on your fear, they must clear out of this land."

The Corriere di Caserta (an Italian-language newspaper) later reported a startling fact: note one of Naples' MPs attended the meeting.

The newspaper also reported that a cousin of "Sandokan," one of mobsters whom Saviano had identified by name, "pinned one man to the wall with his ferocious stare and made him say, one by one, who was applauding too enthusiastically."

Read Retired Camorrista Considers American Mafia's Sad Fate

The Camorra, like the Calabrian Ndrangheta and Sicilian Cosa Nostra, has ties to people who hold positions of political power. When any one of the Mafias decides it's time for someone to die, the "hit" is not accomplished as abruptly as some may think. Mafia hits, as messy and sloppy as they appear in the newspapers, are carefully planned in advance. As the Independent noted, the Mafias "do not strike without due preparation. The preparation consists of rendering their victim weak, friendless and alone. It was the strategy followed in the assassination of the Sicilian magistrates Falcone and Borsellino, and many others. Saviano's enemies seem to have been following a similar script themselves."

"I'm Still Alive"

Saviano, in a story published in Repubblica yesterday to commemorate his 10th year in confinement, details that 2006 phone call with a law enforcement official.  

"I'll never forget his words," Saviano wrote. "He tried not to scare me... but you could tell by the worry in his voice."

"Ten years. Still, it feels like it happened only this morning."

"There are some things that you never get used to. One of them is living under police protection."

Saviano recalled how a confluence of events had fueled law enforcement's decision to snatch him when they did. A jailhouse snitch had informed the police that he'd heard about plans to murder Saviano. Also, remarks about threats were revealed indirectly by Carmine Schiavone, a former member of the Camorra's Casalesi clan and the chief witness at the 10-year-long Spartacus Maxi trial, which ended in 2008 with 16 senior Casalesi members convicted and sent to prison for life. (When confronted and asked for specifics about potential threats to Saviano, however, Schiavone said he didn't recall anything.)

Back then, no one had imagined that 10 years later Saviano would still be living in a police barracks. In fact, on the night the police picked him up, Saviano had asked how long he'd require their protection.

"For a few days, I think," one of the officers said.

Carmine Schiavone, a former member of the Camorra's Casalesi clan
Carmine Schiavone, formerly a member of the Camorra's Casalesi clan

To protect Saviano from the Camorra, Italian police basically run Saviano's life for him; they have to escort him everywhere. For all intents and purposes, Saviano is a prisoner. Does he sometimes wish he'd never written the book? Yes, he noted. But he also takes solace knowing that he exposed the inner workings of the Camorra -- as well as the Ndrangheta, more recently -- and is still alive.

And he's got a message for every Mafioso who ever wished him death.

"I'd like to shout in their faces that: You didn't succeed. You didn't get what you wanted. I have not stopped, I have not bent, even if there were times when I was in pieces."
The 37-year-old then noted how certain segments of the media have questioned his motives in what he termed as today's pervasive "culture of blackmail."

Living in New York

In 2011, Saviano quietly moved to New York City and proceeded to live a low-profile life here, under several aliases. The FBI and NYPD kept him under watch. His ability to travel out of state was heavily curtailed. Still, he had the freedom to teach a course on the economics of organized crime at NYU (students were told to keep his identity under wraps). He also made himself accessible to The Atlantic, which interviewed him in 2015 for a story; the link, quite suspiciously, suddenly stopped working just now. However, Adweek quoted from it, highlighting the prohibitive safety measures under which the writer lived.

Apparently, he's since left New York and is back in the protective embrace of the Italian police.

Saviano noted that journalists who seek to serve the public trust by exposing organized crime, among other things, will be undermined: "It is not only the merit of what they write that will be discussed, there will also be an attempt to destroy their credibility."
Saviano obviously retains residual anger over accusations of plagiarism that continued to dog him the past few years. In 2013, he and his publisher appealed a sentence for plagiarism stemming from allegations that he'd plagiarized from two local newspapers. The Appeals Court of Naples ultimately decided that 0.6% of the book Gomorrah consisted of plagiarized content. Financial penalties were imposed.

Then in September 2015, a Daily Beast article about Saviano was critical of his latest book, ZeroZeroZero, about the Ndrangheta; the writer also made fresh allegations of plagiarism.

Daily Beast journalist Michael Moynihan – who previously had exposed Jonah Lehrer’s falsification of Bob Dylan quotes – claimed that Saviano had copied text from various sources, including Wikipedia, the Los Angeles Times and the St Petersburg Times, without crediting sources.

"None of the characters that you met in Zero Zero Zero were invented," Saviano wrote in response to the Daily Beast. "Every one of them, from the first to the last, is real."

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Saviano then dubbed himself a modern-day version of Truman Capote, pegging his books in the "non-fiction novel" genre.

(Capote created the true-crime genre with his classic book In Cold Blood, though some criticism has been directed at the great writer's work in recent years. It was recently reported that Joe Berlinger is directing a four-part true crime series for SundanceTV that will focus on the case detailed in Capote's book about the brutal murders of four members of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas, in November 1959. To be produced by AMC Studios, RadicalMedia and Third Eye Motion Picture Company, the working title is Murder in the Heartland: In Cold Blood Revisited. It will air in 2017, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the film version of the classic non-fiction book.)

Moynihan's response to Saviano was that he and his publisher failed to mention that anywhere in the books.

Moynihan makes a good point. And Saviano's intimations that a journalist critical of his work is somehow in league with the Neapolitan Camorra are impossible to swallow.