MOST OF US CONSIDER COCAINE little more than a recreational drug, a stimulant used by those looking for a boost, a diversion, or both. Maybe we have a friend whose habit is a bit worrisome, or know of an addict struggling with the stuff. But we remind ourselves that these are isolated situations, and for most of the rest of us it exists only in the shadows, outside of the space where our daily lives transpire.
The Italian journalist and writer Roberto Saviano sees it differently. In his new book ZeroZeroZero — the name refers to a grade of flour — he explains how “the axis around which everything turns is cocaine.” The drug doesn’t just fuel our days; it fuels financial and political systems. It doesn’t exist in the shadows; it’s in full view, right there in front of us. Cocaine props us up and propels us forward — all the while driving us ever further into the abyss.
Saviano begins in the Americas by tracing the international criminal network that produces and disperses the white powder around the world to its origins in the coca fields, and from there to a Mexican named Félix Gallardo (“El Padrino” as he is known), to the Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, and finally to the kingpins of today.
He details the way cocaine went from being distributed by small gangs and petty criminals in the 1970s and 1980s, to the multinational corporation-like cartels of today, whose violence is unconscionable. The stories are gruesome if not unfamiliar: There’s the Colombian priest who stood up to local traffickers, only to be kidnapped by them and forced to eat his own severed fingers and toes before being castrated and killed. There’s the tape of the DEA agent’s torture and death at the hands of Gallardo’s men, so gruesome that the soundtrack is mostly made up of his shrieks and shrills. There are the hundreds of field workers killed with chain saws in the Trujillo massacre of 1990. There are the decapitated bodies that are to this day discarded on the sides of roads like candy bar wrappers.
If you’ve paid attention at all to the news coming from south of the United States’s border with Mexico, you’ll have heard the horror stories already. What Saviano adds to the mayhem is the nuance that coats these lands in a thick layer of moral ambiguity. He tells stories of Mexican towns whose impoverished citizens rely on the money and order sowed by death and drugs; of private citizens like the American-educated Colombian farmer, forced to defend his land, then drawn into the drug business himself; of the beautiful model who falls for the charming gentleman who turns out to be a powerful drug trafficker.
Central and South America is just the starting point, the ground zero of cocaine, where the drug obviates the callow concept of morality. If you want to get a better idea of the vastness of the dark cloud cocaine casts over us, then you must ascend higher than the highest peaks. From there you can see it brush up against the shores of Europe and cast its pall over the Italian towns that harbor gangsters, see it hover over the ships of sailors risking their lives for a quick payday, and spot it smothering the lives of poor Africans, who risk death to smuggle it to Europe in their bellies for meager sums.
Saviano, whose 2006 book Gomorrah, about the Italian mafia, was so successful that it landed him a round-the-clock security detail, has benefitted in one way from his current lifestyle: a proximity to law enforcement has given him enviable access to the characters of the cocaine trade. He meets street thugs and African mules; he details small-time businessmen with big-time reputations in the underworld and the most wanted mobster in the world, who lives openly in Moscow. These disparate figures have but one objective: to profit off cocaine, even at the cost of human life.
And profitable it is. According to Saviano, if you were to invest $1,000 in Apple Inc. a few years ago, you would have accumulated $1,670 after a year. If you had invested the same sum of money in cocaine, you would have made $182,000.
People, we learn, are capable of anything when cocaine is introduced to the equation. They’ll kill their brothers and husbands, friends and fathers; to get it to those places where it is most profitable, they’ll use false-bottomed cars, boats, planes, submarines, hand gliders — one woman tried to smuggle a couple of kilos in her breast and buttock implants.
Saviano’s immersion in his subject was part of Gomorrah’s success. He infiltrated a Camorra-connected sweatshop; he got a job at the Camorra-run docks of Naples; when he wanted to describe a mobster’s villa, he snuck into it (and peed in the bathtub). But because of his current predicament, Saviano was prevented from taking such a tack in his research for ZeroZeroZero. His travels were limited — he visited about a dozen countries over a five-year span — and he tended to stick close to law enforcement during these trips.
So in this book he operates at a remove from his subject. Instead of coming face to face with it, he throws it in our faces. If you snort the odd bit of cocaine or keep your money in a bank, if you own a used car or buy tiles from the business down the street, it’s unlikely you remain unsullied by cocaine’s toxic touch. At best we are ambivalent, at worst accomplices.
It’s a whirlwind tour, yes, and Saviano therefore misses a lot, but that’s sort of the point. Cocaine’s tentacles spread so far and wide it’s near impossible to communicate how comprehensive a role it plays in our lives.
Saviano is a practitioner of what’s been labeled “The New Italian Epic” — think of it as Hunter S. Thompson without the humor — and so finally his book, which at times reads like investigative journalism, at others like a document whose aim is to act merely as witness, turns inward and takes its author as its subject. Why, he asks, has he written this book? Is it not an enormous waste of time and energy to dedicate so many words to a problem that seems impossible to fix?
“For years I've been asking myself what the point is of dealing with shootings and death. Is it really worth it?” he writes.
Sometimes I think I'm obsessed. Other times I'm convinced these stories are a way of measuring the truth. […] And even if you feel bad, you convince yourself that you can really understand this world only if you decide to stay inside these stories.
Obsessed he is and stay inside he does. Everything everywhere, he admits, evokes but one thought: cocaine.
“I can’t look at a world map anymore without seeing transportation routes, distribution strategies. I can’t see the beauty of a city piazza anymore without asking myself if it would be a good base for pushers,” he writes.
Why, if he’s walking a route of such moral strength and courage, is the return on his investment measured in the number of police protecting him, while cocaine, with all the casualties it produces, provides its investors with villas, planes, and incalculable power?
“I believed that following these routes and rivers […] would help me to get at the truth,” writes Saviano. “But it doesn’t work that way […] You can’t find it.”
But you can get close, and even at his enforced distance, it’s likely that Saviano will get closer than any of us.
Zach Pontz is a writer, journalist, and producer. Among the many publications he has contributed to are Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Vice, The Economist, CNN, and The Millions. He lives in New York and Philadelphia.