Book review: Zero, Zero, Zero

The scale of the illegal drugs business, the violence, the complicity of bankers in laundering money and the absolute power of the drug barons is beyond comprehension. Cormac O’Keeffe on an escalating world crisis.

Roberto Saviano

Allen Lane, €23.70; ebook, €14.99

IT’S a world in which cash is weighed, not counted. It’s a world in which there is a school for drug mules. It’s a world in which even drug dogs have a price on their heads.

In this world, grasping the scale of drug money coursing through the global financial system is “almost like trying to squeeze sand in your fist”.

Zero, Zero, Zero is the follow-up book to Gomorrah, Roberto Saviano’s expose of the Camorra criminal organisation in Naples — a book that turned the author’s world upside down.

This world is the bloody playground of gangland generals like ‘Shorty’, ‘little Jap’, ‘Friend Killer’, ‘the Craziest One’ and ‘the Monkey’.

Zero, Zero, Zero, Saviano’s second book, is dedicated to his Carabinieri bodyguards and the 51,000 hours they have spent together, so far. 

After writing Gomorrah, Saviano said he had to look at the picture outside Naples, to “let my investigation take in the whole world”.

He takes us on a James Bondesque circle of the planet: from the blood-soaked towns on the Mexican border to the Columbian jungles; from the Calabrian villages to New York city; from sun-kissed Caribbean islands to chaotic west Africa.

The story is about cocaine and the title, Zero, Zero, Zero, comes from the nickname given for the purest-of-pure cocaine.

Mexico takes up the first quarter of the book. Saviano charts the spawning of the modern cartels: Sinaloa; Gulf Cartel; Los Zetas; Juarez Cartel; Tijuana Cartel, La Familia and the Knights Templar.

El Padrino, the godfather, convened all the drug lords together in 1989, giving birth to the various cartels.

He forged links with the giant Columbia cartels — the Medellin and the Cali — particularly Medellin boss, Pablo Escobar. 

The balance of power swung from Columbia to Mexico, with the latter no longer a transporter of drugs into the US, but the distributor.

El Padrino was arrested in 1989 and is still serving a 40-year sentence.

Sinalao became the biggest cartel thereafter and its boss, El Chalpo (Shorty) Guzman, Mexico’s most powerful drug lord. 

His story continues today, as his dramatic escape, his second, from a prison in Mexico, last month, testifies.

Saviano illustrates the reach of the cartels into the US. In one operation, the DEA arrested 750 members of El Chapo’s cartel. 

“An army,” he writes. 

Over a period of 21 months, the DEA seized $59m in cash, 12 tonnes of cocaine, 169 weapons, 149 vehicles, three airplanes and three boats. Saviano likens the Sinalao cartel to “a multinational corporation”.

A rival cartel, Los Zetas, became synonmous with savage violence in Mexico. 

It was the armed wing of the major Gulf cartel, then broke away and became a cartel of its own. Los Zetas were formed by GAFE, Mexico’s special forces. 

“There’s no end to Los Zetas’ brutality,” Saviano tells us. 

“Cadavers swing from city bridges in broad daylight, for children to see; bodies are decapitated and hacked to pieces, then abandoned on the side of the road. Cities have become war zones.” 

Mexican authorities estimate that 70,000 people were killed between 2006 and 2012 in drug wars and the war on drugs. Amnesty International, says Saviano, put the figure at 136,000. “Numbers and figures,” writes Saviano. 

“All I see is blood and money.”

The next section of his book takes us to Columbia, where the Sinaloan cartel now directs cultivation and production. 

Saviano says that in the early 1990s, Pablo Escobar was making half a million dollars a day and had ten accountants.

But Columbia was also a battleground for paramilitary groups, like FARC, counter- revoluntionary armies and viligilante groups. 

It was also where the US DEA negotiated with drug lords, because the Columbia government struggled to control swathes of the country. The US backed a war on drugs, but Saviano says the effects were limited: 

“The result is that after years of a literal scorched-earth policy, Columbian cocaine still represents more than half of all cocaine consumed worldwide.” 

He says the war-on-drugs approach is the “fundamental error” at the base of the US efforts.

“You can rip up a plant, but you can’t uproot the desire for well-being that leads to addiction, any more than you can eradicate greed. Cocaine is the fruit not of the earth, but of man.” 

While the detail and the list of names and nicknames, which is as long as an electoral registry, are just about tolerable in the Mexican chapters, they become more than a struggle when the reader comes to Columbia.

And then there are detailed chapters on Italy, and another on the Russian gangs.

Second readings help, but third or fourth readings, with notepads and maps, are required to wade through Saviano’s story.

Amidst the density, there are great lines, such as: “There are two kinds of wealthy people: those who count their money and those who weigh it. If you don’t belong to the latter category, you don’t really know what power is.” 

In one joint Italian/US operation, some $90m in cash was confiscated and a colossal nine tonnes of cocaine seized.

The chapter on money laundering is fascinating. Since 2004, “several billion dollars” have moved from Sinalao cartel to the accounts of US giant, Wachovia Bank. At least $13m was used to purchase airplanes for drug trafficking.

Saviano notes that Wachovia paid $160m to the US Government in penalties, which compared to the $12.3bn the bank earned in 2009.

“Money laundering pays,” writes Saviano. He says New York and London “are the world’s largest launderies for dirty money”.

He quotes UN figures that $580bn of drug money was laudered in 2011.

And there are other banks: Bank of America and HBSC (the fifth largest bank in the world). Between 2007 and 2008, HBSC Mexico transferred $7bn in cash to its US bank. In 2012, HBSC said it was very sorry and paid a fine of $2bn.

There’s an excellent chapter on the shipment of cocaine hauls from South America to Europe. 

This includes one very worrying incident. In August, 2012, Spanish police arrested four members of the Sinaloan cartel in the centre of Madrid, including the cousin of El Chapo Guzman.

Up until then the Columbians exported directly to Europe. Now, the Mexicans were negotiating directly with Italian mafia. An FBI/Spanish operation nipped it in the bud. But it is a grim warning.

Saviano follows with an interesting chapter on drug mules and the existence of an actual school in the Dutch Antilles, in the Caribbean.

The greatest boast about Saviano’s work is the detail, the level of research. But it’s also its flaw. 

It is often too complicated and too dense. He can also be repititious and self-indulgent. Good editing would have trimmed this book down significantly and made it a better read.

But it is on reading some of the latter pages that you get a better insight into Saviano.

He says that Anglo Saxon journalists have told him to keep a distance from his subject: “Don’t get involved; keep a clear gaze between your subject and yourself. But I’ve never been able to. For me, it’s the opposite.” Saviano says his mode of working was not about “style and narrative technique”.

“I don’t know how to do that. Mine is the life of a fugitive, a story runner, a multiplier of tales.” 

Given the savagery of the trade he documents, Saviano’s suggested solution comes as a surprise. I’ll leave it to the readers to discover it for themselves.

Saviano’s passion and dedication is obvious, his ongoing sacrifice, too.

It’s not the best written book. But it is an incredibly important one.

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