Cocaine is at the heart of high-flying finance, champagne, fat bonuses, and fast cars. Italian investigative reporter Roberto Saviano goes further: the addictive drug is not simply an accessory of global markets, it is the global market, a commodity as powerful as oil or gold that underpins the world economy. Forget the narco-state. Welcome to the narco-planet.
This is the premise of Saviano’s latest book ZeroZeroZero. Early on, he reminds us that it was cocaine cash that kept banks afloat after the 2008 world financial crisis. In the following years 97% of money laundered by Colombian cartels passed through U.S. and European banks. No one really knows the value of the annual cocaine trade, but this cash business is estimated to be around US$100 billion. “It’s not the world of cocaine that must orbit around the markets, but the markets that must rotate around cocaine,” writes Saviano.
Reading about cocaine can also be addictive, he warns, then goes on to deliver a 450-page tale that zooms in and out of global cocaine trade with both human stories (often in horrifying detail) and startling facts from the business world. Cocaine, says Saviano, is the wild card of the world economy, both enabling and destructive. Any smart kid with a gun and no conscience can muscle their way in and, after a few years, amass the same fortune it takes even big companies decades to make.
Like other books on cocaine, the author details production, distribution, and purity. (The book’s title comes from the name for the most-refined product called “000.”) Extreme violence swirls around the usual cast of Colombian and Mexican kingpins. Where Saviano shines new light, however, is in examining the higher strata of businesses, banks, and financial institutions perched above the supply chain.
His entry point is Italian organized crime, particularly the Calabrian ’Ndrangheta that formed close links with the Colombian cartels in the 1990s. With astonishing detail, he recounts decades of transatlantic dealings peppered with both the human and technical story behind the rise of the narco-economy.
Here, the Naples-born Saviano is on home turf, but not safe ground. The writer’s previous best-selling book on Italian crime and corruption, Gomorrah, won him worldwide plaudits for fearless reporting but also a death sentence from the Comorra crime clan. Today, he lives under the constant protection of six armed police. This explosive fact adds weight to ZeroZeroZero, and you cannot help wondering if with his latest exposé he might need to double the caribinieri. Saviano charts the trajectory of the super-rich cocaine brokers who flit between continents (having learned the lesson directly from Pablo Escobar to never spend more than two nights in the same place) and determined attempts by international police forces to track them and penetrate the fast-moving and often obscure world of money laundering. The old adage “follow the money” leads to all corners of the planet, from landing strips in rural Mexico to island tax havens, from Russia to Wall Street, and from Switzerland to your local bank.
Proving fiscal negligence in laundering cases is extremely hard and getting convictions is “like squeezing sand in your fist; the grains just slip through your fingers,” writes Saviano. This is hardly surprising given the incredibly complex deals he recounts, such as the Australian drug baron who sent illegal funds through a Lebanese-Canadian bank with ties to Hezbollah. The bank then purchased used cars in the United State and exported them to West Africa, using fake bills of sale to mask drug profits from Colombia. Try following that money.
Where cases are proven, the writer rails at paltry fines against billions in illicit profits and the scarcity of legal charges against bankers. The world of high finance is well rewarded for recycling dirty money. You cannot help but share his indignation at the New York bank that washed several billions of U.S. dollars of Mexican cartel money
through dodgy casas de cambios, tried to block its own internal investigator, then plea-bargained a small fine and “one-year probation.”
According to Saviano, the banking system is more than just complacent. It is actually complicit and intentionally makes transactions hard to trace. And it is not just small or specialized banks to blame. He maintains that large players like the Bank of New York and Bank of America have been caught up in laundering deals for Mexico’s notorious Zetas cartel. And according to U.S. investigators, the U.K-based HSBC, the fifth largest bank in the world, maintained lax controls that allowed its HBUS world- wide network of accounts to become a “superhighway” for illegal capital.
Having shown us the shiny peaks of the global drug economy, Saviano brings us backs down to the murky depths of the cocaine trade (literally in his recounting of clandestine submarines) and the violence that surrounds it in Russia, West Africa, Central America, and, of course, back in Colombia.
Many people living in Colombia cringe when yet another book or television documentary on cocaine appears with the usual chapters on jungle lab busts or airport interdictions. My feelings on this were neatly summed up by a recent internet post that asked: “If so much of the profit from cocaine is made in the U.S and Europe, then why do we only talk of the cartels of Colombia and Mexico?”
Saviano takes Colombia away from centre stage and puts the whole global economy is in the spotlight, though in some ways this makes the book even more relevant to Colombia. Why should one country pay such a high human price for the war on drugs while global bankers cash in with so little risk? This global-scale hypocrisy is what fuels Saviano’s anger. “Everyone is talking a reality you know is bogus,” he rages. Saviano’s own reality is hammered home in a relentless, chaotic, book that demands attention and, judging from reviews and sales, is getting it. It even counted with one famous reader as the book hit bestseller lists late last year. In a bizarre twist of irony and real-life drama, when Mexican special forces stormed the hideout of “most-wanted” drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán, they found a collection of his signature floral shirts and a copy of ZeroZeroZero.