Snow Blind

ZeroZeroZero BY Roberto Saviano. Penguin Press. Hardcover, 416 pages. $29.

The cover of ZeroZeroZero

Roberto Saviano is possibly the world’s bravest journalist. In his 2006 book, Gomorrah, he defied the omertà that had prevented anyone from telling the truth about the Mafia’s control over his native Naples for a century. Since then, Italy’s organized-crime syndicates have put out multiple contracts on his life. They have a record of killing anyone who exposes their inner workings, including judges.

But instead of waiting to be hunted, Saviano has decided to become the hunter. He heard whispers that the Italian Mafia was becoming ever more deeply enmeshed with the Colombian and Mexican drug cartels, so he decided to follow the trail of white powder from the Mafia’s Neapolitan sanctums out into the world at large. It’s a bit as though Salman Rushdie had flouted his fatwa by going on a long investigative journey to seek out Islamic fundamentalists in darkened corners across the world.

“My White Whale is cocaine,” Saviano writes as he chases the trade westward, from Italy to the boardrooms of London banks to the battlefields of the Mexican-American border—“that long tongue of land that licks America’s ass.”

Early on he tells the story of Kiki Camarena, a Mexican-American agent for the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) who infiltrated one of the leading Mexican cartels in the 1980s. Camarena’s revelations led to the destruction of $8 billion worth of marijuana, before somebody revealed his identity in 1985. He was snatched off the street and tortured to death over a long period, on camera, under the supervision of doctors who kept him alive only to continue torturing him.

It’s a brilliant scene, but it also drives home just how the argument of ZeroZeroZero goes wrong. Saviano offers great reporting and haunting prose, but almost no structural analysis of how drug prohibition works, or of how to change it. Worse, the analysis he does offer is, at crucial points, wrong. Prior to his exposure, kidnapping, and murder, Camarena had argued that the DEA was fundamentally misunderstanding how to effectively prosecute the drug war: They were going after the little guys, the small-time dealers. If only they targeted the drug lords instead, the war would be won. Saviano seconds this critique: “Kiki had understood what the United States has trouble grasping even today: You have to strike at the head. You have to hit the bosses.”

But in endorsing this belief, that the American prosecutors of the drug war are simply using a misguided tactical playbook, Saviano undercuts his own reporting. As the book progresses, he shows that the big bosses have been taken out, time and again. We follow him through a numbingly long chronicle of the various gangs and gangsters who have slaughtered and superseded one another that reminded me of those passages of the Bible laying out genealogies: And Pablo begat Chapo, and Chapo begat the Zetas . . .

So what happens? You strike at the head, and . . . everything carries on just the same. The flow of cocaine (and other drugs) through Latin America and into the United States and Europe continues unabated.

The truth is that when you ban drugs, they don’t vanish. They simply become the fiefdom of armed criminal gangs. There will always be somebody willing to kill and risk being killed for a slice of the $359 billion in annual international narco-trafficking profit, whose margins are reliably around 6,000 percent. This has been true ever since cocaine first began to be criminalized nearly a century ago—and it will remain so until we reverse that decision and restore cocaine to the doctors and pharmacists who controlled its distribution before it was banned. Just as there have been almost no murderous alcohol-smuggling cartels since the end of Prohibition, there would be no violent cocaine dealers were it legalized.

In other words, the world of organized crime that Saviano describes is the result of a series of political decisions. To believe that the solution to cocaine use is to arrest or kill the heads of the cartels is like believing the solution to the American obesity epidemic is to arrest Colonel Sanders or shoot Ronald McDonald.

But Saviano chooses not to reckon with the implications of his reporting until the very last pages of ZeroZeroZero—and when he does address them, his discussion is rather curt. Saviano is assembling an alternative history of the drug wars, one in which the central difficulties begin not with prohibition but with the crime-fighting narrative of shutting down individual bad guys. Indeed, he argues that something profound happened in the wake of Camarena’s death—something that altered not only the nature of the cocaine trade but the way that global trade networks function at all levels.

As the geopolitical chessboard began to change in the waning days of the Cold War, Saviano claims, the Mexican and South American cartels underwent a fundamental transformation. In their initial iteration, the cartels were an assemblage of warring gangs bent on mutual destruction. But in 1989, they gathered and agreed to carve up the supply routes and set the price of drugs. At that moment, they became cartels in the classical economic sense of the term: They began to collude in pricing their product. “So the drug cartels were born that day,” Saviano writes—and with them the depraved violence that we now identify with the global traffic in drugs.

This is a huge claim, and one that immediately raises several difficult questions. How does Saviano know all this? He attributes his price-fixing saga to “various testimonies” but doesn’t name those who gave them or even hint at who they might be. If the drug lords are working together to fix prices, then why are they slaughtering each other?

It’s a peculiar theory, one I’ve never seen in any of the academic literature on this subject nor heard anyone put forward in my own reporting on northern Mexico’s enormous drug trade. I take anything Saviano writes very seriously, but I don’t see how this can be correct. In reality, all the problems he attributes to this mysterious deal in 1989 actually began much earlier, when cocaine was criminalized. In the 1920s, the New York gangster Arnold Rothstein ruthlessly controlled the city’s illegal drug trade through violence; he would be totally recognizable to Chapo Guzmán, the recently deposed head of Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel, today.

Another reason Saviano is unable to follow the policy implications of his own reporting is that he believes cocaine is an inherently evil drug that destroys people, and is therefore uncomfortable with any regulated and licensed version of the cocaine trade. He writes that cocaine “turns your brain to mush . . . [and] your stomach starts oozing pus,” without offering any evidence for this claim. It’s hard to blame anyone for believing such lurid descriptions of the drug’s effects after a century of relentless propaganda, but the reality is rather different. In the ’90s, the World Health Organization (WHO) commissioned the most extensive scientific study of cocaine ever; it found that the drug is safer than alcohol and that instances of serious harm to recreational users are “very rare.” Alcohol kills 150 out of every 100,000 people who use it; cocaine kills four. US officials threatened to pull financial support for the agency if the WHO published its report, and so it was suppressed. We only know its findings thanks to an in-house whistle-blower.

It’s true that a small minority of cocaine users become addicts, and their travails are horrific—I’ve seen the grim fallout of cocaine addiction within my own family. But if you examine such cases more closely, the evidence is overwhelming that most addicts were terribly damaged before they found their drug and would have sought some other chemical to numb their pain if cocaine had been unavailable.

Saviano’s skewed understanding of the drug mars the concluding sections of ZeroZeroZero. Up until the final pages, he presents the violence resulting from the cocaine trade as largely due to the evil nature of the cartel bosses and their mysterious 1989 deal. He depicts their foes—typified by Camarena—mostly as well-meaning crusaders who end up stymied by their political bosses or the power of the global banking system as they track drug profits through various elaborate money-laundering schemes. In short, there’s no sense that the cartels exist merely as the consequence of drug prohibition itself. In the United States, Al Capone has been replaced by the liquor aisle at Walmart and other legal businesses not because Capone and his successors stopped being evil but because Prohibition was ended.

But then, in the book’s last gasp, Saviano suddenly reverses course and suggests that “total legalization may be the only answer. A horrendous response, horrible perhaps, agonizing.” He doesn’t say why legalization would be better than the status quo, or why it would be more “agonizing” than, say, keeping vodka legal, when that drug kills a far higher proportion of its users. His about-face here is so abrupt, so lacking in context, and so contrary to the way he has framed his argument thus far that it may baffle readers unfamiliar with the arguments for legalization.

Of course, cocaine legalization seems a remote prospect today. But in 1969, the year of the Stonewall riots, gay marriage seemed such an absurd idea that virtually nobody even proposed it for another twenty-five years—it still seemed absurd well into the ’90s. Now, finally, we may be experiencing something of a Stonewall moment in the drug war: Marijuana is legal in a growing number of US states. Who could have pictured that a generation ago? Until cocaine is legalized, the catastrophe that Saviano so brilliantly and fearlessly reports on will continue. It’s just a shame that, for all of his startling courage, he never quite lets himself see why.

Johann Hari is the author of the New York Times best seller Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs (Bloomsbury, 2015).