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Dapper Dons - Organized Crime and Fashion

Page history last edited by mascarenhas@... 12 years, 3 months ago
Organized Crime & Fashion
Part I: Importation – The Neapolitan Camorra & the Chinese Connection
Anthony Mascarenhas
The Biblically city of Gomorrah is often overshadowed by its sister city of Sodom. Similarly, the Camorra, the Neapolitan organized crime group, has long been overshadowed in the press and popular imagination by its Sicilian counterpart, La Cosa Nostra, or the Mafia. After reading Roberto Saviano’s Gomorrah, it seems that only the "brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven" (Genesis19:24-25) that destroyed Sodom could thoroughly cleanse Naples and the surrounding region of Campania of the rampant corruption extending to every aspect of the Italian economy, particularly fashion.
To understand the Camorra and its stranglehold on the Italian, and by extension, the international fashion industry, one must being at the Port of Naples, where “everything that exists passes through here. . . the hole in the earth out of which what’s made in China comes” (4). The sheer magnitude of the operation is staggering, as is Mr. Saviano’s grasp of the numbers involved. The port, 330 acres spread over seven miles of coastline with over 3,000 feet of pier extending into the Bay of Naples (4), has 1.5 million square feet of terminal and more than 300 thousand square feet of outdoor space to handle the more than 150 thousand containers that pass through every year in transit to destinations throughout Europe and the rest of the world (6). 
Chinese capitalism transformed Naples from a European backwater for bootlegged Albanian cigarettes and Turkish heroin into a global Mecca for counterfeit goods because, “with less visibility than cigarettes, since there’s no illegal distribution” (15). Since a smuggled pair of Nike Airs looks the exact same as a legitimate pair, with no tax stamp to differentiate between the two, it is far easier to smuggle merchandise into Italy and distribute it throughout the country than it is to do the same with cigarettes or other contraband. The cargo unloaded in Naples is almost exclusively Chinese now (7). For example, COSCO, the largest Chinese state-owned shipping company, with the 3rd largest fleet, and MSC, a Swiss company with the 2nd largest fleet pooled their investments and now manage the largest cargo terminal in Naples (5). Although 1.6 million tons of registered goods arrive in Naples each year, “[a]t least another million tons pass through without leaving a trace” (id). At the very least, almost one half of the goods off loaded in Naples are smuggled and headed directly for the black market, which consequently, is as large as the legitimate market.
Even the Italian Customs Agency admits that “60 percent of the goods arriving in Naples escape official customs inspections, 20 percent of the bills of entry go unchecked, and 50,000 shipments are contraband, 99 % of them from China – all for an estimated 200 million Euros in evaded taxes each semester” (id). For example, when Italian Customs launched four raids in April 2005, they seized 36 million Euros worth of goods, including 24,000 pairs of jeans headed to France and 51,000 Bangladeshi products with Italian labels, which is “[j]ust a small serving of the economy that was making its way through the Port of Naples in a few hours” (8).
Though Naples handles only 20 percent of the value of textile imports from China, it accounts for more than 70 percent of the quantity (4). This translates into a vast quantity of cheap imported Chinese goods taking advantage of economies of scale. What turns this merchandise into a profitable business for the Camorra, earning each family approximately 300 million Euros annually (42), is that “textiles fall under quite a few product classifications, and a mere stroke of the pen on the shipping manifest can radically lower price and VAT” (4), or value added tax, which is the duty imposed on imports by the Italian government. 
Merchandise “possesses a rare magic: it manages both to be and not to be, to arrive without ever reaching its destination, to cost the customer a great deal despite its poor quality, and to have little tax value in spite of being worth a huge amount” (id). To avoid taxation, the merchandise must leave the port immediately so “the organization who controls the unions who handle the cargo controls the merchandise and the port” because the goods need to arrive at the buyers’ warehouses before customs inspections begins (5). In addition to the Camorra, every recent Anti-Mafia commission report has highlighted the growing danger of the Chinese mafia (12). It would have been interesting if the author had explained exactly how the Camorra controlled the dockworker unions. Regardless, whether it’s the Camorra, the Chinese gangs, or both groups working in tandem, the profits come when they offer the exact same goods to consumers at drastically lower prices because they no longer have the added overhead of taxes, customs, and duties. Hence, merchandise without the burden of taxes could be sold to wholesalers who, freed from import fees, could beat their competition on prices selling garments of the same quality at a discount (14).
Anyone who has fallen in love with the Gulf of Sorrento, the Isle of Capri, or the Amalfi Coast will have a visceral reaction to the graphic manner in which Mr. Saviano describes the brutal vulgarity of modern, corrupt, and profane Naples, where “the eye of the needle is the port, and the camel that has to pass through it are the ships . . . as if the anus of the sea were opening out, causing great pain to the sphincter” (7). Anyone who has seen Naples from the sky or walked along the sea will understand what he means in describing the port “detached from the city,” or as “[a]n infected appendix, never quite degenerating into peritonitis, always there in the abdomen of the coastline” (id).
Mr. Saviano vividly describes how the “clothes young Parisians will wear for a month . . . the watches Catalans will adorn their wrists with, and the silk for every English dress for an entire season – all pass through here in a few hours . . . born in the middle of China, they’re finished on the outskirts of some Slavic city, brought to perfection in northeastern Italy, packaged in Puglia or north of Tirana in Albania, and finally end up in a warehouse somewhere in Europe” (8).  His writing would make any consumer, from the discount bin purchaser to the Madison Avenue fashionista, pause to think where their garments originated and how they were transformed in Naples.
After a U.S. sponsored security plan was implemented to monitor truck cargo leaving the port, the Chinese businessman decided to make the merchandise inconspicuous by using vans “stuffed to the gills with boxes” to transfer goods from the port to nearby apartment houses (10). The author’s method of investigative journalism involved taking low-level employment with organized crime groups, such as the Chinese importers (9). He describes how, under the guise of looking for lodgings near the port, he found a flophouse where in exchange for rent, he worked for the Chinese businessmen shuttling cargo from the ships to the storage apartments (id). One of his first jobs was to His fellow workers, who “came from every corner of the globe: Ghana, Ivory Coast, china, and Albania, as well as Naples, Calabria, and Lucania . . . stacked boxes of jackets, raincoats, windbreakers, cotton sweaters, and umbrellas” (11). 
One of the author’s most fascinating recollections involved driving to the port at dawn, boarding a speed boat, and pulling alongside a container ship to receive a net containing approximately thirty boxes later found to contain “genuine athletic shoes, the most famous brands, the latest models, so new they weren’t yet for sale in Italy (13). After the full day unloading boxes, soaked with the sea and sweat, he felt as if he’d “unloaded shoes for half of the feet of Italy” (16). Therefore, the Chinese gangs were not only able to avoid customs on goods to undercut their legitimate competitors; they were able to bring the exact same goods to market far in advance precisely because they avoided the long bureaucratic customs process.
In another anecdote, the author recalls how he and his Chinese boss are driving to a factory hiding Pasquale, an Italian textile worker, in the trunk of their car because he was a target by the Camorra for helping the Chinese make the high end garments the Camorra monopolized (30). The Chinese boss, Xian, explained that “Pasquale’s helping us learn. . . to work the quality garments they don’t trust us with yet” (31). The Chinese factories in Italy found that the only way to compete with the factories in China was to become "experts of high fashion, capable of doing top-quality work” (32). Not only did they have to learn from the Italians how to convert their operations from junk manufacturers to the designer labels’ trusted suppliers, they had to supplant the Italian factories by doing the same work, “but for a little less money and in a little less time” (id). The backbone of the Chinese factory system is the snakehead, or scout,
“tied to the criminal cartels in Beijing that organize the clandestine entry of Chinese into Italy. Trafficking in humans, the snakeheads often clash with their clients. They promise a certain quantity and then they don’t deliver. Just as a drug dealer is killed when he keeps back a part of his earnings, a snakehead is killed when he cheats on his goods, on human beings” (id).
Logically, after examining the Port of Naples and its underbelly, the author moves on to roads leading to the bleak suburban industrial towns surrounding Naples describing them as entirely geared towards facilitating the black market, with their “miles of tar, wide thoroughfares . . . built not for cars but for trucks, not to move people but clothes, shoes, purses” (17). These industrial towns “stopped requiring permits, contracts, or proper working conditions in the 1950s, and garages, stairwells, and storerooms were transformed into factories” (18). The factories run the gamut from low range to mid range to ones producing only haute couture for the French and Italian fashion houses. However, the advent of the Chinese factories “ruined the ones producing midrange-quality merchandise” because now, “[t]here’s no more room for workmanship” (id). The midrange factories had to adapt and either “do the best work the fastest” or be crushed by debt and usury because “someone else will figure out how to do average work more quickly” (id). 
However, the factories doing haute couture for the designer fashion houses remain strong enough to compete with the midrange Chinese factories “[b]y delivering speed and quality – extremely high quality – they still hold the monopoly on beauty for top-level garments” because “‘Made in Italy’" is made [in] Campania” (25). Furthermore, the brand name designer wouldn’t “dare risk sending everything East, contracting out to Asia” (25) because they would lose their quality control, which is why men like Pasquale are so valuable to the Chinese businessmen. Though the author doesn’t broach the subject, if the Chinese competition significantly erodes into the Italian factories’ profits, Italy would seem likely to expect the first war between the Chinese and the Camorra. 
Unlike the mythical lore of the American Costa Nostra or the Sicilian Mafia, the Neapolitan Camorra, and to a greater extent their Chinese associates, are solely concerned with profit instead of tradition, honor, and power. To them, it is not who kisses whose ring, but rather, whose brand of dress is made quicker, cheaper, and finer. For instance, when the author asked asking his Chinese landlord about the Chinese mafia the triad, he pulled out a stack of bills and said “euro, dollar, yuan, here’s my triad” (12). Since the raw materials and the cheaper merchandise increasingly came from China, the Camorra learned to use the Chinese businessmen without letting them in on the lion’s share of the profits.

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