Roberto Saviano explains that the Mafia, which has business interests in Berlin and Paris as well as Bucharest, views the Balkans as a sort of "bridge" between East and West. The drug routes that traverse the region and the criminal activities that are based there have transformed several Balkan countries into hubs for a wide range of international trafficking.

Roberto Saviano: I was recently assembling material for an investigative report [on prostitution] and I spoke to a large number of young women who work in the sector. One important aspect, which was highlighted by dozens of phone conversations that I had, is that these women constitute the "visible aspect" of this business. I should say that Eastern European girls are common in Italy, and that Romania is one of the countries that "exports" large numbers of sex workers. We are talking about hundreds and hundreds of women. In Rome, for example, It is public knowledge that the best-looking escort girls who charge the lowest rates are from Romania.

What exactly do you mean by "low rates"?

One hundred euros. These are healthy girls, who know how to apply their make-up, with large but worked-on breasts. And they do not take drugs. By way of comparison, a Russian prostitute on the same "level" will sell her body for 200 to 300 euros. I should add that the Romanians are often very young, and are reputed to have no qualms about their work. When they are contacted by customers, which usually occurs over the phone, they accept everyone without conditions — in contrast, their Italian "counterparts" do not negotiate, but they do request information about the customer and his expectations.

These girls are very informed about the market, and they answer every question in a manner designed to appeal to Italians, which gives the impression that they have been "won over" by their customers. In answer to the question "Where in Europe do you most like to work?" the Romanian escort girls immediately say Italy, and explain that Italian customers do not get drunk like they do in Germany or other countries, but make "meetings" more pleasant by offering compliments and gifts.

I should also add that the Romanian escort girls in Italy try to hide their nationality. Usually, they present themselves as "Russian," and this is also an aspect of their internet advertisements. I have the impression they do not want to be lumped into the "Romania = gypsies and poverty" equation, so they prefer to present themselves as Russian to maintain a certain position on the market. Their nationality only becomes clear when they discuss prices.

Another common factor is that they never talk about their pimps, who are completely unscrupulous. The pimps remain a total mystery: no matter what we do, we cannot even get the most summary description of them. However, we do know that they are not always Romanian, because the prostitution market is controlled by Italian criminal organisations, although on occasion they will "subcontract" to other groups. Recently we have seen Romanian criminal organisations attempting to develop their business in Italy by “diversifying” the activities of their “employees” who are encouraged to participate in drug trafficking.

A sizeable number of the thousands of Romanian prostitutes who have arrived in Italy have started selling cocaine to their customers, even if they do not take it themselves. This is a major strategic innovation introduced by the Romanian organisations in a bid to "consolidate" relations with their Italian peers, who are already doing business with the Albanians, Bulgarians, Macedonians and Ukrainians, who have been present in the country for many years.

You seem to be very sure of what you are saying. How can a writer be so certain about all of this? What are your sources?

RS: It is very simple. In the "escort" investigation for example, the evidence has been culled from police reports and a wide range of sources that are available to everyone: if you surf hook-up websites for Rome, there are a lot of advertisements posted by Romanian women, which are easy to recognise once you have seen a few of them. You can tell them apart from the others, because the Bulgarians and the Russians do not have the same mastery of Italian. In particular the Bulgarians tend to use Google’s automatic translator. Finally, in recent times, I have noticed a new trend in the market for escort girls: their arrival in the world of show-business and television.

At first glance, you might say that this is nothing new. However, the problem is that here in Italy, a lot of escorts end up with major careers. They are appointed as secretaries of state, advisers or to other high-profile jobs. I am not interested in the moral aspect of this, because at the end of the day, individuals have a right to choose if they want to sell their bodies and to whom they want to sell them. But I strongly believe that this can become a problem if there is blackmail, or if there are exchanges of favours with “pimps” or directly with prostitutes. It is a completely different ball game when money laundering, corruption and job recommendations become part of the equation.

What is the relationship between criminal organisations in Italy and Eastern Europe?

RS: The Italian Mafia and the Italian Mafia mentality have been successfully exported to Eastern Europe, as they have been to countries all over the world. They have been used to "train" criminals from Latin America (Mexico, Colombia, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay) to South Africa. For example, the many links between a country like Montenegro and Uruguay did not come about by chance: the case of the drug trafficker Darko Šarić says a lot about this. Šarić is well-known for his impressive sales figures, his enduring presence on the market, and also for his close ties with those in power in his country. Everone knows that Šarić continues to export drugs from Uruguay and that he is still in Montenegro, but the government in Podgorica has no intention of allowing him to be extradited, even if it is threatened with international sanctions. And there is a simple reason for this refusal to cooperate, because it also profits from this illegal business.

Each Eastern European country has its specialty...

RS: However, I believe that in the future, the Serbian Mafia, which is increasingly powerful on the coast, will play a major role in the Balkans. When you consider the Serbs, it is interesting to note that they no longer do business with the Croats because they cannot stand each other to the point where even organised crime is no longer possible. However, criminals from both countries collaborate with the Albanians, as they did during the war, when they traded weapons, petrol and drugs with each other... This information has been highlighted by a number of investigations and studies, like the one written by Misha Glenny [editor’s note — author of the bestseller McMafia, Bodley Head 2008].

What has been the impact of the enlargement of the EU?

RS: Enlargement has been good for a lot of Eastern countries because it has reinforced the rule of law. But I also believe that it has created a number of problems: as it stands, criminals have no trouble moving money in several Eastern countries, because their are no more border posts and there is no common anti-Mafia legislation. For years, criminal networks have been seeking to take advantage of new opportunities offered by Eastern Europe. They have "bought" huge chunks of what was East Germany, Romania, and the former Yugoslavia in Albania and Kosovo. And while Italian criminal networks were buying up everything they could in the new free Europe, other western businesses were much more prudent. I remember reading a transcript of a Sicilian police wire-tap dating from just a few days before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, which in substance indicated that the Cosa Nostra — the Sicilian Mafia — had plans to travel there with suitcases full of money within 48 hours.