Ex-drug dealer talks of life in the violent streets of Tor Bella Monaca, maybe Rome’s scariest neighborhood
LAST OF A THREE-PART SERIES
Carlo De Santis walks slowly down the street that has been his beaten path for too many long years to count. The short journey goes from Bar Pasticceria, the local hangout and nerve center of Tor Bella Monaca, to his apartment building on Via dell’Archeologia. The walk is about the length of a well-hit 9-iron. Yet this one long block represents a jagged edge of Rome few in the world can comprehend. He walks past a 15-story apartment building on his left. That’s where a drug addict once threw his girlfriend off the roof. De Santis walks across the street and stops at the entrance to his eight-story building. He’s standing not far from where his brother, in 1996, crazed from drug addiction, threw himself off the top floor.
“In the morning, I come down for a coffee,” De Santis says. “At night I go home. This is my life.”
Can he leave? Sure. His path goes past a bus stop where the No. 20 could take him to the main Termini train station 40 minutes west. But De Santis is caught up in a vicious cycle of drugs and desperation that has trapped many of the 30,000 people living in Tor Bella Monaca, known by many as The Black Hole of Rome.
But his life is like a Roman emperor’s compared to what he went through before. De Santis, 48, spent 15 years in nine different prisons for drug dealing. He doesn’t deal anymore. He is on work disability and lives on a government stipend of 280 euros a month. You can live on that in Tor Bella Monaca. The neighborhood is one of the few in Rome with government housing. Rents for one-bedroom apartments go for 75 euros a month.
I ask him if he’s ever been to the Colosseum. He nods. He went when he was younger. He has seen little else outside this neighborhood nine miles east of Termini.
“I don’t know Rome,” he says.
I met De Santis while hanging out in Bar Pasticceria where owner Rocco Sansotta educated me about the life and times of Tor Bella Monaca in Part II. My good Australian-Italian friend, Robert Della Vedova, lived here for six months and remembered De Santis as one of the regulars. He remembered he had a good story to tell.
Did he ever. It’s one of poverty and drugs, false hope and fleeting wealth, of painful crashes and shaky rebounds. It’s of violence, of betrayal, of prison.
It’s of Tor Bella Monaca.
I sit with De Santis at a small table in the bar. He looks nothing like a man who sold drugs to support his own heroin habit for much of his adult life. Short but fit, De Santis has what looks like a 100-euro haircut. His gray hair is perfectly shaped and parted over a tan, handsome face. He doesn’t look 48. Except for the A.S. Roma warmup top, he looks like he hopped off a Sambuca ad.
He was born in Lecce in Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot. For 35 years the father worked for the gas company Italgas and moved the family to Tor Bella Monaca in 1983. Carlo was 15 — and one of 11 children. It didn’t take long for the four boys to fall into the depths of Tor Bella Monaca’s drug culture.
Of the four, one committed suicide, one died of Lou Gehrig’s Disease and one contracted AIDs. Then there is Carlo.
“As soon as we came to Tor Bella Monaca,” he says, “it decimated the family.”
De Santis’ introduction to drugs was, in a twisted way, love at first sight. He was 19 years and had a crush on a woman in the neighborhood. He was out with a friend who went to the bathroom and left a package for him. He asked what it was.
Heroin, the friend said.
Mind if I try? De Santis asked. His friend said, “Sure. Help yourself.”
“That was it,” De Santis says. “From that day on, I was hooked.”
He was also sick “as a dog,” he says. He went to the woman’s place and she looked after him.
“Prior to that, she hadn’t paid any attention to me,” he says. “I thought, I’m getting some attention from her. I really like her so I went and did it again.”
Career choices are few in Tor Bella Monaca. The violence isn’t on the level of drug dens in the United States but the circle of poverty is. In Part I, long-time resident Ivan Viti said 80 percent of the inhabitants are involved in the drug trade. There’s no way to verify that lofty number but youths’ role models don’t go much beyond the local street corner.
That’s where dealers often make, De Santis says, “3,000 to 4,000 euros a night. Minimum.” He says cocaine, which dominates the Tor Bella Monaca drug market today, sells for about 60 euros for a gram (There are 28 grams to an ounce).
Working six-hour shifts, he won’t say how much he made but, “I had a good life. Now it’s shit.”
The good life didn’t last long. Tor Bella Monaca’s reputation isn’t one of museums and back-lit monuments. From the dark recesses of Romans’ nightmares, Tor Bella Monaca has reached the big screen. A hit movie today is “Jeeg Robot,” about a dead-end Tor Bella Monaca man who develops superhero powers after falling in the Tiber River and gets in the middle of a war between drug gangs from Tor Bella Monaca and Naples. It’s violent, filthy and depressing, as ugly as any movie made about drugs in the U.S.
Police, despite locals’ claims of negligence, have made frequent runs through the neighborhood. Tor Bella Monaca’s reputation is so bad, his sister, one of six of whom are living good lives (one died), told a job interviewer that she lived in neighboring Torre Angela as preemptive strike against getting scratched from consideration.
In reality, some police could’ve retired just shaking down her brother. He rattles off the prisons he spent time in like some men mention women they’ve spent time with. Regina Coeli. Porto Azzurro. Civitavecchia. Cassino. They are all within 200 kilometers of Tor Bella Monaca. I resist asking him if the proximity is not a coincidence.
From 1989-2013, he spent 15 years in nine prisons. He’d be in three years and get out. He’d get busted, go in four more and get out. He was circling down the drain and couldn’t crawl out of the sink.
“I was stuck into it,” he says. “I couldn’t get a job. That’s how I survived.”
He was just one of hundreds of dealers working for bosses who controlled them as if they were marionettes. Some had close ties with police officers.
“A lot of cops are on the take and they’re organized,” De Santis says. “I was a dealer. I did all the dirty work. The bosses, the guys behind the scenes, if I got out of line, they’d put me in jail. I could never get away from it. I was a user as well. I’d get out of line sometimes using myself. They’d get an undercover cop to come in and buy drugs.”
De Santis is lucky. He’s alive. His bosses only put him in jail. Some “will shoot you in the legs as a warning. Step over the line again and you’re gone.”
I ask him if he’s scared to walk around Tor Bella Monaca at night alone.
“Very,” he says. “And I live here. If you come here and someone doesn’t want you to be here, he’ll organize someone to beat the shit out of you or someone to shoot you.”
De Santis seems at peace. He has friends in the bar and he is out of sales. But he’s not free of danger. He has cancer. He has a tumor. He won’t talk about it, but it doesn’t allow him to work.
I profusely thank for his time and his insight. Then he makes a request I’ve never received after an interview. He wants some money. Della Vedova hands him a 10-euro note. I hand him a few euro coins. Then he walks off.
“Now I can get a bit of relief,” he says with a smile.