Misha Glenny traces the rise of a 21st century underworld that knows no national boundaries. Matthew Price wonders if crime is the cost of doing business in the global economy.
The Bodley Head Ltd
If the veteran journalist Misha Glenny is to be believed, terrorism should be the least of our worries. We have much more to fear from the international criminal rackets he chronicles in the well researched and downright scary McMafia.
“Crime and the pursuit of money or political power,” says Glenny, “have proved incomparably more damaging over the last two decades.”
Glenny, a former BBC correspondent, has put in the legwork to justify his claims – McMafia, which might be subtitled “Around the World in 80 Crimes”, draws on nearly 300 interviews, compiled in Glenny’s travels to some very dangerous places. As much at ease with tattooed gangsters as he is with law enforcement officials and policymakers, Glenny went to Colombia, the Balkans, the streets of São Paulo, the outlaw frontier of the Caucasus and beyond. At the very least, his publishers owe him some danger money.
McMafia documents a staggering array of criminal activity, in every possible field: cocaine and heroin smuggling; cybercrime and money laundering on a colossal scale; gun running and a worldwide traffic in diamonds, caviar, energy, migrant labour and prostitutes. All told, he notes, the turnover of this unregulated, untaxed and virtually unchecked “shadow economy” represents 15 to 20 per cent of the world’s GDP.
This complex network of criminal enterprise is the mutant offspring of 21st century capitalism, and it began to flourish after communism’s collapse in Eastern Europe. The end of the Soviet Bloc gave rise to an era of instability; across the region, thousands of secret police found themselves suddenly unemployed; criminal syndicates, ever in need of new muscle, were more than happy to enlist the services of highly trained killers in need of work. In Russia, a small, predatory super-class cornered the market in natural resources liked diamonds, metals, oil and gas.
Fledgling transitional states like Moldova and Ukraine became anarchic, anything-goes zones, where the distinction between criminal and politician was all but invisible. Bulgarians, Glenny observes, specialised in trafficking stolen cars, while Serbs did a booming business in small arms and contraband cigarettes.
The deregulation of banks and financial markets unleashed torrents of cash that move with ease between nations, flowing from legitimate economies to the underworld and back without a trace. The no-questions-asked policies of offshore banking centres like the Cayman Islands and British Virgin Islands allow gangsters to sock away their illicit millions. At the same time, highly regulated labour markets in the United States and European Union have spurred the creation of a vast, underground trade in migrant workers. Throw in the huge gulf that separates rich and poor countries, and you have the makings of a criminal bonanza.
Glenny reserves a special vehemence for complacent, affluent Western Europeans who “spend an ever-burgeoning amount of their spare time and money sleeping with prostitutes; smoking untaxed cigarettes; snorting coke through fifty-euro notes; employing illegal untaxed immigrant labour on subsistence wages; stuffing their gullets with caviar; admiring ivory and sitting on teak; and purchasing the livers and kidneys of the desperately poor”.
But moral righteousness is not Glenny’s strong suit; he excels at chronicling the unsavoury players in the shadow economy and their increasingly innovative tactics. For all their ethnic differences, the criminals in Glenny’s pages are united by a fiendishly entrepreneurial spirit. In one of his most telling illustrations of the business savvy of criminal groups, Glenny describes the rise of a new generation of Colombian drug lords that emerged after the Medellin and Cali cartels were put out of business. Armed with MBAs, these young crime lords linked up with their peers in poorly-policed Albania, and put unemployed chemical engineers from Yugoslavia and Bulgaria to work processing raw material into street drugs right on Europe’s doorstep, shifting production “much closer to its final destination”.
Glenny provides a devastating, richly documented account of American drug-control policies and their baleful effects on global security. Washington’s insistence on prohibition, and its refusal to deal with soaring domestic demand for illegal drugs, has driven prices sky-high. In Colombia, profits from the cocaine trade keep at least two private armies in the field. The Taliban remain armed to the teeth, subsidised by the increasingly lucrative poppy trade. To Glenny, drug interdiction only strengthens these irregular militias: “The only way you can prevent the Taliban and others from sustaining their military capacity through drug sales,” he argues bluntly, “is to legalise narcotics.”
Still, Glenny is at a loss when it comes to tackling the problems he outlines; drugs are only one facet of a dauntingly complex puzzle. He makes vague calls for schemes of global governance to monitor international financial transactions, and urges world leaders to confront “the great structural iniquities in the global economy upon which crime and instability thrive.” But there may be no single comprehensive solution, and even the specific reforms Glenny advocates would do little to strike at the roots of the problem. And perhaps nothing can. No legal regulation has ever been devised to control what really keeps criminals in business: human desire.
Matthew Price’s writing has been published in Bookforum, the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, and the Financial Times.