Monday, March 13, 2017

McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld

What do Colombian cocaine, Angolan diamonds and fake Gucci bags from China have in common?

Answer: organized crime, globalization and financial deregulation.

While the Sicilian word Mafia summons fictional images of Don Corleone wearing a tuxedo or Tony Soprano smoking a cigar, the truth is that organized crime has become a real menace on every corner of the globe, writes Misha Glenny in ``McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld''

Glenny, the author of two previous books on the Balkans, covered the unraveling of the former Soviet bloc for the British Broadcasting Corp.'s World Service. For this book, he embarked on a tour of the new capitals of organized crime to collect anecdotes that illustrate the criminal bonanza that followed the fall of the U.S.S.R. and the liberalization of financial markets.

``The collapse of the Communist superpower, the Soviet Union, is the single most important event prompting the exponential growth of organized crime around the world in the last two decades,'' he writes.

The result: The criminal economy now accounts for 15 percent to 20 percent of the planet's gross domestic product, he says, citing figures from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and research institutes. Global GDP stood at $53.4 trillion last year, the IMF estimates.

Glenny treats us to dozens of stories culled during his journey, which began in the Balkans and ended in China, identified here as tomorrow's breeding ground of organized crime.

In India, he chases a former contract killer called Mahmoud through ``an elaborate game of musical cafes.'' When they finally meet, the retired assassin turns out to be affable, urbane and intelligent, he says.

``My experience in the Balkans led me to conclude that most murderers are not congenital psychopaths,'' he writes. They are, rather, people who are encouraged by circumstances to violate the commandment, ``Thou shalt not kill,'' he says.

In Zagreb, Glenny's rented Audi Quattro is stolen and goes on ``a mystery tour that would end several weeks later at a used car market 200 miles away in Mostar, the capital of western Herzegovina.''

In North America, he rides with a smuggler who's running pot into the U.S. from British Columbia. ``BC Bud'' sales in the U.S. represent a $6 billion-a-year industry, although they account for just 2 percent of America's annual cannabis consumption, he says.

Glenny displays a command of the subject and a knack for capturing characters and scenes. His style is conversational, as if the book were told at the dinner table.

He hops from continent to continent, mirroring the way dirty money flows from Moscow to Dubai, from Dubai to Johannesburg, and so on. Along the way, he shows how the licit and illicit economies are joined at the hip.

Consider how easy it is to launder money at a time when financing is so complicated that leading banks struggle to quantify their losses on U.S. subprime mortgages.

``In a world where legitimate institutions are unable to account properly for their dealings, the ability of criminals to launder their money through this merry-go-round of speculation greatly increased,'' Glenny says.

``McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld'' does lack a unifying narrative thread. The only character tying the various stories together is the author himself. And while we meet some victims of organized crime, including a Moldovan woman forced to prostitute herself in Israel, the ugliest side of the underworld is clouded by the intriguing tales Glenny tells of powerful mob bosses.

These are minor complaints for a book that helps explain how organized crime has managed to spread its tentacles so far and wide. Blame it on two contradictory trends, he says: ``global markets that are either insufficiently regulated, especially in the financial sector, or markets that are too closely regulated, as in the labor and agricultural sectors.''

This plays into the hands of creative and violent criminals. They easily overcome market restrictions, such as the former UN embargo on Slobodan Milosevic's Serbia. Then they wash their ill- gotten proceeds through prestigious financial institutions.

Mob bosses have been ``good capitalists and entrepreneurs,'' Glenny says. ``They valued economies of scale, just as multinational corporations did, and so they sought out overseas partners and markets to develop industries that were every bit as cosmopolitan as Shell, Nike, or McDonald's.''

Reviewed by Steve Scherer.

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