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'McMafia' examines criminal side of globalization

McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld
By Misha Glenny
Knopf, 375 pages, $27.95

McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld By Misha Glenny Knopf, 375 pages, $27.95

Globalization is a common word in the lexicon of journalists who write about occurrences across borders. When crime is the topic in the globalization context, Florida often enters the conversation. So it is no surprise that drug trafficking centered in Miami figures in the new book McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld.

So much else in the book, however, is fresh and downright surprising, as well as shocking. Author Misha Glenny had done his research well. Glenny, educated in England and the former Czechoslovakia, is a resident of London and a Central Europe correspondent for the BBC World Service — a globalization beat journalist.

But where many journalists crank out stories about the socioeconomic positives of globalization, Glenny focuses on the dark side: the globalization of organized crime.

To understand the dominance of organized crime, Glenny has taken major risks. To gain access to certain locales and sources, Glenny had to promise anonymity more often than is ideal in the realm of investigative journalism. His reporting seems credible, however, so I will not dwell on the risks of granting anonymity to subjects and sources.

Besides demonstrating Glenny's courage, his book exhibits at least two other characteristics of special importance to international journalists. First, he provides insightful sociological perspectives about why certain nations spawn especially widespread and virulent organized crime networks. Second, he explains how policies in certain nations (mainly, but not exclusively, the United States) generate unanticipated ripple effects in the structures of other nations' criminal underworlds.

After the fall of Communist governments in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, after the unraveling of apartheid in South Africa, turmoil prevailed. Many benefited, many felt despair, and some without consciences saw opportunity for riches. Glenny explains in his overview:

"These men, and occasionally women, understood instinctively that rising living standards in the West, increased trade and migration flows, and the greatly reduced ability of many governments to police their countries combined to form a gold mine. They were criminals, organized and disorganized, but they were also good capitalists and entrepreneurs, intent on obeying the laws of supply and demand."

Glenny says he noticed the rise of criminal classes while covering the wars in the former Yugoslavia. "The booty paramilitary units brought home with them after destroying towns . . . in Croatia and Bosnia was used as capital to establish large criminal enterprises. The bosses of those syndicates became rich very quickly. Soon they established smuggling franchises that conveyed illicit goods and services from all over the world and into the consumer paradise of the European Union."

The goods and services they consumed included cigarettes untaxed by governments, illegal narcotics and sex with prostitutes who had been kidnapped, then enslaved.

The country-by-country tour conducted by Glenny begins in Bulgaria, where newly unemployed police officers banded together to form criminal syndicates, bolstered by the fallen weight lifters, boxers and wrestlers once lionized for their training, meant to bring Olympic Games glory to Bulgaria. One of their early criminal enterprises involved stolen cars, including Glenny's Audi.

"Every month thousands of cars would be stolen from the streets of northern Europe in preparation for their illegal export to Eastern Europe and the Balkans," Glenny reports. "In 1992, I watched a huge container ship regurgitate the contents of its hold into the decrepit Albanian port of Durres. Onto a quay of chipped stone and rust rolled dozens of BMWs, Peugeots, Hondas, and above all Mercedes . . . Customs officers barely awoke from their slumber as excited, dusty and dirty men took possession of vehicles still with their original number plates. . . ."

The remainder of Glenny's tour covers lots of territory. Perhaps the most surprising is British Columbia, where the large-scale growing and smuggling of cannabis is beyond the control of law enforcement.

In section after section, Glenny shares searing big-picture information. In the former Yugoslavia, well-intentioned but naive U.N.-imposed economic sanctions transformed a war-ravaged, impoverished region "into a smuggling and criminal machine that had few if any parallels in history," Glenny reports.

"While the world wrung its hands and fretted over the terrible nationalist urges of the Yugoslav peoples and their leaderships, the Balkan mafias started putting aside their ethnic differences to engage in breathtaking criminal collaboration. This would in turn reach out to counterparts across the globe, bringing together the mafias of Colombia, Russia and the Golden Triangle, to name but the most influential. It took the 'international community' years to get even an inkling of what was going on."

Steve Weinberg's latest book is "Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller."

'McMafia' examines criminal side of globalization 05/08/08 [Last modified: Thursday, May 8, 2008 4:30am]
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