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Vicious, Lucrative, Corrupt, and Global
on July 25, 2008
You sponsor organized crime. There isn't a thing you can do to stop. These are among the dismaying messages of _McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld_ (Knopf) by Misha Glenny. A big book with an extremely broad, world-wide vision of the latest in global criminality, it presents a daunting picture of lucrative and lethal crime in China, Serbia, Chechnya, Columbia, Israel, Russia, and all over the place. The U.S., the land where Don Corleone and his family prospered, gets surprisingly little coverage as a scene of crimes, but that does not keep it from playing a role all over the globe. Let's say (for the sake of argument) that you are an American who doesn't hire illegal foreign workers and never does illegal drugs and never launders money, so you think that gets you off the hook. Not quite. Do you use a cell phone? If so, most likely it contains coltan, a mined compound that efficiently conducts electricity at very high temperatures, and which comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, so you are tapped into mine pillaging and organized crime there. There are countless other examples given here, but most important is what the American government and other governments are doing. They are interested in prohibition, criminalization, and interdiction, but with the lifting of restrictions on free movement of capital (Glenny blames Reagan and Thatcher for allowing what the corporations wanted), criminals "... became inextricably bound up with globalization - it was here in the huge reservoirs of the international banking system that the liquid assets of the corporate and criminal worlds mixed and mingled." Glenny's book details his travels to crime scenes of different countries, and he is guided by criminals themselves, smugglers, and a few police officers. It is an eye-opening and disheartening view of the world.
_McMafia_ hops around the world, Glenny gives pictures of a huge, more-or-less well organized crime network routinely allied with governments (efficient and inefficient governments, not just governments that are our friends or our enemies), police, and corporations. The book is often uncomfortable reading, as in the tale of a woman from Moldavia who was sent against her will to be on call at an Israeli brothel, manhandled by Moldavians, Ukrainians, Russians, Egyptians, and Bedouins before the Israelis could get their hands on her. The mafia in Chechnya was so ruthless and feared that it made money allowing criminal rackets in other towns to call themselves "Chechen". If those licensees did not themselves ferociously prosecute local violations of protection, the Chechen mafia would come after the racketeers themselves, so that the brand name did not get devalued. Oligarchs and mobsters from Russia united to make worldwide launderettes for cleaning cash from growing and exporting drugs. Glenny shows how to buy contraband gasoline in Serbia, counterfeit DVDs in China, or illegal caviar in Kazakhstan. He rides with marijuana smugglers from British Columbia, describes being propositioned in sex clubs in Dubai, or tells how pachinko fiends in Tokyo feed their habit. Glenny interviews a member of the famous _yakuza_, Japan's traditional mafia, who says, "Like all organizations we are facing problems encouraging young people to join." Well, it's just a management problem: the _yakuza_ subcontract their mob hits to Chinese gangs.
Sometimes _McMafia_ is scattershot in its jumps all over the globe, but the big picture is perhaps just too complicated for anyone to understand fully. Glenny knows he is writing about scary and dark subjects, but there are a few points of light. There are academics who have done sociological studies on gangs and gang members, some even joining to get data. One of them says, however, "Scholars do not like to waste time with uncooperative sources who refuse to talk, and, alternatively, they do not like to be shot." There is a small organization called Global Witness, which had documented the human suffering in the African diamond trade and has arranged a protocol to assure buyers that diamonds come from sources that meet humane standards. David Soares is the District Attorney in Albany, New York, who has realized that his state is wasting millions to arrest and keep in prison drug offenders from a futile war on drugs, and was elected with a view of changing drug laws. According to Glenny, this sort of change is going to be essential if the disheartening global picture he presents is ever to change. The United Nations reports that 70% of the financing of organized crime comes from the sorts of international drug sales described here. Forced eradication is not going to work, despite the billions that is spent on it; a more prudent and less costly policy would be some legalization of the drug trade and provision of treatment for drug abuse. There are few other recommendations in Glenny's book, other than a sensible call for stricter international regulation of current financial markets to end the untraceable flow of criminal funds. It might be that the world is realizing that the unregulated trade and finance that was supposed to bring us all prosperity is more contributing to the world's misery instead. The reforms can happen, or it can all be left to the gangsters.