Customer Reviews: McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld
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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.
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on May 1, 2008
Misha Glenny has tapped into a deep and dark undercurrent that is sweeping the globe: from Eastern Europe, to Africa, to the Middle East, to Japan and China, to the West including the U.S., and most places in between: corruption and organized crime both with and without government complicity, has become a silent grime reaper that must be reckoned with, lest it sweep our own civilized way of life down into the undercurrents with it.

The stories in this book are mind-blowing not just in the creative ways that international criminals get around legalities and quickly learn to exploit the latest laws and technology, but also because they are so widespread and so injurious to what we have come to respect as a normal, ordered civilized and moral existence. Organized international criminals are resourceful, intelligent and intent on colonizing the world with a new set of decadent values. A new "Criminal world order is already deep in the making.

In most of the rest of the world, a reliance on an underground economy is an existential imperative (in post-Communist Russia, for instance, Nigeria, or Albania and indeed most of the poorer countries in the Middle East). The King of the underground economy, whether in the first or the third world is drugs: The West seems to be the carriers of a disease that makes drugs a necessity, and the rest of the world is all too anxious to apply a remedy for us.

But even if drugs were shutdown completely there is still trafficking in pirated goods, in humans, mostly young women being forced to go from poorer to more advanced countries; and now also computer and identity thefts.

What to do? While the UN has shown an interest in "trafficking in humans," has had the issue on its agenda for a number of years, the larger phenomenon of international organized crime is too large even for that international body to get its hands around: Misha Glinny has seen the future and given us a glimpse into it, and it is very dark indeed.

An outstanding read. Five stars
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on April 18, 2008
To make a long story short, this book is essentially the history of the mafiacation of soverign states during the turbulent phase of the 1990s. Numerous case studies are presented which map out the ways, shapes, and forms of organized crime penetration from unstable regions and societies into the the formal structures of stable and legitimate governments.

For glaring example, the Yakuza crime syndicates gradually evolved into a parallel legal system in Japan, then foundering in their own inefficiencies, began subcontracting their day to day rough work to the Chinese Triads.

The lesson here is disturbing to the idealist mentality, because Misha Glenny is clearly pointing to the inescapable conclusion. Mafia like organizations are becoming increasingly interlinked and coordinated and resultantly imposing their values, tastes, methods, and derangements on a world order poorly equipped to monitor them, much less curtail their activities.

Many luxury items such as caviar and cocaine are now thoroughly controlled through distribution networks that seem actually more sophisticated than their legitimate corporate counterparts, while just as many counterfeit luxury items are manufactured and distributed by the same organizations.

Without belaboring the point, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the world is on the brink of a regulatory crisis phase where tax evasion, counterfeiting, human trafficing, militarized organ harvesting operations, wholesale corruption, social brutalization and cultural degeneracy are inseparably intertwined.

A grim prognosis is ever there were a grim prognosis, and yet the general public seems blissfully unaware of the plague spreading around them, while the political class seems all to happy to sweep these metastasizing social carcinomas under the rug and furiously debate the most inane of trivialities instead.

Which is either shockingly unshocking, or unshockingly shocking, while we numb out to unreality TV and the semiotics of Britney.
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on June 22, 2009
Loads of information here, but next to impossible to do any further investigation or verification, as there are no footnotes with references to support specific claims, only very general sources on each chapter.
More than a few times I was asking myself "Is this really possible?" or "Where did he get that from?". And then I am excluding the cases where the author would have to protect his sources.
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on April 24, 2008
McMafia is an argument for the legalisation of drugs. Without explicitly demanding such a thing, it gives the best possible argument for legalising all narcotics; that drug money is the engine of the McMafia.
Misha Glenny covers many more McMafia activities; cigarette smuggling, investment scams, slavery, fake goods, intimidation etc, but behind them all lies drugs and the massive profits they engender.
He points out that we in the west are largely to blame. We buy the fake DVDs, hire the slaves and turn a blind eye to the sweatshops. Mainly, we buy the drugs.
The author's point is that so long as the drug barons grow fat on human misery, so will the McMafia thrive.
A hypnotic read.
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VINE VOICEon May 14, 2009
This is an eye-opening and shocking look at the burgeoning business of international crime. Glenny is an expert travel guide to some of the murkiest and most sinister corners of the world and he fills his account with colorful episodes and anecdotes. Even more valuable, he does a masterful job of explaining the political background and errors that enabled these international criminals to flourish.
Glenny is strongest when discussing the Balkans (his area of expertise) and the former Soviet Union and its satellites. He explains how the United States turned its back on Russia after the end of the Cold War. As central authority fell apart, shadowy mafias formed alliances with former KGB officers ready to smuggle arms, prostitutes and drugs to a hungry European market.
Glenny looks at the rebel Russian enclave known as the "Independent Republic of Transnistria" between Ukraine and Moldova which became a virtual mafia fiefdom. Under President Leonid Kuchma, Ukraine made crime and criminals part of government and the port of Odessa became a key transhipment point.
We also look at the Russian mafia in Israel and the sordid and tragic business of forced prostitution of naive young girls from the former Soviet Union.
Next it's on to Nigeria, which Glenny calls a "Potemkin State" where corruption rules everything and where the computer scammers who trap greedy and ignorant westerners are hailed as national heroes.
We take side trips to South Africa, Dubai, China and Japan. Wherever you turn, enterprising and ruthless criminals are carving out empires, playing on the greed and stupidity of westerners and their perverse desires for illicit sex and drugs.
We in the West are the ultimate fools in this scenario -- because we are the customers.
The chapter explaining the nexus between Colombian cartels and the United States was the only part of the book I felt had been overtaken by events. President Uribe has managed to largely break the cartels and the FARC guerrillas -- only to have their role usurped by even more bloodthirsty Mexican gangs spreading murder and mayhem all the way to the U.S. border and occasionally beyond.
Here is a key lesson: as soon as one mafia is broken, another arises to take its place.
This is an important book. It explains how crime has gone global. These gangs may differ in the commodities they sell or the things they steal but they are alike in their utter ruthlessness and disregard for human life. They operate with incredible cruelty.
Glenny's theory is that global crime has been spurred by technology, the disappearance of trade and other barriers and of course the huge disparity between the world's rich and poor.
It's an upsetting book in many ways. Police and law enforcement agencies struggle with inadequate resources to combat the scourge. They occasionally score some successes -- but the problem only grows.
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on March 7, 2009
When I worked in Seoul, I noticed many of our problem cases were not Koreans, but rather Russians, Chinese, Nigerians, Filipinos, etc. This seemed odd to me. Then again in Tokyo, I saw the same trend. Government officials from a range of Asian countries would have customs and immigrations meetings together to discuss regional problems like piracy -- the robbing of ships, which I always thought was childhood Peter Pan fantasy -- illegal movements of drugs, weapons, people and other customs and immigrations topics.
This is when I developed an interest in why all this criminal activity happened in countries where the people were not natives. It only made sense to read this book once I saw it.
What I read scared me. The books starts with the roots in East European countries where the void of the KGB was filled with random players who were, if it were possible, even more sinister and cruel. They beat unwilling girls into submission and sexual slavery and portions of the book are so graphic as to be difficult to read. The text talks about the remarkably lucrative trade of trafficking in humans. It talks about developing new, wider ranging and interconnected criminal businesses in much the same way that legitimate businesses also seek new markets and expand and increase their earnings.
This is really a scary book.
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on September 3, 2008
This is a fairly breezy romp through the world of organized crime, from Russia to Brazil, and from Japan to Canada.
The author looks at mafias and the conditions that allow for their rise: in Russia, for instance, it was the withering of the state; in Yugoslavia, the war and the embargo; in Brazil the weakness of the state and the corruption; in Columbia the civil war and demand from the United States. The book is easy to read and abounds in anecdotes and thumbnail descriptions. If you think of this book as offering a comprehensive description of the mafia, you will be disappointed: for that you will need many volumes, and a more in-depth (and probably more wearying) approach. As a quickie guide, however, it is perfect. He even gives a few explanations for why organized crime seems to thrive; there isn't one cause, but a variety: when the state is too weak (too little regulation, incapable of protecting ordinary folk) or too intrusive (trying to regulate the substances people put in their bodies, or the kinds of pleasures they want). In a nutshell, organized crime thrives when there is sudden demand, but no legitimate way to satisfy it.
Read and enjoy.
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on March 25, 2011
This book gives a broad-based view of the ways that globalization has pushed the explosive growth of illegal activity since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Some of the specific examples (cyber crime in Sao Paulo for instance) don't feel as well fleshed out as others, but the overarching message seems to be that where there are under-served or over-regulated market, criminal elements will fill the gap. You can't fight it, it's inevitable.

It was pretty clear which areas of the word Misha Glenny was interested in compared to others, but I appreciate the way they've been woven together to tell a larger narrative.

While others have commented on how frightening this overall picture is, I have to confess that I found it kind of comforting. The real gangsters these days are the people on Wall Street running the entire world into the ground with the blessing of the world's major governments. The notion that there are still old-school criminals out there operating outside of the world is an atavistic idea at this point.

I recommend it!
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TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon November 27, 2011
Several threads hold large global criminal enterprises together conceptually. They are all over the world and tend to be more conspicuous when crime bosses are in practice part of the governing class. They provide a lot of employment, usually but not always in situations where the economy is in shambles. They use violence and intimidation to protect their power on the local level.

The author, Misha Glenny, shatters any illusions that globalization will isolate and marginalize criminal enterprises. Sometimes the most significant effect of globalization is to allow local crime access to more markets. This occurs in the illicit drug industry and tragically with prostitution. Glenny also covered money laundering, Internet frauds and the sale of every category of contraband.

In cases where crime gangs are not part of the government, there is almost always strong potential for government to put a stop to abhorrent practices. Motivation is often lacking due to corruption. Progress may happen in the long run through international organizations and public awareness, yet at some point the state has to take sides.

I wasn't aware of some of the major global crime that Glenny writes about. For example, I learned that Dubai is not what it seemed. It's the global center of money laundering on a grand scale, apparently. Also, I hadn't appreciated the extent to which the war on drugs has failed and is wasteful. What a boondoggle. I recommend this book to anybody interested in world affairs.
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