McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld

Misha Glenny, the British journalist and historian who so memorably reported on the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s for the BBC, has written some disturbing books in his time. The Rebirth of History, The Fall of Yugoslavia, The Balkans 1804-1999 — these superb histories of eastern Europe are inevitably, though not entirely, grim portraits of humanity. Glenny?s latest book, however, may be his most chilling. McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld is a guided tour of organized crime worldwide, from Russia to South America, from China to the Middle East, from Africa to India. From the ends of the earth to where you live, to where we all live. “As consumers, we are all involved,” Glenny observes toward the end of his journey. He is not preaching, merely inviting us to peel back the veneer of our everyday life and examine what lies beneath.

“It was the evening of April 30, 1994, and spring had settled on Woking in Surrey,” Glenny begins. “s dusk fell on Willow Way?.families sat down for dinner and Saturday night television.” At nine o?clock, a man emerged from a red Toyota and knocked on the door of number 31. When Karen Reed, a thirty-three-year-old geophysicist, opened the door she was shot several times in the head. The assassin had mistaken Karen for her sister, a BBC producer who, through marriage to an Armenian criminal, had become the target of Chechen gangsters. As Glenny puts it, Woking had just been visited by “the whirlwind of death, imperialism, civil war, oil, gangsterism, and nationalist struggle known as the North Caucasus.”

In a pattern repeated to great effect throughout the book, Glenny first grabs our attention with dramatic action, then holds it with succinct explanation and keen analysis. The Ponting murder, for example, allows him to describe briefly the rise of organized crime in eastern Europe following the collapse of communism and the advent of globalization. “This was the new Silk Route,” he writes of the unstable region stretching from the Balkans, across the Caucasus, to the edge of China and Pakistan, “a multilane criminal highway?which permitted the swift and easy transfer of people, narcotics, cash, endangered species and precious hardwood from Asia to Europe and farther to the United States.”

With illicit profits and political power symbiotically linked, the scale and strength of the new decentralized crime syndicates grew in tandem with burgeoning globalized trade and the deregulation of international financial markets. It continues to grow — illegal trade is currently estimated to account for nearly one-fifth of global GDP — and at tremendous human cost. By comparison “in terms of death and misery caused,” Glenny notes, “terrorism is a primitive and relatively insignificant species.”

The first leg of his journey covers mainly Bulgaria, the Balkans, Russia, and Ukraine, logical starting places given Glenny?s conclusion that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the “single most important event prompting the exponential growth of organized crime around the world in the last two decades?as a new class of capitalists exploited the vacuum of power by seizing whole industries and raiding the state coffers.”

The free-for-all is described in impressive detail. A labyrinthine diagram, for example, depicts the structure of Eural Trans Gas as a cobweb involving France, Cyprus, Germany, and the USA among other interests. A simpler yet far more disturbing map introduces the subsequent chapter on the Middle East, with arrows tracing a main sex trafficking route from Moldova/Transnistria through Odessa to Moscow to Cairo and finally Israel. The squalor of this trade is powerfully evoked when Glenny spends an evening touring Tel Aviv?s brothels. Here Ludmilla, a young Moldovan woman “recruited” by a friend and promptly enslaved, “?was kept locked in an apartment from six-thirty in the morning. At five-thirty in the afternoon, she was driven to a brothel above a pizza parlor on Bugashov Street, where she was forced to work for twelve hours in the high-volume second shift? Ludmilla was raped twenty times a night.” When she finally escaped and was deported, Ludmilla was destitute, traumatized, and HIV-positive.

Such stories and vivid scenes not only animate the weight of detail, they also sustain the illusion that we are following a seasoned guide on a grim and hazardous expedition. Glenny conducted over 100 interviews for this book, many of them dangerous, all of them risky, some with lawmen, some with criminals. He sips tea with a polite contract killer in Mumbai, India, wondering how he can “warm to a murderer.” He drives at night into a South African township, “the ultimate nightmare for South African whites;” he meets “Django” or Wolfgang, an Austrian academic who led a double life as a member of “the largest and most meticulously organized protection racket in the world,” the Japanese Yakuza; he admits to being spooked by Colombia, where he interviews a representative of the FARC guerrilla group.

Where other writers might swagger, Glenny simply reports, invariably with a disarming hint of self-deprecation. His tone is dry, occasionally sardonic, yet never cold; it is always engaging in its plainness and honesty. Whether describing the Russian Mafia?s 2004 “Soviet Union nostalgia party” in Paris, which included “French peasants dressed as collective farm workers from the 1930?s” and coke-sniffing, barely clad prostitutes writhing to Soviet-era patriotic songs; or the gang “muscle” that was critical to Japan?s economic bubble; or China?s vast underground cigarette factories; or Dubai?s slave labor camps; or the Japanese slot-machine game pachinko, which generates an annual turnover of “about $300 billion, twice the value of the entire Japanese automobile industry, and somewhere in the region of the total global narcotics market!,” Glenny compels you to feel his mixed sense of wonder and horror.

If the overall effect of McMafia is illuminating rather than downright terrifying, that is to Glenny?s credit. His aim is not to shock but to reveal how these “violent entrepreneurs” follow and create markets, however foul, on the dark side of the global corporate economy. This perspective results in occasional repetition and unevenness of pace and tone. It is unfair, however, to expect McMafia to have the passionate despair of Roberto Saviano?s Gomorrah or the elegant intensity of Peter Robb?s Midnight in Sicily. The underworld through which Glenny travels is too varied and complex to be neatly encompassed. It is an ironic and telling fact that McMafia has already been translated into 25 languages. Each one of them doubtless has its own word for its new Mafia.