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When Ludmila first succeeded in escaping, she was handed back to her pimp by the duty sergeant, who happened to be a client of the brothel. In response, she was beaten senseless by her “owner”. The second time she got away, she handed herself in to a police station in another part of town. As is habitual, she was charged with being an illegal immigrant and thrown into a detention center for several months as her deportation order was processed.

When she finally arrived back in Chisinau, destitute and traumatized for life, Ludmila could not return to her home, partly for reasons of shame but above all for fear of being found by her traffickers. Hers is an everyday story of life in Moldova, Ukraine, Russia, Egypt, and Israel.

The day after I had spoken to Ludmila, her case worker called. “I forgot to mention,” she said, “Ludmila is now HIV-positive.” Unsurprisingly, combination therapy is not readily available in a country such as Moldova.1

Slavery is perhaps the starkest example of the human cost of organized global crime, but Misha Glenny’s McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld also exposes the nuances of the modern global criminal underworld (and it’s less-apparent victims).

The scope of this book is both impressive and, I think, necessary: From tracing the story of fall of communism in Eastern Europe to exploring the criminal subcultures on every continent, Glenny creates a vivid portrait of the parallel global criminal economy. But more interesting still, McMafia demonstrates that crime is not just a shadow of the legitimate world, but rather completely intertwined with the drive towards a free flow of legitimate capital, materials, and people that is the hallmark of “globalization”.

Many times, in fact, the “legitimate world” and the “shadow world” need each other to survive.

A Symbiotic Relationship

Glenny uses the illicit trade in natural mineral deposits from Africa to illustrate this symbiosis. People who feel that they have no interaction with transnational crime syndicates, Glenny points out, need look no further than their own cell phone or laptop to find a link. Inside it,  you’ll find the refined version of a mineral called coltan. 80% of coltan’s global production comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo and the mining of these mineral deposits are used to fund the purchase of weaponry to continue the ongoing war within the Congo’s borders. Glenny uses the struggle in the Congo to illustrate that this is not “Globalization’s Dark Side”, but rather something more pernicious: global industry relying upon organized crime groups in the trade necessary to its very livelihood. Diamonds are also used as a currency in the global drugs and weapons market. As a result of the investigative work of groups like Global Witness demonstrating a “blood diamond” trail leading directly to the doorstep of Western corporations, there are new standards to certify that both coltan and the diamonds are “conflict free”.

Think you have no interaction with transnational crime syndicates?
Look inside your cell phone or laptop.

As effective as watchdog groups can be, sometimes the sheer size of the problem defies any attempt to shut it down.  Crime can actually be a substantial portion of a country or a region’s GDP.  In British Columbia, Canada, organized crime is estimated to be responsible for more than 5% of the areas GDP. It employs around 100,000 workers in the marijuana trade, which dwarfs the other regional industries like oil, logging, etc. by almost double. In addition, as criminal classes gain more managerial acumen, they began to diversify their profits into other illicit businesses. Truly, a rising tide in one criminal element lifts all of the boats in this dark sea of global criminality.

The Drug Trade

Misha Glenny also examines the economic ramifications of the global drug trade. While not disputing the corrosive value of drugs upon a society, he suggests that it is in fact, the prohibition, which causes the greatest amount of harm. By prohibiting any market, former Soviet mathematician-turned analyst Lev Timofeev contends, you are only funneling dollars into the pockets of the criminal world, giving them resources to exert control over other aspects of society.  If the UN’s estimate is correct in estimating that 70% of organized criminal activity comes from drugs, McMafia‘s premise, carried to its logical conclusion, suggests that the legalization of drugs will in fact be the harshest blow that the world could inflict upon organized crime globally.

The Rise of China in Globalized Crime (and where did Italy go?)

Some of the most interesting passages to me were about China’s effect on global crime which closely paralleled their ascension in the “Overworld”. From the human smuggling that brings Chinese workers to western countries to a Russian prostitute’s lament that the Chinese girls are undercutting her price — as each ply their trade in Dubai — it is clear that Glenny considers China to be “The Future of Organized Crime” in a modern, interconnected world.

In a review of McMafia for the London Review of Books, Neal Ascherson points out that “It’s strange that there is no section on the Sicilian/Italian mafias, ancestors of so much crime in Europe and the United States”2. I think he’s right — and so Gomorrah by Roberto Saviano would probably be an excellent companion piece to flesh out the areas that McMafia neglects.

Why You Should Read This Book (and a link to an interview with the Author )

Clearly, most global capitalists aren’t criminals — but global criminals are clearly capitalists, unrestrained by any of society’s limitations. Trade, labor, and capital that draws legitimate businesses into world markets are equally attractive to criminals.  How nations choose to cooperate to fight the spread of organized crime (or, in many cases, choose not to) can tell us a lot about our priorities as citizens of our respective countries — and as members of the larger world.

An excellent bit of reportage, McMafia nevertheless reads like a novel.  In fairly dramatic form, it tells us about this greater world at a moment of tension and flux, where powerful interests are fighting to shape the century ahead.

It’s a hell of a story– and Misha Glenny tells it well.

  1. Glenny, M. (2008). McMafia: a journey through the global criminal underworld. pp. 109-110. New York: Knopf Books. []
  2. Ascherson , N (3 July 2008). Gazillions. London Review of Books, 30(13), []


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