Thursday, September 29, 2011

Mischa Glenny on "McMafia" and the Dangerous International Underworld

(Originally published in the Newark Star-Ledger in May 2008)

Mobsters of the World Unite

In his ambitious book “McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld”(Knopf, $28), historian and journalist Mischa Glenny travels the world to meet with Russian mobsters, drug cartel hitmen in Colombia and high-end marijuana growers in Canada.

In an attempt to map the brutal worlds of drug trafficking, black market cigarettes and human smuggling, Glenny writes about how organized crime syndicates of all nationalities and religious affiliations are collaborating to smuggle fake Gucci bags, surface-to-air missiles and illegal caviar. This shadow economy, including crime, corruption and tax evasion makes up 15 to 20 percent of the world’s gross domestic product. Glenny’s stories are horrifying, from Russian women forced into prostitution in Israel to Chinese migrant workers killed on the job in Britain.

Glenny, 50, was raised in England and covered the Balkan wars through the 1990s, writing “The Fall of Yugoslavia.” He was a correspondent for the BBC in central Europe. Glenny spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley at a New York City coffee shop.

Q. Did your experience in the Balkans direct you in writing a book about organized crime and corruption?

A. Yes, totally. When I worked in the Balkans in the 1990s, organized crime became part of the scenery. Organized crime was also very closely linked to the wars and in using the wars to build up criminal empires. I found that the Balkans served as a transit zone for illicit goods, from drugs to trafficked women, to get into the European Union, which was where the market was.

Q. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the communist Eastern Bloc, there were all these unemployed spies, paramilitary police and ex-government soldiers with guns. What was the situation?

A. The ex-government spies had access to the levers of the state. In the 1990s, Russia was under the control of the oligarchs and organized crime. Products like cocaine, heroin and women, and also things like caviar, were things the crime syndicates wanted to spread around the world. At one point, the Russian organized crime cartels met with members of the Colombian drug cartels in Aruba. The aim was the expand and diversify cocaine sales in Western Europe and to open up Eastern Europe. Heroin was being produced in Afghanistan. At the time, the Russian military was bankrupt, and hired themselves out as transporters on Afghan heroin into Moscow. Throughout Eastern Europe, you had the opening of borders and the collapse of state authority, combined with increased trade and capital migration.

Q. Ruling parties in powerful, stable countries like India and Israel have found themselves corrupted by organized crime money. How did this happen?

A. In the example of Israel, in the 1990s, the Russian mob money subverted the political process. The U.S. Department of Justice has done a lot of work in this area. They know where the bodies are buried.

My eyes were opened to the motives of politicians in the Balkans. Growing up in England, I was a left social democrat, committed to democratic social reform in Eastern Europe. I really thought the majority of politicians were motivated by a fundamental desire to improve the world. I now think that is a minority of politicians. I saw it in the Balkans, where politicians exploited nationalism for their own personal benefit and the benefit of their circle.

Q. Could you tell us the horrible story of Ludmila in the former Soviet area of Moldovan Transnistria?

A. The cooperation between different ethnic groups was what shocked me about it. Ludmila was shipped from Moldovan Transnistria by Russians, brought to Egypt and smuggled into Israel by Bedouins. She worked against her will in brothels in Tel Aviv run by Israeli mobsters. She was basically raped 20 times a day until she escaped. The first time she escaped, she went to a local police station, where the sergeant on duty returned her to her brothel because he was a client. This is just sick, that national identities and confessional identities are meaningless in this game, absolutely meaningless. Russian Orthodox, Muslims and Jews exploited Ludmila together. When I walked around the brothels of Tel Aviv, you had the same mix of men. In one brothel, I found two teenagers from the Upper West Side of Manhattan buying sex. These men are both perpetrators and consumers. They compartmentalize their lives. They are upstanding members of the community, but that changes when the sun goes down. Ludmila is back home, but she is now HIV positive.

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