Criminals Without Borders

The revolution in smuggling and international crime.

Misha Glenny's McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld

You don’t have to be an international-affairs expert to know that, nowadays, civil wars, terrorism, insurgencies, ethnic conflicts, separatist movements, guerrillas, and other forms of intranational strife are more common than the traditional wars that pit the army of one nation-state against that of another. But the greatest toll of all is exacted by the wars that governments are waging against the illegal commerce of people, drugs, weapons, counterfeits, timber, human organs, diamonds, and myriad other goods. Civil wars are geographically concentrated, and few international wars last longer than a decade; smuggling is not bound by time or space, and it is now growing faster than ever. This boom is occurring despite (and in some cases because of) the “wars”—as they have been labeled—that governments everywhere are fighting against international traffickers.

Richard Nixon launched the United States’ “war on drugs” in 1969, and in the last two decades, new technologies have spawned new wars. Police officers no longer raid college dorms looking just for stashes of marijuana; now they also go looking for the heavy users and distributors of illegally downloaded music. Relatively recent medical innovations that dramatically lowered the risk of organ transplants have created an unprecedented demand for kidneys, livers, and corneas. The supply has not kept pace, and, inevitably, the new international black market in human organs is also soaring. Brazilian kidneys are sold in Europe, and Chinese corneas are transplanted in India.

But the dramatic transformations in smuggling and international crime that the world has witnessed since the late 1980s have been driven by more than revolutions in technology. The political revolutions of the last two decades have also created needs and business opportunities that smugglers and criminals have been quick to exploit. The collapse of the former Soviet bloc flooded world markets with weapons and mercenaries that were once under the control of governments but that are now available to whoever can afford them. China’s economic liberalization has transformed it into the world’s largest manufacturer and exporter of illegally copied products. Everywhere, economic reforms aimed at stimulating international trade and investment helped make national borders even more porous than they already were. And sustained economic growth in the United States and other wealthy countries created an insatiable demand for foreign workers, legal and illegal, and for everything else, including drugs for weekends, special wood for fancy kitchen floors, coltan for cell phones, and money-laundering services for the wealthy and unscrupulous.

Misha Glenny’s McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworldoffers many examples of this altered landscape. Glenny is a British journalist whose coverage of the Balkan wars in the 1990s gave him a front seat from which to watch how the mayhem created by war continued after the conflict ended. Glenny increasingly found himself reporting on the ways in which criminals and traffickers filled the economic and political vacuums left by the wars. In trying to understand the new insecurity of the former Yugoslavia, Glenny quickly discovered what all writers who try to make sense of how criminals can overrun a society have discovered: The phenomenon may look very local, but it is fundamentally influenced by powerful foreign players and shaped by new global forces.

So Glenny branched out from the Balkans and traveled to Colombia and British Columbia, Nigeria and Japan, South Africa, China, Israel, India, and many other places, particularly in Eastern Europe. His account of what he found in his travels confirms what a few writers have been stressing, and what most international-affairs analysts acknowledge but largely ignore when discussing world politics and economics: Global crime is one of the most potent forces at work in today’s world. It is impossible to make sense of what is going on—politically, economically, or even geopolitically—in countries like Russia, China, or Mexico—or even in entire regions in Africa, Eastern Europe, Asia, or Latin America—without taking into consideration the economic weight of illicit trade and the political power wielded by the criminal networks that control these trades.

As Glenny reports, in many countries crime not only pays but is often the most lucrative game in town, and its players are some of the most influential members of society. He also documents how the profits involved stimulate creativity, innovation, and risk-taking to an extent that is rarely, if ever, matched by the government agents who battle the traffickers. The Bulgarian Ilya Pavlov, one of many characters profiled by Glenny, epitomizes the intertwining of crime, government, and business that threatens democracy, economic progress, and security in a growing number of countries.

A former wrestler who married the daughter of a high-ranking secret police officer, Pavlov began his career as a small-time thug. In the 1990s, the combination of a collapsing state, unregulated markets, and lawlessness created enormous opportunities, which he exploited with entrepreneurial zest and murderous violence. Glenny explains that in less than a decade, Pavlov had created a conglomerate that spanned many sectors (extortion, prostitution, smuggling, drug trafficking, car theft, and money laundering) and many countries, including the United States, where his subsidiary Multigroup U.S. owned two casinos in Paraguay, then the Latin American epicenter of the illicit trades (since displaced by Venezuela). By describing the thousands of mourners who attended Pavlov’s funeral in 2003, Glenny conveys how deeply entangled his criminal enterprise was with Bulgaria’s power elite. Everyone who mattered in business, politics, government, trade unions, sports, religion, the media, or the military seemed to be there.

The world is slowly beginning to realize that global crime in the 21st century is not merely more of the same. Continuing to call crime-fighting a “war” is not unlike employing the term “war on terror”: It is a misnomer that leads to wrongheaded efforts and failed strategies that add to the problems instead of alleviating them. The governmental emphasis on prohibition, criminalization, and interdiction very often serves to boost prices and criminal incentives. Of course, the most dangerous and intolerable illicit trades—for example, in children, nuclear materials, or lethal fake medicines—demand comprehensive attention. But burdened as struggling governments currently are with enforcing a plethora of prohibitions, it’s hardly surprising that their efforts are diluted and largely ineffective.

Thanks to their global reach, immense financial muscle, and ruthless inclination to rely on harrowing violence to advance their business interests, international criminals have acquired new political potency, which creates unique dangers and poses a new challenge. This threat cannot be tackled by traditional, nationally based law-enforcement techniques. In some instances, for example, the more realistic goal is not to build a jury-proof criminal case against a few kingpins but to disrupt the far-flung networks on which criminals depend for their international operations—no small undertaking. Deregulating and decriminalizing some of these trades is another obvious move that most governments still don’t recognize as necessary and, in some instances, even inevitable. In general, the supply of fresh ideas on how to deal more effectively with this new global scourge is not surging.

McMafia will disappoint readers interested in solutions or original analytic insights, but it is a welcome addition to a growing genre. A spate of books (Roberto Saviano’s Gomorrah, Loretta Napoleone’s Rogue’s Capitalism, Kevin Phillips’ Knockoff, Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun’s Merchant of Death, Peter Andreas and Ethan Nadelman’s Policing the Globe, Peter Reuter and Edward Truman’s Chasing Dirty Money)and many films (Traffic, Blood Diamond, Eastern Promises, Maria Full of Grace) are heightening our awareness of the unprecedented threats posed by the new forms of global crime. As we all know, no problem was ever solved before it was recognized as such—and this hydra-headed danger can’t receive too much attention.