Misha Glenny explores the dark side of the global economy.

Behind every great fortune, there lies a great crime.-Balzac

Back in 2008, while reading The Christian Science Monitor newspaper, I noticed that Misha Glenny had written a new book. As I mentioned in an earlier post, years ago I loved his book The Fall of Yugoslavia, so naturally, when I learned that his newest book, named McMafia: A Journal Through the Global Criminal Underworld was, as its title hinted, an investigative look inside the world’s assorted criminal gangs, cartels and mafias, naturally I was a bit intrigued. Not long ago, during one of my frequent library trips I found Glenny’s book and after weighing the pros and cons of adding one more to the growing stack of books I was cradling in my arms I threw caution to the wind and grabbed it. After casually plodding through it and finishing it a few weeks ago I’m glad I decided to take a chance on Glenny’s book. While over the last few years there’s been no shortage of books such as Friedman’s The World Is Flat, Zakaria’s The Post American World and Khanna’ s The Second World that discuss the official side of globalism, Glenny’s McMafia is the first book I’ve encountered that looks at its dark underside. With illegal activity being responsible for roughly 20 per cent of our current global GDP, in this shrinking and increasingly interconnected world a book like McMafia cannot and should not be ignored.

As authoritarian regimes fell throughout Eastern Europe and South Africa at about the same time many industrialized countries around the world relaxed their respective barriers to the trading of capital and commodities, countless criminal organizations across the globe grew rapidly and extensively as they benefitted handsomely from the fruits of this new world order. While many around the world echoed Francis Fukuyama in heralding a coming age of democracy and free market capitalism, criminal gangs from Mumbai to Moscow saw it as a golden opportunity to traffic in drugs, guns, stolen goods and human beings. According to Glenny, a confluence of factors in many of these newly liberalized countries would provide an environment conducive to organized global criminal activity.

  • A significant portion of a country’s population with a basic level of literacy:Most former Communist nations had extensive education systems and thus able to provide adequate numbers of potential criminals with the education levels needed to run a fairly sophisticated criminal enterprise.
  • An ample supply of underpaid or demobilized security personnel: Trained in the black arts of torture, surveillance, intelligence work and assassination, many of these individuals would offer their services to the highest bidders.
  • A stark gap between rich and poor: Not only would this provide an ample supply of willing foot soldiers and criminally inclined entrepreneurs from the ranks of the have-nots, the existence of a nouveau superrich on the other side of the gap would inspire the poor and downtrodden to aspire to such levels of affluence.
  • A collapse of the old dictatorial regime leading to a relaxation of state control: Add to this combustible mix a lack of the appropriate laws and institutions needed to combat illegal activity and you have a healthy environment for criminal gangs to engage in their illicit activities.

To explore this new world (dis)order, Glenny traveled around the globe, interviewing countless law enforcement officials as well as criminals of every conceivable type. Virtually every international criminal he interviews was intelligent and many of them college educated and/or well-trained thanks to some government agency or branch of the military. As a result of his extensive traveling and countless interviews Glenny learns, among other things, that the global war on drugs is a colossal failure, law enforcement agencies are woefully understaffed and unprepared to fight global cyber crime in addition to illegal currency transfers. And to make matters worse, according to Glenny corruption even at the highest levels of the world’s governments is incredibly rampant.

While some reviewers thought McMafia‘s globe-trotting structure lacked coherence, I thought Glenny’s extensive, on-the-ground approach was the only way to accurately describe such a multifaceted and world-wide problem. Hitting almost every inhabited continent with his travels, each one of the Glenny’s chapters contains enough wild and salacious material for at least one, maybe two John le Carre thrillers. With Colombian drug lords working in concert with Russian criminal gangs and Balkan paramilitary units to launder their ill-gotten gains through Dubai-based banks, a wide canvas is needed to paint such a dark but fascinating picture. Therefore, in my opinion Glenny’s sweeping approach seems only appropriate.

Compared to Glenny’s 1992 book The Fall of Yugoslavia, this recent book has a slightly different feel. Probably written only a few years ago after Glenny left the BBC as an Eastern European correspondent, I remember The Fall of Yugoslavia being a very straightforward and no-nonsense description of that nation’s bloody disintegration. Fast forward to the present and the style of his McMafia takes a more relaxed yet in no way less intelligent and insightful approach when examining the scourge of international crime. Considering the serious nature of subject matter he discusses, at times there’s even a touch of humor.

If anyone is interested, here’s a link to an interview he did in 2008 with the American Charlie Rose. Not only would I encourage you to watch the short interview, but also to read Misha Glenny’s book McMafia. As our world gets smaller, maybe you can’t afford not to.



Filed under Area Studies/International Relations

10 responses to “Misha Glenny explores the dark side of the global economy.

  1. This sounds really fantastic! I mean, I don’t need a book to inform me on the failures of the war on drugs, that is fairly evident (lol), but I still like to see it laid out for those who don’t watch as much news / read as many blogs and magazines / follow social justice news / etc. The rest of the information in the book sounds really great as well – thanks for bringing it to my attention!

    • You are most welcome ! In a lot of ways I feel I’ve only scratched the surface with my description of Glenny’s book. Give it a shot if you ever get the chance !

  2. I had a copy of this book, but I donated it during my pre-move book purge because I didn’t think I was going to make it a priority any time soon. Now I sort of wish I’d kept it 🙂

    • I’ve done that kind of thing before with library books. You pass on something and then you realize, “hey I should have read that!”
      Don’t worry, it happens to all of us. Feel free to give Glenny’s book a shot !

  3. “A collapse of the old dictatorial regime leading to a relaxation of state control: Add to this combustible mix a lack of the appropriate laws and institutions needed to combat illegal activity and you have a healthy environment for criminal gangs to engage in their illicit activities.”

    This makes me think of something that was discussed in Stasiland by Anna Funder about East Germany – how crime rose after the Berlin Wall fell. Some people openly preferred life as it was before the wall fell, due in part to the rise in crime and despite all the surveillance and state interference experienced under the GDR.

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