Hiding in Plain Sight

Misha Glenny investigates the secret life of organized crime.

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, while chronicling the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and in the Balkan states, journalist and TEDGlobal speaker Misha Glenny gained a deep understanding of the influence of eastern European privatized law enforcement — otherwise known as the mafia. This led him to write a book called McMafia: Seriously Organized Crime, for which he traveled the world, talking to victims, criminals, and the police officers trying to catch them. Glenny speaks about his research and the risks he took to get the story.

At TEDGlobal, you mentioned the growth of counterfeit goods, the rise in fake malaria drugs, and the threat to cyber infrastructure. Why are we seeing these kinds of atypical mafia activities?

Just like any other business in a recession, some of organized crime’s main trading activities take a nosedive. But while sales of some commodities dwindle, other goods and services record significant increases. As the credit crunch started to bite last autumn, police forces throughout Europe noticed a shift in the focus of large criminal syndicates away from their traditional activities of drugs and prostitutes towards counterfeit and financial crimes.

According to the UN’s Vienna-based drug czar, Antonio Maria Costa, the mob is already acting as a banker not only to consumers but to banks themselves. His team has uncovered information that the mob’s money “has been feeding the financial sector since the second half of last year … While hard to prove, there are nonetheless indications that some banks have even been saved from going under in this way.”

What was the most frightening experience you had while doing the research for McMafia?

I was sick with fear when going to meet representatives of the FARC in Cali, Columbia, largely because kidnapping journalists and holding them for years in appalling conditions in the jungle is one of the group’s stock-in-trades. The meeting, when it happened, involved several moves from one part of Cali to another. I received a new text message each time to indicate our next destination. The FARC was clearly monitoring us to see if the police or the DEA had also come along for the party, but eventually they were convinced that my translator and I were alone. In the end, these interviewees were courteous, serious, and more aware of their role in a global economy than most of those I interviewed.

The least pleasant meeting was with a gang boss in Odessa, Ukraine. It had taken me months of persistence to get him to agree to see me. When we met in a cafe, he was an archetype — short, thuggish-looking, and sporting a permanent scowl. He had brought along two of his henchmen. He was extremely edgy, and whenever I strayed from the agreed topics of conversation, he reminded me of our prior agreement to avoid certain subjects.

Since the book was published, I have been sent two covert warnings about my writings by Balkan groups, and the book has been banned in Dubai — something I wear as a badge of honor.

Why were so many of the people in your book willing to talk to you, an author and journalist, about the intimate details of their operation? Weren't they afraid they'd be found out?

This depends on multiple factors. In the Balkans and eastern Europe for example, several people involved in the trade I spoke to were very open about their activities. But they pointed out that because in the early 1990s states had collapsed all over the region and the economies were in chaos, these gangsters were the only force that could actually ensure that people got food on their tables. Sure, they took the lion’s share for themselves, but they were the essential “midwives of capitalism,” as I refer to them. So they often felt quite proud about their role and were unwilling to express contrition.

In Japan, the yakuza were prepared to talk because they believe themselves to be an integral and legitimate part of Japanese society (not a sentiment shared by everyone). In Brazil, you can’t stop anyone from talking — victims, police, lawyers, or gangsters. It is just in their culture — they talk, talk, talk.

You talk about the systemic threat of organized crime — just how much trouble are we in?

Organized crime poses its greatest challenge to the developing world. Illicit trade flows from the south to the north: Drugs, trafficked women, counterfeit goods, migrant labor, and the like move from the developing to the developed world. Therefore, the hubs of global criminal operations tend to be located in countries with weak economies and fragile state institutions.

With two glaring exceptions, Japan and Italy, organized crime groups maintain a low profile in the developed world, where state institutions are usually strong enough to contain the impact. However, as the United States has demonstrated since the 1920s, it can often be a long, hard struggle. But in general, organized crime groups do not like to advertise their presence in the developed world because, in contrast to the other markets, this disrupts their smooth operation. Too much violence, for example, draws the attention of the media, the public, the police, and politicians. So although organized crime is driven by consumer demand in the West, southern nations bear the brunt of the violence and instability which the business engenders.

Misha Glenny, a former correspondent for the BBC, covered the collapse of Yugoslavia before writing three books on eastern Europe. He spoke at TEDGlobal.

The Substance of Things Not Seen

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