McMafia: The New Face of Organized Crime

Editor's Note: If the idea of organized crime makes you think of The Sopranos or The Godfather, think again. The mob has had a makeover, says former BBC World News correspondent Misha Glenny, author of "McMafia: A Journey through the Global Criminal Underworld." Glenny was interviewed by NAM editor Sandip Roy.

Why do you say that the collapse of the Soviet Union is the most important event prompting the exponential growth of organized crime around the world in the last two decades?

When the state collapsed, it created a vacuum. As the planned economy moved over to the free market, law enforcement decided what was legal and what was illegal. If you were a businessman, you had to have a protection racket to ensure that any contract that you entered into would be honored by the other party. So essentially you had mob rule for 10 to 15 years.

It's still completely wild in places like Bulgaria, where, even though it's a member of the European Union, there have been 120 murders on the streets of Sofia in the last four or five years.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, did these different groups carve up the former Soviet bloc among themselves?

Hungary became a center of the money markets. Bulgaria, Serbia, and Kosovo were central to the transit of heroin from Central Asia into the European Union. And everyone got in on the trafficking of women.

But there were new jobs such as the sending of untaxed cigarettes from obscure parts of the world into the European Union, where they were sold for $6 or $7 cheaper than you could get in the shops. The profits that were made from that trade were funding the paramilitary organizations in Yugoslavia who were doing the killings during the war.

During the Balkan Wars, we saw the former Yugoslav states unable to get along with each other. Did the underground mafias also have trouble getting along with each other?

Ironically, the same people who were exhorting their fellow citizens to indulge in this slaughter were actually thick as thieves across national lines. So Serbs and Croats, Croats and Albanians, Albanians and Macedonians, were all working together.

This sounds like the Wild West, where everyone's at each other's throats and then they all have a drink together afterwards.

What's important is not so much loyalty through clan and family, which was the old mafia model. Now loyalty comes through transactional trust, and whether this person helps you make money.

What is the model of the new mafia?

It's more corporate, although very decentralized. What you have now are lots of little cells, shifting goods and services around the world.

In Colombia in the 1990s, both of the big cartels were decapitated. But the supply of cocaine to the United States didn't dry up. It is much more flexible.

Eastern Europe and Colombia are places people associate with crime and the global criminal underground, but Canada?

Canada is home, in my estimation, to the largest number of criminal syndicates in the world. According to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police there are now 25,000 marijuana-growing operations in the greater Vancouver area alone.

Couldn't people grow marijuana in Humboldt County, California? Why would you go through the danger of bringing it across the border?

They are growing it in Humboldt County, but not enough, apparently. There' s also branding. "B.C. Bud" is reckoned to be the finest there is. They are horticulturally very advanced. The development of B.C. Bud as a brand was a semi-conscious move by exporters. They also branded it as organic.

What is the future of drugs as you see it? In your book, you quote someone as saying, "Cocaine has no future."

It doesn't, because synthetic drugs are becoming superior in their effect, and are cheaper to manufacture. Production is slowly shifting from developing countries like Afghanistan and Colombia and moving into centers like Holland and Canada. The Balkans is a big operation where a lot of chemists make Ecstasy, for example.

But the drug enforcement policy isn't targeted against Canada.

No. The drug policy in the United States involves throwing a lot of people in jail. You can't do anything about Canada.

The war on drugs may eventually shift because it is politically unsustainable and it makes so much money for criminal syndicates that it renders law enforcement extremely difficult.

You focus on Brazil, Russia, India, China and Korea. What makes them particularly interesting in the global criminal underground?

These are countries with populations that have been denied access to the fruits of the industrialized world. Now they want a piece of the action.

One way to make big money is through cyber crime. Brazil, Russia, India, China and Korea are becoming the centers of cyber crime, where you can steal money from people in the United Kingdom or the United States without having to leave your local Internet cafe. The cyber sector is now the biggest growing sector of transnational organized crime.

How big?

It's worth about $100 billion annually and rising exponentially.

There are three types of underground cyber activity. One is the type where you and I have our bank accounts hacked into. At the moment banks will pay our money bank. But when it hurts the banks too much, they'll have to think of a way to be much more proactive in dealing with this problem.

Then there is corporate cyber crime. The other spin-off is attacks on military and government infrastructure, which is going on all the time.

About the infamous Nigerian emails that promise you all this money if you would help transfer the late dictator's money to your account - why did that happen in Nigeria?

You've got to take your hat off to the Nigerians, because they've put a lot of effort into the theatrical aspect of their criminal activity.

In the biggest advanced fee scam in history, they managed to persuade a banker in Sao Paulo to transfer $242 million, allegedly for the construction of a new airport in Abuja, the federal capital of Nigeria. This guy was a well-respected international banker.

If a banker in Sao Paolo is gullible enough to do this, how can we protect ourselves?

By not being stupid. You have to have anti-viral systems on your computer. You have to update it, clean it and only go to those sites that you trust. And don't open emails if you don't know where they come from.

Some sites you just should not go to at all.

You're asking for it if you visit pornographic sites. Music sites and file sharing sites are littered with viruses.

What can you do to avoid identity theft?

I'm now actually considering going off Internet banking altogether. Shred everything you get that has any significant details beyond your name and address. Take great care, because although it's not hugely prevalent, if you do get hit, it's very upsetting.

We've also got to insist that governments get real about how they handle our data. In the United Kingdom we have had a series of scandals where hugely sensitive information has gone missing -- including all of the information from our driver's licenses that went missing in Wyoming, if you can believe it. What's my UK driver's license information doing in Wyoming?

Transcribed by Laurie Simmons.

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