Interview with Misha Glenny

May, 2008

Misha Glenny


Goodreads: You traveled the world, conducting research in Bogota, Bombay, Dubai, Tel Aviv, Tokyo and countless other criminal hotspots, and talked firsthand with many criminal masterminds (who are represented anonymously in the book) involved in drugs, arms deals, prostitution, and all forms of fraud and extortion. Did you find yourself in any dangerous situations?

Misha Glenny: I must confess that having covered the wars in Yugoslavia during the 1990s, I had found myself in more obvious clear and present danger when dodging mortars and bullets in Sarajevo than ever was the case researching McMafia. Having said that, I thought for the book to offer both credibility and authenticity, I had to speak to some of the guys involved in organized crime. And that meant taking real risks...from Mumbai to Tokyo, from Cape Town to Cali, I engaged in the tortuous process of establishing contact with these people and then reassuring them that I was not working either for the police or for their competitors. Everything depended upon finding the right intermediary in each country — I called these people (usually but not always local journalists known as fixers) my portals into the underworld. Creating trust between me and them with the help of the fixers was at the heart of the process. Sometimes this involved much bureaucracy, sending of faxes with proposed questions for examples or a system of vetting. But sometimes, as in South Africa, I just happened upon them as I was researching the topic. The gangsters were most open in India, South Africa, Japan and Brazil, and most closed (and frightening) in Colombia, Dubai and Ukraine. I never felt truly threatened, but the meets were usually the most nerve-racking moment of the research trips — might the FARC representatives kidnap me? Would I be mugged and left for dead in a South African township at night? Would anyone care if my body turned up in Odessa harbour? But at the same time, this was the core of the book, and so on completing the interviews (and getting out in one piece), I felt a huge sense of relief combined with real excitement!

GR: McMafia describes the shadow economy of organized crime, which plays a larger role in the global economy than many people may think (a whopping 20% of global GDP). How pervasive is it and how is organized crime like McDonald's? Why did you choose this title?

MG: Organized crime is extremely pervasive in the Western world, but it is much less visible than it is in the developing world or in countries like Brazil or South Africa, not to mention Colombia or Afghanistan. The West lies at the retail end of the chain of highly flexible criminal operations — their profits derive in part from the high demand for the drugs, trafficked women or counterfeit goods that they sell primarily in North America and the European Union, but also from the fact that operating in illegal markets, they don't pay any taxes, their business costs are signficantly lower than in other industries. They have two basic risks — getting busted or getting whacked by competitors.

However, the estimate figure of between 15-20% is not based exclusively on organized crime but on the turnover of related industries as well. It also includes corruption which is worth almost $3 trillion in itself according to the latest UN figures. Corruption is critical because it acts as an accelerator of illegal markets (i.e. if you can bribe a customs official to allow stuff to pass through a border unchecked, you are greatly expanding the flow of illegal goods). But it also includes tax evasion and corporate fraud because the ill-gotten gains from these two practices end up being washed through similar financial institutions and become indistinguishable from the two former phenomena. The shadow economy essentially includes anything that lies illegitimately outside government control.

With regard to the name, a prominent interviewee described the way the Chechen mafia in Moscow worked, explaining how they offered their name for franchise in other Russian cities. So as mobsters in Vladivostok or St. Petersburg, you could call yourselves Chechen (even if you had no members who were actually Chechens) as long as you paid the Moscow franchisers but also provided you maintained the high standards of intimidation upon which the Moscow group's reputation was built. He described this as "a McMafia if you like," and I thought "Bingo! That's the title!" The prefix "Mc" now implies a globalized phenomenon, and as far as I can ascertain, even McDonald's has given up claiming that it represents a breach of copyright. If anything, I should think the company might feel flattered!

Global organized crime differs from the corporate world because it is usually highly decentralized. Given that it's central business risk is being caught by the police, they have now adopted (although this is a relatively recent development) the cell-like structure of insurgency groups so that if one member of a syndicate is caught, it is very difficult for this to lead to the unravelling of an entire organization.

GR: Although most of us will never encounter a member of the Russian mafia, what are Western consumers doing to enable the shadow economy? Is it buying drugs, turning a blind eye to sex trafficking, or something more systemic that empowers the black market?

MG: In its simplest form, we are implicated because we are the consumers, and it is that demand in the West which is the most powerful driver of organized crime. Some of our relationship with organized crime is obvious — if we purchase cocaine, heroin or other controlled substances. Some of it usually involves entering the shadowy dark side of globalization but the criminal element is not so obvious, for example when men sleep with prostitutes they are generally unaware whether these women have been trafficked or not; similarly, the purchase of the occasional fake DVD might be understood as a crime against the intellectual property rights of a movie studio but we are less aware of the huge chain of criminal activity sustaining the production and distribution of the counterfeit product. But there are also products we purchase entirely unaware that they have been involved in a criminal chain. I consider one of the biggest crimes of the 20th and 21st centuries to be the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The paramilitary formations responsible directly and indirectly for the death of five and a half million people bought their weapons from West and East European, Israeli and South African syndicates from the stockpiles of munitions left over in the former Soviet Union. They bought them with the extraordinary wealth of the DRC's mineral resources. One important resource was coltan, a metallic ore which includes material used in the production of cell phones, laptops and games consoles. At the turn of the millennium, 80% of the world's coltan was mined in the eastern DRC. The same gangs who sold the weapons into the DRC exported the coltan before selling it into the legitimate markets controlled by electronics manufacturers. These latter claimed to be unaware of the origins of this material, but it is high time that international agencies introduced a system which will ensure the ethical sourcing of such critical elements.

GR: Your extensive background in journalism has no doubt helped you master the art of wheedling details out of people. How do you persuade sources to talk to you?

MG: Some felt that they had been unfairly portrayed as organized criminals, especially those in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. They argued that after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, there was a free-for-all in which you had to use all your wits to survive. The police and court system collapsed along with the ideology of communism, and so the only way you could keep off the bread line was to act in ways which we might consider criminal. A lot of former criminals have worked hard to go legal in recent years, although the gray area is a large one. Others wanted to get a message across (the FARC in Colombia in particular). I noticed quite clearly that they were LESS concerned about somebody writing a book than they would have been about somebody writing a newspaper story or recording for TV or radio (although I did later make a series based on the book for BBC radio). But the key point everywhere was finding the right intermediary or portal — they were the people who convinced the gangsters that I was not a threat.

GR: Is cybercrime, such as identity theft, the next big thing to worry about?

MG: It is one of the top things to worry about in the future, and now the fastest-growing sector of organized crime. There has been a substantial shift in the past few years as hackers have said goodbye largely to so-called ego-hacking (leading to an infected computer breaking down or your browser linking automatically to porn sites). Instead, they are now 90% criminal hackers who leave no apparent trace on your computer, i.e. nowadays you do NOT know if you've been affected or if your passwords are being stolen with a keylogger; or if your computer has been hijacked to form part of a criminal 'botnet'. But cybercrime is less of a problem for technological reasons than it is for reasons of human behavior. The best criminal hackers are those who persuade you to do things with your computer which are objectively not in your interest. And of course, they discovered at an early stage that holding the promise of romance or sex was the easiest way to make people do silly things which could prove hugely damaging. So avoid clicking on emails whose provenance you are unsure of; keep your anti-viral and anti-malware programmes up-to-date and avoid music downloads and pornography on the Web. For the moment, banks and credit card companies are happy to absorb the costs of cyber theft because they have saved so much money by persuading us to use the Internet and downsize their operations. But when this begins to hurt the banks, we will be made to pay. What we are seeing in Brazil, Russia and Romania at the moment is the emergence of organized crime syndicates employing bright young hackers to work on their behalf. If this becomes commonplace, then cyber crime is certain to increase further. This is an extremely difficult area to police, where the ability of individuals to commit crimes thousands of miles away from the victim and in an entirely different law enforcement jurisdiction adds hugely to the issue of detection.

GR: McMafia touches on the fact that many governments, notably that of the United States, have diverted precious resources away from crime control in order to address the threat of terrorism. Why is no one talking about this?

MG: The short answer is I don't know. Organized crime inflicts incomparably more economic damage and human misery around the world than terrorism. It is much more difficult, however, to identify it as a specific enemy because it is an extremely complex phenomenon which frequently intersects and crosses over into the legitimate world. Politicians find it much more challenging to present threats which are complex than ones which can be reduced to an "us and them" formula. Furthermore, corruption greatly hampers the investigation of organized criminal activity. The lack of resources devoted to the issue of organized crime is also counterproductive. Terrorist and insurgency groups finance themselves by operating within the wider swamp of the global shadow economy — going after terror groups is like looking for a needle in a haystack. If you really want to make their lives difficult, you should reduce the size of the overall swamp.

GR: Since crime has now become globalized, what hope do we have for improvement? No one country or even region has enough power to affect change. What kind of global governance should people be agitating for?

MG: This is a very important point. It is also one for which I have drawn some criticism, notably in the United States. Essentially globalization has unleashed immensely powerful economic forces both in the shadow and in the legitimate economies. The amount of money and trade rushing through the globe is making it increasingly difficult for individual governments to know what is really going on. Their knowledge of these flows is becoming increasingly fragmented. Moreover, different governments have very different interests and, as in the past, they are often reluctant to compromise or cooperate with other governments for fear of compromising those interests. I think the main sector we have to look into is the banking and financial sector because organized crime and corporate fraud are both facilitated by banks, hedge funds and private equity companies which may not want to or do not have the capacity to track the provenance of the funds channelled through them. In the wake of the sub-prime fiasco and the fact that we as taxpayers in the U.S., the EU and Japan have been subsidizing banks' losses caused by the latter's speculative behavior suggests to me that the time is now ripe for a reform of the global banking system. There were moves to do this under the Clinton administration, but those arguing in favor of this lost out.

GR: Now that you've covered organized crime, what will be the topic of your next great research adventure?

MG: I'm going to take the summer to work that one out. The first decision I have to make is whether it will be related in any way to this topic. But for the moment, McMafia remains quite a jamboree in itself as astonishingly it is being translated into over 30 languages, and that means a lot of touring and explaining!

GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you write on the road, or do you come home and reassess what you have discovered?

MG: I don't write on the road unless there is a gun at my head (metaphorically, of course!) or if it is a short piece but I cannot concentrate sufficiently on material for a book unless I am at home. To be frank, I am not one of those writers who enjoy the solitude of writing. In fact, I find the entire process extremely painful and exacting. And I procrastinate in ways that other people probably didn't realize existed, although the main one involves making endless cups of tea and coffee. The bizarre thing is that I find perhaps rather unusual diversions, such as teaching myself the basics of a new language, much easier than the writing — unless, that is, I am having to teach myself the basics of a new language, in which case I find it as painful as the writing.

GR: What are you reading now? What are a few of your favorite books or writers?

MG: I am currently reading The Siege by Ismail Kadare, the Albanian novelist who won the inaugural Man Booker International Prize. I know Kadare's work from having spent so much time in the Balkans. This is the reworking of a book originally published in 1970 and which I read previously in a very clunky translation produced in communist Albania. It is a stunning re-creation of the Ottoman siege of an Albanian castle in the late 15th century. The evocation of the political and military tensions, refracted through oblique personal relations, is masterful. Otherwise: My tastes change, but a great influence on me in earlier years was G.E.R. Gedye's Fallen Bastions (reportage set in Vienna and Prague in the late 1930s by excellent British journalists); recently I adored Mordecai Richler's Barney's Version. I try and read as many novels as possible when I'm on the road because I have to read so much nonfiction professionally.

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