'McMafia' Profiles World's Globalized Criminals Journalist Misha Glenny points out that while globalization may have given the world new opportunities for trade and investments, it also gave rise to global black markets and made it easier for criminal networks to do business. Glenny discusses his new book, McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld.
NPR logo

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/89727072/89727068" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
'McMafia' Profiles World's Globalized Criminals

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/89727072/89727068" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, some formerly communist countries made a painful but eventually prosperous transition to capitalism. But others failed. Secret policemen who suddenly found themselves out of work found new uses for their skills: smuggling cigarettes, weapons, drugs, women, stolen cars and immigrants. Globalization made the world seem smaller, opened innovation open for business.

In a new book, journalist Misha Glenny argues that globalization also allowed criminal families to grow into international networks with links between, for example, the Russian mob and Colombian cocaine cartels. It created what he calls a new Silk Route that traffics all kinds of contraband through the new states along the southern tier of the old Soviet Union into the war-torn Balkans. From there, on into Europe, the Middle East and across the Atlantic into North and South America. Developments aided, sometimes wittingly, sometimes not, by Western governments and by Western consumers.

If you'd like to know more about how and why this happens, give us a call. We also want to hear from those of you who've bought on the black market, or think you might have. Tell us your story. 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Later in the hour, tall girls. What's it like to be extremely tall and female? How's the weather up there? But first, Misha Glenny joins us here in Studio 3A. His new book is called "McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld." And nice to have you back on Talk of the Nation.

Mr. MISHA GLENNY (Author, "McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld"): Thank you very much, Neal.

CONAN: And to tell us - give us an idea of how this happened. Describe the development of the highway of shame.

Mr. GLENNY: The highway of shame was part of the road linking the Czech Republic or Czechoslovakia, as it was then, and newly united East Germany. And what happened when communism fell is that the state and the economy kind of crumbled with it, in Czechoslovakia as elsewhere. And the policing system was no longer effective. And so what a lot of young women did in Czechoslovakia was to sell themselves along the highway of shame which ran from Dresden in East Germany down as far as Prague.

This bit was in Northern Bohemia. And basically, you had car after car after car coming in from Germany, and trucks, all buying sex for, you know, 10 dollars a pop, as it were, from these young girls along the highway of shame. And this kind of freelance activity was going on in large parts of Eastern Europe at the time. And, of course, it wasn't long before it attracted protection rackets and pimps and this sort of thing, as well.

CONAN: And it went from dubious entrepreneurial activities by young women to sex slavery.

Mr. GLENNY: Absolutely, to sex slavery. After the highway of shame, what started happening was that you saw women from all over Eastern Europe being trafficked into Western Europe, first of all into Germany and then really everywhere in the European Union and in Western Europe, and put to work in brothels. And there was a sudden incredible increase. I remember at the time, in the early 1990s - this was before cell phones, of course - in London, any telephone booth that you walked into was covered in little visiting cars with semi-naked women on and a telephone number saying, call Irena right now and come and visit her. And they were all coming from Eastern Europe and being trafficked by criminal groups into the West.

CONAN: And there is a story that you tell. Many of these women seemingly are recruited by other women. At one point at gunpoint.

Mr. GLENNY: Yes. What happened - the reason why women are recruiters is because young women are more likely to trust other women than they are men. Now the woman who I interviewed, I interviewed several, but the woman whose story I concentrate on in the book is one who was invited to visit a friend who was working in Israel at the time. In fact, the friend was herself in enforced prostitution and she had a gun pointed at her head when she invited Ludmilla(ph), the woman who I interviewed to go to Israel.

And Ludmilla was actually trafficked. Held against her will, first in Moscow, then moved to Egypt and then from Egypt was taken across the border into Israel. Now during that journey, she was trafficked by Russian men, by Egyptian Muslims, by Egyptian Bedouins, by Israeli Bedouins, by Russian Israelis and then by indigenous Israelis. Men from all different nationalities and all different religious convictions were involved in trafficking this one woman, because the McMafia does not respect boundaries and it does not care about national or ethnic differences. It only wants to make money.

CONAN: And one of the best examples of that, you, as the former Central Europe correspondent of the BBC, are very familiar with the former Yugoslavia where all these warlords, we kept hearing about these ancient enmities between Serbs and Croats and various other war-torn groups in that part of the world. And you describe a situation where, in fact, the criminal elements from all these different groups worked very happily together.

Mr. GLENNY: Neal, this was the most shocking thing, I think, that I came across when I was researching this book in the original stages. It is that the terrible nationalists, like Arkan, the indicted war criminal, and his counterparts in Croatia, amongst the Albanians, amongst the Bosnians who were exhorting their fellow citizens to kill one another, were at the same time involved deeply in criminal business shifting drugs, shifting women, shifting weaponry across the Balkans from all over the world and into Western Europe. And Croats, Albanians and Serbs were literally as thick as thieves.

CONAN: Our guest is Misha Glenny. His new book is "McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underground." If you'd like to join the conversation, 800-989-8255, if you'd like to know more about how and why and where this happens. Also, we'd like to hear from those of you who've been involved one way or another, perhaps as consumers in the black market. And, again, the email address is talk@npr.org. Roger is calling. Roger, with us from Rock Springs in Wyoming.

ROGER (Caller): Yeah. Hey. A quick story. I was up - we used to live near Butte, Montana, and one day I found a couple of guys, they were broke down on the road. I pulled over to see. They had heavy European, I think Russian accents. Well, they just needed a ride to a gas station. In return for helping them, they offered to make me a distributor for leather clothing from Russia. These guys had these tremendous rolls of cash that just made me real nervous about who I would be getting involved with. They were very nice, very appreciative but the amount of cash that they were running around with was pretty scary.

Mr. GLENNY: Well, I've got to say you did absolutely the right thing on not taking them up on their offer because they would have been trading in all sorts of things. And also, if they felt at any point that you were a threat to their security, then they probably wouldn't have hesitated in doing away with you. So a good call.

ROGER: Well, I appreciate that. And I appreciate taking my call.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the story, Roger.

ROGER: You're welcome.

CONAN: And it's interesting. There are so many - yes, there are a lot of people in this book who are, well, despicable is probably too kind a word for them. But there's fascinating information, too, among the international globalized networks of drug suppliers, for example. You talk about the Canadians who developed this gigantic marijuana industry for cross-border sale.

Mr. GLENNY: Absolutely. I mean, one of the things that I felt I had to do with this book to make it authentic was to understand the motivations and methods of where people involved in what I call the global shadow economy, the organized crime syndicates. I had to go and talk to them. And actually, it was easier to go and talk to people in Canada than in many places. And that's partly because the marijuana industry in British Columbia is so vast.

According to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, there are 25,000 grow-operations in the Greater Vancouver area, in residential houses alone. That's not talking about the industrial units or the huge farms that you have in the bush, as well. So it's a massive industry that accounts, again, government figures, for over five percent of British Columbia's GDP.

And these guys, you know, you have Hells Angels, you have Vietnamese groups who are involved in the production of marijuana. But the bulk of British Columbia's marijuana growers and distributors are basically middle-class people who want to earn an extra 20,000, 30,000 bucks a year to afford that holiday to the Caribbean or to buy a second car. It's bust out into the middle classes. It's such a big industry.

CONAN: And in this case, government, the United Stated government, has facilitated this through its War on Drugs and its drug laws. But there's a more specific example you give of government involvement. Again, U.S. government involvement, this going back to the Balkans. And the President of Montenegro, a man who was an ally of the United States during the Kosovo war and leading up to it, a man who was seen as defying Slobodan Milosevic but a man who was widely known to be financing, not just himself but his entire government, smuggling cigarettes.

Mr. GLENNY: Smuggling cigarettes, so-called duty not paid. This was president Milo Djukanovic, and to his credit, he didn't deny that he was involved in the cigarette trade, except he insisted that as it passed through Montenegro that he was levying a transit tax, as he called it. These cigarettes were then loaded onto boats, each worth about a million dollars, these boats, the fastest thing on the Adriatic, which could evade all of the Italian coastal defenses. And about 20 a night went over, night after night, for about eight years before the industry was shut down and sold all over Europe. Although in the United Kingdom, by the end of the 1990s, between about 25 and 30 percent of all cigarettes purchased in the U.K. where smuggled illegally.

Now, the U.S. had a dilemma here. Djukanovic was a most anti-Milosevic ally within the same state. He had his little Republic, Montenegro. So what do you do? Do you allow him to continue financing his activity in this way and turn a blind eye, or do you insist that he stops his activity, which would lead to the fall of his government and the fall of your anti-Milosevic strategy, as well? The U.K. and the U.S. turned a blind eye. The Italians wanted to prosecute him, and, in fact, are now investigating him on major charges of smuggling and mafia activity.

CONAN: "McMafia" is the name of the book, "A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underground." Our guest is author Misha Glenny. If you'd like to join the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is Neal Conan in Washington. We're discussing one of the grim byproducts of globalization, crime. Misha Glenny's new book "McMafia," traces the disparate strands of global organized crime. He spoke with criminals and law enforcement officials trying to catch them. You can read an excerpt about the goings on of the global underworld at npr.org/talk. Misha Glenny is our guest this hour. We want to hear from you, especially if you've bought anything on the black market or worked in it. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email, talk@npr.org. You can also check out our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. Now, let's go to Kent(ph), Kent with us from Highland in Utah.

KENT (Caller): Thank you, Neal. This is a very timely topic for me. In the early years of this century, I happened to live in Japan where I noticed that there were a lot of the Eastern European women who were being used by the Yakuza in Japan. And in addition to that, here's the focus of my question. I have had contact with a number of legislators and political leaders in Central Asia, specifically Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. I have asked them specifically what is going on in terms of the use of their country for drug smuggling, and I am met with some denial. And so my question is, has the author had a chance to look at Central Asia and the impact of the drug trade and human trafficking across Central Asia?

CONAN: Well, that's what you call the new Silk Route, or at least part of it.

Mr. GLENNY: That is part of the new Silk Route, and yes, I looked, as it happened, more closely at Kazakhstan. But I have read a great deal about Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Tajikistan, in particular, is absolutely critical as a road for the export of heroin out of - or opium, out of Afghanistan.

KENT: Afghanistan, yes.

Mr. GLENNY: Exactly. And really, the point is, is that these are extremely weak states which are easily corruptible. They're very difficult to police. And so, they're targeted by those involved in the criminal business and subverted so that they become pliant clients, as it were, of the new silk route that I talk about.

And it's interesting what you should say about Japan and your observations about the Yakuza and women there. Eighty percent of the women who visited Japan in the first ten years after the fall of communism, between 1990 and 2000, came into Japan on so-called entertainment visas, which means that they were dancers, but actually what it means is they were working as prostitutes. And the Yakuza is a very peculiar organization because it is actually - it enjoys a semi-legal status in Japan inasmuch that this huge conglomerate of organized criminal syndicates, they have to submit every year a list of their members and candidate members to the Japanese police. And so every year, the Japanese police releases a white book of the size of each Yakuza organization. So we can track the whole thing. It's incredibly useful.

CONAN: And one of the aspects of that is the discovery, like the population in Japan overall. This is an aging criminal organization with demographic problems which they solve innovatively.

Mr. GLENNY: I was fortunate enough to be granted an interview by the deputy head of the Sumiyoshi-kai, which is the biggest Yakuza organization in Tokyo. And he sounded like stress senior management, basically. He was talking about how the aging society had a very negative effect on the recruitment drive by the Yakuza, and in his own words, and I'm quoting him now, he said, We have too many chiefs and not enough Indians.

So they are confronting the same problems of globalization that normal corporate - the normal corporate world are. And they're having to scramble for solutions like outsourcing their muscle work, the violence work, to Chinese gangs who now have greater access to Japan because of the fact that migration flows have been speeding up all around the world with globalization.

CONAN: Kent, thanks very much for the call.

KENT: Absolutely, and thank you very much. Great program. I'm going to find that book and read it. I will enjoy it. Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much. Let's go now to Ruth. Ruth with us from Turlock in California.

RUTH (Caller): Hi. Thank you so much for taking my call.

CONAN: Uh huh.

RUTH: I just wanted to tell a story. My husband was in the Peace Corps in Guinea, West Africa. And his parents were visiting - I got to visit, too - but while his parents were there, they wanted him to exchange their American money the right way, in the banks. So in Conakry, they went to the bank and the bank tellers actually looked at him, gave him a funny look, and said, what are you doing in here to exchange your money? You should go outside.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RUTH: The black market can give you a much better deal. I just thought that was really interesting and things like that happened all over in West Africa. And I'm sure it's still happening today. But their infrastructure is so different.

Mr. GLENNY: And to be perfectly honest, in that situation, I probably would have gone out of the bank and changed in a black market, as well. But of course, you're running a risk.

RUTH: Yes. Right.

Mr. GLENNY: Because you can be easily diddled by somebody who passes you, you know, fake notes or, you know, the monopoly money or the Guinean equivalent.

CONAN: Well, even in the old days before the Berlin Wall came down, I remember changing money in places like Poland, which I used to refer to as a nation of 40 million banks.

Mr. GLENNY: That's right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RUTH: Yeah, for sure. It's not - it's always an adventure.

CONAN: Ruth, thanks very much for the call.

RUTH: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. While we're in West Africa, there are despicable people in your book, and there are rogues who you have genuine admiration for.

Mr. GLENNY: Yes. I think the person who I admired most was actually from South Africa. A man named Al Lovejoy who has come from a very poor, white family in South Africa. He had been abused as a child, and he spend most of his childhood either in reform school or then in prison. And when he was in prison he learned how to speak Zulu and he was embraced by the black community. Now, Al come out and became a very significant drug dealer, both within South Africa and between South Africa and Europe. But he was always struggling to understand what the world was about.

He came from a terrible environment, and you could, you know, see, when he introduced me to drug dealing he - I mean, to drug dealers - he explained to me how the whole industry worked. You could see he was trying to find a good way out of his situation. But it was extremely difficult.

A lot of people around the world are born into poverty, poverty which drives them into crime which they may not choose to do. They simply have no alternatives offered to them in terms of economic opportunity.

CONAN: And in many cases, these criminal organizations and the government, who's running who?

Mr. GLENNY: Oh. Well, who knows? I mean, the problem with corruption is really considerable. And one thing that criminals like to do wherever possible, if they're involved big-time, is to capture, as we say, or semi-capture the state. If you can get hold of - if you can influence the minister who is responsible for customs, for example, then bingo! You can move stuff in and out of the country without anyone noticing it, and you can shift it elsewhere, as well. And so, particularly countries with weak state infrastructures and weak institutions are targeted because they're easier to subvert through money.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. John's with us calling from Portland, Oregon.

JOHN (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hello.

JOHN: Hi. Thanks for calling, or thanks for taking my call. I just wanted to mention an experience that I had recently about buying an item off of eBay. Now, here in the U.S., there's lot of places. You know, New York City, the street vendors, you see a lot of counterfeit items. You can go to flea markets across the U.S. and find that changed stuff. But what a lot of people don't know, like myself, is that if you buy items off of eBay, it might not be genuine. I recently bought a high-end apparel item that was from a seller in the U.S., and I didn't see anything suspicious about it until I received a package that was shipped from China.

CONAN: Wow.

JOHN: And when I got the item, it was obvious that it was a counterfeit item. And, you know, I reported it to eBay, talked to the seller. The seller ended up giving me my money back, but eBay, for their part, they don't really get involved with all the counterfeit merchandise that's sold through their system. And they even have a policy that they don't really monitor that stuff, that it's more - they're more concerned about, you know, the - protecting the customer as far as their funds, and you know, I got my funds back, so that's about the end of it, as far as they're concerned.

Mr. GLENNY: Did you get the funds back from eBay or from the seller?

JOHN: I got it back from the seller.

Mr. GLENNY: I take my hat off to you.

JOHN: And at that point, eBay's not concerned anymore, so they're not really concerned that there's this huge counterfeit piracy merchandise being sold through their system.

Mr. GLENNY: Look, this is really the future of organized crime. It lies in counterfeit goods. It's estimated that about 90 percent of the goods sold within China are counterfeit one way or another. And that some 60 percent of the goods exported out of China and elsewhere in Asia are counterfeit, as well. This highlights what is going to be an enormous problem in the next 15 to 20 years or so in global economy and politics.

Because what we've done with globalization is take our manufacturing jobs and hand them over to places like China, and instead, we make money out of our service industries and our creative industries. And what the Chinese have to do is just create jobs all the time. They can't let that juggernaut stop. They can't stop it from rolling. And so they don't care about things like intellectual property rights.

So we have a big dilemma at the heart of the economic relationship between the United States and Europe and Japan on the one hand, and China and other parts of East Asia on the other. And this is a huge opportunity for criminality, but it's something that we have to come up with creative policy solutions for, which at the moment I don't see are in the offing.

CONAN: I wonder, do you expect that pirated copies of "McMafia" are available in Hong Kong?

Mr. GLENNY: I would think, I would really rather wear it as a badge of honor, if they were - I'd be upset, in a sense, if they weren't. It won't happen in Hong Kong, because Hong Kong is a highly regulated market. But over the border in Shenzhen, an enterprising person - I'm just on the verge of selling the Chinese language rights, and I'm sure if it comes out in - if it ever does come out in Chinese, that within five minutes, there'll be pirate copies all over the place.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, John.

JOHN: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with Misha Glenny. His book is "McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underground." If you'd like to join the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email, talk@npr.org. And this is NPR News.

Let's see if we can get another caller in. This is Chris, Chris with us from Salt Lake City.

CHRIS (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

CHRIS: I was calling to comment on the criminal underground comment you guys are talking about. For about two years, I was transporting cocaine and cannabis up and down from South America to America, the United States. And I wanted to tell you guys that a lot of people have the conception that Mexico is producing a lot and coming out with a lot, and maybe they are. But from what we could tell, every time we would do this trip, Mexico was just the gateway. It - you never ran into any problems until you got to the American border.

Mr. GLENNY: Well, very interesting to have you on the program with your experience of this.

CHRIS: Well, I was caught and prosecuted and that's all done with.

Mr. GLENNY: That's over with. Well, the interesting thing about Mexico, it's very interesting that you should mention that, because what happened with Mexico is that the Colombians worked out that the really dangerous part of their business was getting it across the U.S. border. That was where the big business risk was. And so they learnt about 10, 12 years ago to outsource that part of it to the Mexicans, and also to an extent to people in the Caribbean, Jamaica in particular. And what they did as a consequence was send it over to Mexico. The Mexican cartels would then take it over the border and as a consequence of that, northern Mexico has been ruined and has become an unbelievably violent, corrupted place.

This unfortunately is a consequence of the War on Drugs, as presently fashioned. The War on Drugs has very good intentions, but its outcomes, on the whole, are absolutely disastrous. And if there's one thing that we can do to stop the obscene profits to drug dealers from all over the world, including organizations like the Taliban, which are on the verge of defeating NATO, it's to reassess the issue of the War on Drugs. Because this policy is not working.

CHRIS: I agree totally.

Mr. GLENNY: It is making people hugely rich who otherwise wouldn't be.

CHRIS: I agree totally.

CONAN: Chris, you've mended your ways, Chris?

CHRIS: Oh yes, yes. That was about two years ago and I'm done with all that.

CONAN: Congratulations.

CHRIS: Yep.

CONAN: So long.

CHRIS: Thanks guys.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go to Natalie. Natalie with us from Portland, Oregon.

NATALIE (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call. This has a little bit to do with what Chris was talking about. I'm wondering what you might think of legalization of marijuana and perhaps prostitution, in turn. What effect would this have on some of these criminals, you know, if we legalized and regulated these industries, you know, would things change?

Mr. GLENNY: Illegal markets, obviously, always attract criminals. And so in principle, illegal markets are going to be a breeding ground for organized criminal syndicates. And what society and the state has to do, is to work out what is the greater evil. Allowing people access to these illegal markets and making money out of them, but trying to control the morality of your population, or go towards legalization. It's always very difficult.

But what happened during early 1990s when you saw a huge increase in trade around the world, including in these illegal markets, is that financial resources available to drugs traffickers became astronomical, and there was no concomitant increase in the resources available to law enforcement. So basically, in terms of the trafficking of narcotics, law enforcement cannot stop it. We cannot stop the amount of drugs getting into Western countries and their consumption.

Now the reason why I mentioned the Taliban earlier on is that this is really important. The Taliban is funding itself, has resurrected itself and is killing NATO personnel with the tens of millions in dollars that it makes every month as a consequence of the War on Drugs. And I would certainly say that on narcotics, it's time we had an adult conversation in which the idea of legalization can be aired without people being excoriated as potential baby-killers so for doing.

CONAN: It should be pointed out, however, that items that are heavily taxed, like cigarettes, are also subject to criminal operation.

Mr. GLENNY: That's - exactly, that's a tax regime issue, if you have too heavy a tax. And states like Canada have experimented with the regulation of tax on cigarettes precisely to stop the criminalization of part of the industry. And they have succeeded.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Natalie.

NATALIE: Thank you.

CONAN: And Misha Glenny, thank you for our tour through the global criminal underground, or at least portions of it. Many other and more exotic places on the global tour are described in the new book, "McMafia." Misha Glenny was kind enough to join us here in Studio 3A. Appreciate your time.

Mr. GLENNY: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Coming up, sure they can reach those pesky items on the top shelf. But finding jeans with the right inseam, well, that's another story. Rebecca Thomas and Jane Smiley on "Life as a Tall Girl." That's coming up next. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.