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Originally published Friday, April 18, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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"McMafia" is a riveting look at the globalization of organized crime

"McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld" by Misha Glenny, focuses on the dark side — the globalization of organized crime.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Misha Glenny

The author of "McMafia" will discuss his book at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle. Tickets are $5; for more information call 206-652-4255 or go to www.townhallseattle.org.

"McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld"

by Misha Glenny

Knopf, 375 pp., $27.95

Globalization is a common word circa 2008. It often signifies the positive attributes of a shrinking world, as folks in one nation learn about folks in another nation through commerce or travel.

Misha Glenny, Central Europe correspondent for the BBC World Service, is a globalization-beat journalist. But where many journalists crank out stories about the socioeconomic benefits of globalization, Glenny focuses on the dark side — the globalization of organized crime.

To understand the dominance of organized crime in locales both unsurprising and surprising (keep reading to learn about the Canadian province of British Columbia, for instance), Glenny has taken major risks. To gain access to certain locales and sources, Glenny had to promise anonymity more often than ideal in the realm of investigative journalism. His reporting seems credible, however, so I will not dwell on the risks of granting anonymity to subjects and sources.

Besides demonstrating Glenny's courage, his book exhibits at least two other characteristics of special importance: First, he provides insightful sociological perspectives about why certain nations spawn especially widespread and virulent organized crime networks. Second, he explains how policies in certain nations (mainly, but not exclusively, the United States) generate unanticipated ripple effects in the structures of other nations' criminal underworlds.

Glenny's overview is worth quoting in part, before we begin his country-by-country tour. After the fall of Communist governments in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, after the unraveling of apartheid in South Africa, turmoil prevailed. Many benefited, many felt despair, and some without consciences saw opportunity for riches. Glenny explains:

"These men, and occasionally women, understood instinctively that rising living standards in the West, increased trade and migration flows, and the greatly reduced ability of many governments to police their countries combined to form a gold mine. They were criminals, organized and disorganized, but they were also good capitalists and entrepreneurs, intent on obeying the laws of supply and demand."

Glenny says he noticed the rise of criminal classes while covering the wars in the former Yugoslavia. "The booty paramilitary units brought home with them after destroying towns ... in Croatia and Bosnia was used as capital to establish large criminal enterprises. The bosses of those syndicates became rich very quickly. Soon they established smuggling franchises that conveyed illicit goods and services from all over the world and into the consumer paradise of the European Union." The goods and services they consumed included cigarettes untaxed by governments, illegal narcotics, and sex with prostitutes who had been kidnapped then enslaved.

The country-by-country tour conducted by Glenny begins in Bulgaria, where newly unemployed police officers banded together to form criminal syndicates, bolstered by the weightlifters, boxers and wrestlers once lionized for their training meant to bring Olympic Games glory to Bulgaria. One of their early criminal enterprises involved stolen cars, including Glenny's Audi.

"Every month thousands of cars would be stolen from the streets of northern Europe in preparation for their illegal export to Eastern Europe and the Balkans," Glenny reports. "In 1992, I watched a huge container ship regurgitate the contents of its hold into the decrepit Albanian port of Durres. Onto a quay of chipped stone and rust rolled dozens of BMWs, Peugeots, Hondas, and above all Mercedes ... Customs officers barely awoke from their slumber as excited, dusty and dirty men took possession of vehicles still with their original number plates ... "

The remainder of Glenny's tour covers lots of territory. Perhaps the most surprising is British Columbia, where the large-scale growing and smuggling of cannabis is beyond the control of law enforcement.

In section after section, Glenny shares searing big-picture information. I will end the review with one of them. In the former Yugoslavia, well-intentioned but naïve United Nations-imposed economic sanctions transformed a war-ravaged, impoverished region "into a smuggling and criminal machine that had few if any parallels in history," Glenny reports. "While the world wrung its hands and fretted over the terrible nationalist urges of the Yugoslav peoples and their leaderships, the Balkan mafias started putting aside their ethnic differences to engage in breathtaking criminal collaboration. This would in turn reach out to counterparts across the globe, bringing together the mafias of Colombia, Russia and the Golden Triangle, to name but the most influential. It took the 'international community' years to get even an inkling of what was going on."

Steve Weinberg is the author of "Taking on the Trust," a biography of journalist Ida Tarbell and oil magnate John D. Rockefeller.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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