McMafia: Crime Without Frontiers
By Misha Glenny
Bodley Head £20, 432 pages
FT bookshop price: £16

While he lived, Ilya Pavlov was one of the bigger beneficiaries of globalisation. A champion wrestler in his youth in his native Bulgaria, he went into business with the collapse of communism and established himself as an asset-stripper with connections with the secret police and organised crime. By the time he was shot dead in 2003, Pavlov was the richest man in Bulgaria and a naturalised US citizen. His mourners included colleagues from his Masonic Lodge, several crime bosses, two Miss Bulgarias and the entire Levski soccer team.

In McMafia: Crime Without Frontiers, a wide-ranging review of international crime, Misha Glenny argues that the end of communism, combined with globalisation, has created unprecedented opportunities for illegal money-making. He sweeps around the globe from Bulgaria to Brazil and covers everything from narcotics and caviar-smuggling to identity theft.

Glenny, a former BBC correspondent, has the reporter’s eye for colour. On the Egyptian-Israeli border he witnesses the operations of camel-powered Bedouin smugglers; in Canada, he inspects cannabis farms; and in Japan he learns about yakuza tattoos. The detail is often fascinating and poignant, as in the interview with Su Hang Qi, the widow of one of the illegal Chinese migrants who drowned cockle-picking in Morecambe Bay. Su tells Glenny how her husband called her on his mobile phone as the tide overwhelmed him. “‘The water is up to my chest,’ he told her. ‘The bosses got the time wrong. I can’t get back in time.’”

In this rash of colour, the story is sometimes lost. Glenny is strongest on the Balkans and the former Soviet Union, which he covered as a journalist. Elsewhere, the book occasionally reads like a whistle-stop tour of global crime – or, more exactly, of crime in exotic locations.

Readers who might expect McMafia to be as carefully edited as Glenny’s masterly earlier books on the Balkans may be a little disappointed. There are no footnotes and the sourcing is not always clear. The odd error creeps in: for example, the estimated value of annual cannabis production in British Columbia jumps from $4bn to $6bn within pages.

Glenny’s main arguments are sound, however. After the fall of communism some people turned to protection, some to smuggling and some to the covert acquisition of state assets. As they grew richer, many tried to cut links with their illicit origins and presented themselves as respectable businessmen.

At the same time, globalisation, financial deregulation and the explosive growth of derivatives markets has made it easier to move funds around the world. By washing through global financial centres, tainted money loses traces of its origins – and mingles with the huge flows coming from elsewhere, creating, in Glenny’s words, “symbiotic relations” between “the black and white economies”. Glenny could usefully have devoted more space to these links. There is too little detail about the roles played by western bankers, lawyers and accountants. There is nothing, for example, about the Russian money-laundering scandal at the Bank of New York in which two Russian émigrés – one of whom was a BoNY vice-president – admitted laundering at least $7bn. The Russian state is now suing the bank for $22.5bn for alleged collaboration in tax evasion.

Glenny rightly says police budgets have failed to keep up with the development of crime. Governments, which talk tough on crime, must finance strong law enforcement agencies, he says. The authorities – led by western governments – must also impose tougher regulation on financial markets. Glenny also makes a good argument for the decriminalisation of narcotics.

McMafia is a slightly uneven collection of anecdote, analysis and argument. But it delivers a powerful warning about the dangers of global organised crime.

Stefan Wagstyl is the FT’s east European editor

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