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McMafia: coming soon to a location near you

The global underworld is a greater threat than terrorism. We ignore it at our peril.

By Mary Wiltenburg / April 22, 2008

Wild world: Journalist Misha Glenny spent three years traveling the globe to research 'McMafia.'

Courtesy of Ralph Glenny/Knopf

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It began with a missing Audi. One morning, nearly two decades ago, reporter Misha Glenny went out to the parking lot of his Zagreb hotel and found his new car had skipped town.

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Skipped the country, actually: a casualty of "Europe's fastest-growing industry," car theft. Mr. Glenny collected the insurance money. Some weeks later, his Audi turned up 200 miles away, in a market in western Herzegovina. Slowly, the veteran BBC correspondent began to see his small car as part of a much larger, bloodier, and more important story.

During the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, a lucrative smuggling operation united combatants on both sides of the conflict to move great quantities of autos, cigarettes, women, and girls to the streets and brothels of Western Europe. In the past 20 years, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the deregulation of financial markets, such local and regional networks have exploded into a worldwide criminal fraternity that continues to grow in scope and might.

Glenny's sprawling, ambitious McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld tracks major players in this transnational brotherhood across five continents. Profit – not national, religious, or ethnic identity – governs their complex alliances. From Moscow to Spokane, Lagos to Tokyo, today's globalized, organized crime is as pervasive, entrepreneurial, and "every bit as cosmopolitan as Shell, Nike, or McDonald's." The "shadow economy" it governs – tax dodges, human trafficking, and, most profitably, oil, arms, drug, and diamond dealing – now accounts for a staggering 15 to 20 percent of global turnover. What's more, Glenny writes, "this shadow world is by no means distinct from its partner in the light."

To map it, Glenny embarked on a reporting odyssey: smuggling Kazakh caviar, learning the secrets of Canadian pot smugglers, scoping out Tel Aviv brothels, and sharing a memorable afternoon tea with one of Bombay's most notorious hit-men. The result is a smart, outraged, and vividly described whirlwind tour of criminal conspiracy.

The leaps of geography and logic in "McMafia" can be hard to follow. But its thesis is clear, compelling, and scary: the West may have declared war on terrorism, but organized crime is by far the more serious threat to our world today, and one we ignore at our peril.