McMafia: coming soon to a location near you

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

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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. 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.

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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.

That threat is both physical (scattered across the globe, the former Soviet nuclear arsenal poses perhaps a greater threat now than it did at the height of the cold war) and virtual (for the tech-savvy, cybercrime is a lucrative new world of criminal possibility).

On the ground in El Salvador, and other failed states recently engulfed by violence, the proximate threat is "testosterone-driven young men who are suddenly unemployed but have grown accustomed to their omnipotence."

Likewise in post-Soviet economies, where countless operatives lost their jobs: "secret police, counterintelligence officers, Special Forces commandos, and border guards, as well as homicide detectives and traffic cops. Their skills included surveillance, smuggling, killing people, establishing networks, and blackmail" – and only organized crime was hiring.

For women in today's struggling states, the threat is more intimate: kidnapping and sexual exploitation, often facilitated by friends or relatives. In the cold language of the global marketplace, women forced into prostitution are often "an entry-level commodity" for criminals, because "the initial outlay is a fraction of the sum required to engage in car theft" and "they can cross borders legally and do not attract the attention of sniffer dogs."

Glenny reserves his most undisguised contempt for their tormentors.

He has no love, either, for the Russian oligarchs – with their ludicrous Soviet-nostalgia parties, complete with toiling peasants – who have pillaged the country's mineral resources and laundered billions beyond its borders while the majority of the populace struggles to eke out a living. Neither does he spare any patience for the rapacious Western appetites so much of today's illegal trafficking aims to satisfy.

But certain criminals, Glenny writes, make good points: the Nigerian e-mail scammers who see robbing greedy, gullible Westerners as payback for an ugly colonial legacy, or the Chinese snakeheads who bring a needed, albeit illegal, labor force to shrinking European economies. What's more, in cities like Odessa, enlightened criminal leaders have helped to maintain order in the face of political and economic catastrophe.

For all these reasons, policing global crime is an unprecedented challenge. The most urgent need, Glenny says, is for greater regulation of financial markets, because "the deeper the involvement of shadow funds with the licit money markets, the harder it becomes to follow the cash that is the key to the successful policing of international organized crime."

Meantime, like their elicit counterparts, many criminals see their future in outsourcing to China.

Although his story becomes increasingly disjointed as it progresses, Glenny's journey through the international underworld is, on the whole, a rich and illuminating one. The problem of crime in a globalizing world may have no quick fix – but in "McMafia," it has quite a strong introduction.

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