Criminals Without Borders

Glenny skinner

Misha Glenny, McMafia:
A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld


W. Benjamin Skinner, A Crime So Monstrous:
Face-to-Face With Modern Day Slavery

          Both Misha Glenny’s, “McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld,” and W. Benjamin Skinner’s “A Crime So Monstrous: Face-to-Face With Modern Day Slavery” treat organized crime in the late 20th and 21st centuries. Unlike most of the books reviewed here, these two are directly related to my day job. I initially read both in 2009, while serving as the US Department of Justice representative in Bulgaria. I was there to assist the Bulgarians in strengthening their capacity to combat organized crime and especially one of its most virulent manifestations, trafficking in human beings. Glenny explains the globalization of organized crime networks since the collapse of the Soviet Union and Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, while Skinner delivers an impassioned exposure of the human trafficking phenomenon.

          The two authors intersperse vivid examples from around the world with general insights into the underlying causes for globalized organized crime and human trafficking, along with suggestions for combating these phenomena. Skinner concentrates on the evolution of American anti-trafficking policy, whereas Glenny’s main theme is that deliberate decisions of the governments of the United States and Great Britain in the 1980s not to regulate the international flow of money had a catastrophic effect when the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union disappeared, spawning today’s worldwide network of organized crime groups. Glenny also underscores the close connection between high level public corruption and the new wave of organized crime, as well as the need for an independent judiciary and an objective legal system – what we sometimes refer to as the “rule of law” – to combat the new manifestations of organized crime.

          In addition to treating the subject matter of my professional work, each book starts “close to home” in another sense: the first of several new age gangsters described in Glenny’s book is Bulgarian Ilya Pavlov. Skinner begins with a description of human trafficking in Haiti, where I served in my first Department of Justice overseas assignment.

* * *

          Pavlov, a former Bulgarian wrestler who acquired American citizenship, was indisputably the godfather of Bulgaria’s many modern mafia godfathers, the head of Multi-Group, once the country’s most powerful criminal organization. Pavlov was killed in front of his octopus-like enterprise in Sofia in March 2003. Even today, Pavlov’s killing remains unsolved, along with about 100 other organized crime contract killings in Bulgaria (another on the unsolved list is Ivan “the Doctor” Todorov, a leading figure in the illegal cigarette trade who was gunned down in 2006 directly in front of my apartment in a quiet Sofia residential neighborhood on a weekday afternoon, a time when, fortunately, no family members were in the vicinity). Glenny goes on to describe several other leading figures in today’s increasingly inter-connected and interdependent world of transnational organized crime, not all of whom have (yet) met the fate of Pavlov.

          The organized crime groups that emerged in Bulgaria and elsewhere in Southeast Europe in the early 1990s began by trafficking narcotics, human beings, stolen vehicles, cigarettes, and arms, and a wide variety of other commodities. Organized crime in the Balkans satisfied demand in more affluent Western Europe, Glenny maintains, flourishing because:

ordinary West Europeans spent an ever-burgeoning amount of their spare time and money sleeping with prostitutes; smoking untaxed cigarettes; snorting coke through fifty-euro notes up their noses; employing illegal untaxed immigrant labor on subsistence wages; stuffing their gullets with caviar; admiring ivory and sitting on teak; and purchasing the liver and kidneys of the desperately poor in the developing world (p.41-42).

In Bulgaria, I observed first hand that criminal groups gradually expanded into legitimate businesses, such as insurance, hotels and tourism. It was difficult to avoid doing business with these organizations – they were everywhere! – and I often surmised that disabling them altogether would have a crippling effect on Bulgaria’s already shaky economy.

          But the internationalization of organized crime, Glenny argues, “would not have been possible without globalization—and one aspect in particular, the deregulation of international financial markets” in the 1980s (p.52), for which Glenny blames the United States and “its primary European ally, Britain” (p.xi). The collapse of the Soviet Union that followed the international financial deregulation of the ‘80s was the “single most important event prompting the exponential growth of organized crime around the world” (p.52), with a “no rules” style of capitalism replacing heavily controlled markets in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. The “hopelessly weak” states that emerged in the early 1990s had:

no capacity to define what was “legal” and what was “illegal.” They had neither the money nor the experience to police the novelty of commercial exchange. Those who positioned themselves well in the first three years after the end of Communism were often in a position to make up the rules of their brave new world as they went along (p.15).

           With Russian President Boris Yeltsin enthusiastically bent on introducing capitalism in his country overnight, Russia quickly descended into a “surrealist anarchic capitalism, the Wild East” (p.56). The old Soviet bureaucrats who still administered the new state “did not understand how to monitor, regulate, or adjudicate the principles of commercial exchange” (p.58). Within a short time, the famous Russian oligarchs, a “group of several hundred fabulously wealthy men and women” emerged to enrich themselves in the “grandest larceny in history” (p.57). While the new Russia tried to appear as a responsible capitalist player in world markets, its “most powerful capitalists were raiding its commodities, trading these for dollars, then exporting the funds out of the country in the biggest single flight of capital the world has ever seen (p.57).” The oligarchs sent these huge sums to “obscure banks in every corner of the world, from Switzerland to the Pacific Island of Nauru, to be swallowed almost immediately in bafflingly complex money-laundering schemes” (p.58).

          The organized crime that resulted in the 1990s in Russia and Eastern Europe is intimately linked to public corruption, which spawns organized criminality “with a resolute determinism” (p.67; or, as we often said in Bulgaria, to succeed, a criminal organization needs to put at least one judge, one prosecutor, and one Parliamentarian on its payroll). Both organized crime and corruption flourish in “regions and countries where public trust in institutions is weak” (p.74).

          While the former Soviet Union and former Communist states of Eastern Europe are ground zero for the new wave of organized crime groups under Glenny’s analysis, his perspective is world-wide. He discusses the rise of organized syndicates in Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East. One gripping example is Nigeria, the “Broadway of Crime,” home to the “most successful culture of financial fraud in history, which has assumed a global capacity since the early 1990s” (p.168).

           With an insidiously crafty use of another phenomenon of the 1990s, the internet, Nigerians perfected “advanced fee fraud,” in which victims are asked to send cash upfront in exchange for a promise of much larger sums subsequently. Such scams are familiar throughout the world: appeals in wealthy countries to “come to the aid of an impoverished African child; letters, faxes and e-mail beseeching Americans in particular for funds to erect a new church or bolster a congregation are frequent” (p.165). Another lucrative target are the “lovelorn, in particular middle-aged widows and divorcées who develop virtual relationships with West African boy toys who slowly leech them of their savings as an advance of a sexual congress that never happens” (p.168).

          Advance fee fraudsters rarely face prosecution in Nigeria’s culture of corruption. Nigeria’s problem, Glenny writes, is “possibly the largest single difficulty for the successful globalization of commerce – the absence of the rule of law” (p.178), particularly the “absence of an impartial judiciary and a disinterested legal system” (p.179). Using Nigeria as his example, Glenny argues that for globalization to work, the global market needs to be a level playing field. But this raises the “awkward question of global governance and standards that might be compatible across the world” (p.179). In providing assistance to developing countries, both Europe and the United States send mixed messages:

On the one hand, they encourage transparency and good governance in the developing world by applying a system of conditionality that includes both punishment and incentives; on the other hand, they are desperate to secure energy supplies from countries such as Nigeria and are prepared to bend the rules, especially when confronted by the competitive pressure of Chinese and Indian oil requirements (p.179).

Unless the world’s developed countries can construct an “adequate regulatory mechanism – that is, some form of global governance,” Glenny warns, organized crime and corruption will “combine with protectionism and chauvinism to engender a very unstable and very dangerous world” (p.341).

* * *

          Skinner’s title comes from American abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who described slavery as an act “so unnatural, a crime so monstrous, a sin so God-defying, that it throws into the shade all other distinctions known among mankind” (p.229). Skinner insists that the term “human trafficking” is a euphemism and that we should call the phenomena “slavery.” A slave is “someone who is forced to work, through fraud or threat of violence, for no pay beyond subsistence” (p.289; as a retrograde, I still prefer the term “human trafficking,” with most working in the field using the acronym “TIP,” trafficking in persons). Such trafficking is most frequently for the purpose of sexual or labor exploitation. Not surprisingly, as authoritarian communist regimes collapsed and organized crime became global in the 1990s, the trafficking phenomenon “metastasized . . . faster than any other form of slave-trading in history” (p.132). Human trafficking became the “second most lucrative commodity for crime syndicates of all sizes, netting around $10 billion annually (p.132).”

          Skinner’s book starts and end in Haiti, with the first and last episodes dealing with “restavèks,” young Haitian children who work and live with another family, without remuneration and often in appalling circumstances. Skinner was able to get a close-up look at human trafficking and its victims in several other locations throughout the world. In Romania, he befriended Tatiana, who had been trafficked to Amsterdam for sexual exploitation, and shadowed a vice squad in Bucharest to observe sexual trafficking upclose. In India, Skinner visited a labor site dedicated to crushing rock into sand for a variety of products, run by Ramesh Garg. The men, women and children were ostensibly at the site to pay Garg for family debts that spanned generations. Garg “made his money by administering terror and savagery to entire families whom he forced to work for no pay beyond alcohol, grain and bare subsidence expenses” (p.205). Skinner also visited Sudan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Moldova, from which he provides additional graphic illustrations of modern day slavery.

          Interspersed with these examples is the story of the United States’ response to the rise of human trafficking throughout the world. The Clinton administration brought the issue to public attention through its support for the landmark 2000 Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) which, among other features, establishes a three-tier approach to grading countries around the world in their efforts to curtail human trafficking. Skinner contends that this three-tier approach is seriously flawed, in part because political considerations frequently influence a country’s ranking. Having seen close up how the United States ranks countries in Eastern Europe, I found his indictment against the system fully accurate.

           Most of my tour in Bulgaria was under the Bush administration. Going into this book, I was ready to give the administration high marks for its aggressive anti-trafficking efforts. Skinner, however, is less upbeat. He applauds the energy of John Miller, a Bush appointee as the first anti-trafficking Ambassador under the TVPA, who:

led a bold attack on a disgracefully overlooked crime against humanity. He personified an optimistic approach that abolition, real abolition, was possible. It was an attitude that stood in marked contrast to the cynicism of many international organizations. But he oversaw a policy that was defective before his arrival, and after his departure (p.289).

           The primary defect in Skinner’s view was the influence of right wing evangelicals within the Bush administration who undermined Miller by forcing him to focus almost exclusively on sex trafficking and prostitution, failing to see the extent of labor exploitation. Forced prostitutes, Skinner argues, were “usually the easiest to identify as slaves, particularly if they were underage,” whereas “factory slaves might appear simply to be underpaid sweatshop workers; farm slaves, fearing deportation, would rarely identify themselves; and neighbors might overlook domestic child slaves as merely chore-burdened adopted children” (p.283).

* * *

          Glenny’s book, once a near best-seller, provides specificity to former President Clinton’s observation that the organized crime which arose in the 1990s is the dark underside of globalization. Although Skinner’s book has remained more obscure, notwithstanding a foreword note by the late Richard Holbrooke, Skinner deserves credit for a passionate exposure of one of globalization’s darkest sides. Both books provide eye-opening accounts of the challenges that policy makers and law enforcement officials across the globe face in today’s inter-connected world.

Thomas H. Peebles
Rockville, Maryland
April 24, 2013


Filed under Rule of Law, Uncategorized

2 responses to “Criminals Without Borders

  1. Chanh X. Nguyen

    Part of Misha Glenny’s McMafia deals with history, especially with the Soviet Union’s collapse, when Russia’s new oligarchs raided the country’s commodities and organized “the biggest single flight of capital the world has ever seen”- thanks to the deregulation of international financial markets and an offshore banking network too eager to help.
    Even of more concern is human trafficking for sex and labor exploitation.
    In “A crime so monstrous” E. Benjamin Skinner exposed one of the ways the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 failed to fulfill its aim. Even if the Act establishes minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, assistance for foreign countries to meet those standards, and actions against those failing to meet them, political considerations often perversely interfered. Glenny concurred, citing competition with China and India in Nigeria, and so does our distinguished Reviewer out of his first hand experience in Eastern Europe.
    No less scary is our Reviewer candid revelation that in Bulgaria “criminal groups gradually expanded into legitimate businesses such as insurance, hotels and tourism” and that disabling them altogether would have a crippling effect on Bulgaria’s already shaking economy”!
    The International Herald Tribune estimated that “[m]ore slaves are now imported into the United States annually than were imported in an average year during the American colonial era.” Not so appealing a picture!

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