McMafia author Misha Glenny lifts the lid on the stories behind his exposé of organised crime

When McMafia aired on TV last year, the hit drama lifted the lid on the world of international organised crime.

Friday, 29th March 2019, 4:21 pm
Updated Friday, 29th March 2019, 4:26 pm
Journalist and writer Misha Glenny will be giving a talk about his book McMafia at NST on April 11

It was based on a book sharing the same name written by journalist Misha Glenny a full decade earlier.

And so successful was the TV show it has not only earned a commission for a second season, Misha was invited to create his own live show talking about it.

After years of investigating and reporting on the most dangerous and sophisticated crime networks around the world, he takes us on a tour through the dark depths of world capitalism and corrupt intelligence agencies to explain what’s really happening behind the headlines – from Russian gangsters and Latin American cartel leaders to dodgy hedge funders and cyber hackers

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As a BBC foreign correspondent in eastern Europe in the late 1980s and 90s, he was perfectly placed to witness the rise of international organised crime.

The book had nearly reached the screen before, but it was only when Oscar-nominated writer Hossein Amini and the director James Watkins came on board that things started to get moving.

Misha explains: ‘Because their reputations were sky-high and I was a known quantity to the BBC, that means we jumped some –  not all – of the hurdles that you’re confronted with when turning a book into television. It’s like the 3,000m steeple chase, basically.

‘Once it got going, my responsibility was over – I had written the book, I was there as an advisor and ensuring authenticity, so when it came out I could soak up all of the glory without doing too much extra work, which I really liked!

‘When it came out last year, that for me was a wonderful moment, because when you write a nonfiction book, the last thing you expect is for it to end up a relatively big-budget TV drama.’

He was invited to talk about the book and show at the Edinburgh Festival, which in turn has led to a national tour. 

Misha had a personal interest in eastern Europe going back to his teens, so when he was a BBC correspondent for the region he was able to tap into what was happening, particularly in former Yugoslavia – where organised crime acted as ‘a hub for services that were coming from all over the world, Colombia, Afghanistan, women being trafficked from the former-Soviet Union, untaxed cigarettes coming from factories all over the world, and everything was streaming in to the EU.

‘Really McMafia emerged as I started as I began to follow the threads of that trade backwards and then around the world, and then I was able to identify that along with the globalisation of licit goods and services, you were getting a very rapid and effective globalisation of organised crime.’

Since the book was published in 2008 he has seen governments and security organisations wake up to the threat these international organisations pose.

‘When McMafia was first published people really did have their heads in the sand and everyone thought organised crime was from the era of The Godfather. 

‘McMafia was one of several events which pushed globalised or transnational organised crime onto the political agenda and it’s now recognised by security analysts and intelligence agencies around the world as one of the top three security challenges we all face.’

Here in the UK we are perhaps less aware of how far organised crime extends into every day life.

‘The extent of it in the UK is less well appreciated because organised crime’s business here is to shift product –  this is the end point of the international business chain of organised crime where they need to get the cocaine to the consumers or they need to have the brothels functioning for the punters and so on, so here organised crime tries to avoid confrontations with the state.

‘It doesn’t challenge the state as it does in places like Mexico or Afghanistan, so it’s under the radar a lot.

‘One of the main functions of the UK is a huge centre of money laundering and that is of course not a visible crime – it doesn’t impact on people directly.

‘If they knew how much it was done, they’d realise that one of the drivers of rises in house prices has been the speculative investment in residential properties in London in particular, and one or two other places.

‘It feels like a victimless crime, but it’s completely central to the way that international organised crime works. Without that facility then these big operations cannot enjoy the fruits of their criminal labours, and that’s why McMafia when it came out last year had such a forceful impact because  people knew there were a lot of rich Russians – and it’s not just Russians, it’s Saudis, it’s Chinese – and what they didn’t realise was quite how much the origins of that wealth was obscured because so much of it has been laundered by anonymous companies in the tax havens or the crown dependencies, whether that’s The Caymans, or Jersey or Guernsey and so on.’

Misha has since become something of an international expert in the field of organised crime and cyber crime – he is a visiting professor on the subject at Columbia University's Harriman Institute.

But given the nature of his work has he bumped heads with the wrong people?

‘I’ve had threats from organisations in Montenegro and Bulgaria. The threats from the Bulgarians went away because the person making the threat went away – his life was ended prematurely. Nothing to do with me I hasten to add!

‘In Montenegro I ruffled the feathers of the then president, so he put a warning shot across my bows, but otherwise I’m always very careful when I meet people.

‘I spend months in advance communicating with them through intermediaries and trying to explain to them what I’m doing and that I’m not particularly interested in denouncing them as murderers or whatever – and I have to be very careful in communicating that! 

‘I’m interested in their lives. I will succeed 50 per cent of the time in getting to see them. I insist on seeing them in person, I won’t do it over email or Skype. Then I always start by asking them about their childhood, their parents, their school. 

‘I need to get them talking about themselves in a relaxed and honest fashion before I move on to the more contentious things. And it almost always works because although they’re involved in criminal activity, like most human beings there’s nothing they love more than talking about themselves.’

And it’s tapping into that ‘human’ side of these figures that has enabled Misha to get to grips with such incredible stories.

‘Most people involved in organised crime, particularly in unstable countries believe that they are not just criminals, but that they also have a social function and that’s because organised crime is successful where the state is weak or incompetent or simply lacking in resources, and what they do is they take over the function of the state.

‘Like this guy I wrote about in my last book [Nemesis: One Man and the Battle for Rio], Antonio –  he was the government of the largest favela in Rio. Because he ran the cocaine trade he was effectively the head of the chamber of commerce, he was prime minister and he was head of the police. It’s a big community of 100,000 people. He wasn’t elected, but the government really provides very few services or engagement with the people who live there. If it’s 100,000 people that’s a big responsibility. ‘But of course, what these figures can’t have is any accountability, so even if they do provide any services, as Antonio did, they are still a dictatorship.’

But it’s not all stories to give you nightmare in Misha’s show.

Misha adds: ‘There’s also an element of stand-up to the show because believe it or not, some areas of organised crime are very funny!’

MISHA GLENNY: MCMAFIA

NST Campus, Southampton

Thursday, April 11