Mobsters get homesick too

Misha Glenny

  • Mafias on the Move: How Organised Crime Conquers New Territories by Federico Varese
    Princeton, 278 pp, £24.95, March 2011, ISBN 978 0 691 12855 9

Robert Friedman’s Red Mafiya: How the Russian Mob Has Invaded America came out in 2000. Two years before that, in June 1998, he received a phone call from Mike McCall, an FBI agent. McCall warned him that his investigation into Russian organised crime was proving dangerous. ‘I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings,’ McCall said, ‘but a major Russian organised crime figure has taken out a contract on your life.’ Reporting conflicts like those in Yugoslavia or Sierra Leone was a risky business for journalists in the post-Cold War world, but nobody expected that they would start getting whacked by foreign mafia hitmen in the middle of New York or London. Friedman died in 2002, of a rare disease rather than a bullet to the head. But in the two years before his death, he lived in fear that he had been earmarked for execution.

Friedman was a courageous reporter, and came to understand a good deal about the inner workings of Russian organised crime, but he was wrong to believe that it had embarked on an inexorable drive to capture America’s rich and varied criminal markets. In his account, the Russians had started from their bridgehead in Brighton Beach (or Little Odessa, as it is sometimes called) and brushed aside both law enforcement and criminal competitors by deploying levels of violence that would make even New York’s Five Families tremble. Earlier this year, a senior FBI official involved in criminal intelligence told me that in the 1990s ‘all the talk was of how the Russian and other East European mafias would be migrating over here, to Western Europe and around the world to undermine our institutions, banks, companies and so on by using them to launder money and facilitate other activities.’ But, he said, this has turned out to be nonsense: ‘The fact is they don’t need to because with the presence of international companies and banks in Russia, they can do it all without leaving home. No company looking for a slice of the Russian market is going to block organised crime from reinvesting its profits: the company wouldn’t last five minutes in Russia if it did. So why would the syndicates risk homesickness or being busted by the FBI when they can work unhindered at home?’ This explanation makes some sense. Collusion between corrupt networks in the former Soviet Union and Western-owned companies has been well documented; most foreign businesses have had little choice but to cut a few shady deals if they want to have any chance of gaining access to the local market.

But this isn’t the whole story. Another reason the Russian mob has been much less dynamic in overseas territories than Friedman and many others expected is that any mafia organisation faces huge obstacles in ‘transplanting’ itself from one jurisdiction to another. Indeed, it is hard not to feel sympathy for some of the mafiosi Federico Varese describes in his meticulous study of mafia transplantation, as they struggle to make an impact in a foreign country where they don’t speak the language and nobody is interested in the protection they have to offer. If Varese is right – and it would be hard to dispute his evidence – most mafia groups seeking new turf eventually either go back home with their tails between their legs or give up being gangsters and take up a less disreputable profession. Some, of course, are the victims of unfortunate accidents.

Varese begins with a grim vignette detailing the fate of the pseudonymous Boris Sergeev, an unappealing chancer who was enmeshed in attempts by the Solntsevo Bratva – reputed to be Moscow’s largest criminal federation – to install a new chapter in Rome. Sergeev was shot dead at an expensive Moscow hotel whose security staff appear to have been temporarily and inexplicably off their guard. Varese’s account of the Solntsevo Bratva’s three-year-long attempt to expand into Italy is a catalogue of failures that would be more appropriate as the basis for a screwball comedy than a follow-up to The Godfather.

Having told Sergeev’s story, Varese shifts register to discuss mafia transplantation in general. (Varese, whose remarkable first book, The Russian Mafia, also alternated between storytelling and analysis, is one of the most acute students of global organised crime and a gripping storyteller. Reading Mafias on the Move, I was at times disappointed to be directed back to the analysis: all I wanted was to know who was going to get wasted and who wasn’t.) Mafia groups typically act as informal policemen who make themselves available as arbitrators to buyers and sellers in markets that the state is either unwilling or unable to regulate. In Sicily itself, Diego Gambetta and others have traced the origins of the mafia back to the first half of the 19th century, when they acted as middlemen whose function was to ensure fair play in the agricultural markets of central and western Sicily (to this day the mafia has only a limited presence in eastern Sicily, which shows how difficult it is to expand zones of criminal influence). They would guarantee the price of cattle or fruit at market and see to it that buyer and seller stuck to their agreement. They would be paid for their services, but if one of the players failed to pay his dues, the mafia would in all likelihood resort to violence – or, at the very least, the credible threat of violence.

An important implication of Gambetta’s work and Varese’s too is that mafias are not the product of particular cultures (mountain dwellers, southern Europeans, inheritors of the Samurai tradition etc) so much as of specific economic and political conditions. Once a mafia offering protection services establishes itself in a culture, it tends to grow long, tough roots that are often very hard to remove – as the United States has discovered.

Across the world, mafias police both legal and illegal markets. It could be restaurants, it could be drugs, though it’s quite rare for them to give up their core protection service to try their hand as restaurateurs. Drugs, because prohibited, are far more lucrative. Mafias determine who has access to the market and have little reason not to exploit their advantage (it doesn’t follow that mafiosi are necessarily good drug dealers). This is where a mafia’s participation in an illegal market and its protection of that market begin to blur, but the distinction is important in trying to understand how the underground economy works. A mafia seeks to exploit an absent or weak state. It assumes the state’s policing responsibilities and usurps some of its monopoly on violence, but also corruptly co-opts or absorbs state institutions and representatives. The narcotics smuggler or human trafficker, by contrast, is simply challenging the state’s definition of the legality of markets.

Varese looks at several instances where mafias have attempted to transplant themselves in regions well away from their home territory. Most transplants are a consequence of compulsion, and the soggiorno obbligato – the enforced migration of convicted criminals from the south of Italy to elsewhere in the country – offers Varese the perfect opportunity to study how transplantation works and why it sometimes fails. In the 1950s, the Italian criminal justice system began trying to break up the networks of the Mafia in Sicily, the ’Ndrangheta in Calabria and the Camorra in Naples and Campania by sending their members to northern Italy, where very different social and political conditions pertained. In the north there were high levels of trust both within communities and between them and state institutions. A powerful trade-union movement and well-organised business associations ensured that the labour market was subject to relatively effective institutional checks and balances, so there was no demand for a non-state regulator like the mafia.

But in Bardonecchia, a town in the far north-west on the border with France, things started happening soon after the arrival of several serious players from the ’Ndrangheta, the least well known outside Italy of the three major mafia groupings, yet today arguably the most powerful. Their arrival in this small town coincided with its becoming a fashionable tourist area, especially popular as a weekend getaway for the middle classes of Turin and Milan. A suddenly lively construction industry required more labourers than the local market could supply. Watching from behind his shades on his soggiorno obbligato was Rocco Lo Presti, named as if for Hollywood and always ready to seize an opportunity. Before the new workforce was properly organised, Lo Presti arranged for several hundred workers from his home region in Calabria to move north and sign up with the companies building the holiday homes. Lo Presti guaranteed a steady supply of low-cost builders, and the unions were kept well away as the men were grateful for the work and didn’t cause trouble.

Lo Presti’s hold on the market allowed him to extend his influence deeper and deeper into the inner workings of Bardonecchia, until eventually he controlled the outcome of local elections. Only one courageous mayor, Mario Corino, tried in vain to halt the process, in the 1970s. Contrasting the case of Bardonecchia with the mafia’s failure to assume the role of protector of the narcotics trade in Verona, Varese identifies the conditions necessary for a successful mafia transplantation, the sine qua non of which is the emergence of a new and vibrant market.

The southern Italian migration into New York coincided roughly with Prohibition, which was crucial in consolidating the power of the Five Families in New York and beyond. The parallels with today’s narcotics industry (which underwrites the vast fortunes of criminal networks the world over) are inescapable. But Varese follows his account of the mafia’s success in New York with a delightful tale of its unsuccessful attempt to take over the town of Rosario in Argentina at the same time. In detailing such examples of success and failure, Varese counters the idea that since the 1990s various national mafias have been breaking out of their home territories and spreading around the world without resistance. But, if he is right, how to explain the spectacular rise in global criminal activity over the last two decades? The answer is simple: the early 1990s saw an explosion of new markets around the world, not just in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe but in China, India, Brazil, South Africa, Vietnam – the list is very long. Each market had its own specific cultural contours, some of which foreign mafias were able to exploit, some of which they couldn’t. In South Africa, for example, Nigerian organised crime groups were able to establish themselves even before the elections of April 1994 that brought Mandela and the ANC to power. The Nigerians noticed that the black, coloured and white communities consumed different drugs, so they started introducing whites to marijuana and amphetamines while taking cocaine and heroin into the black and coloured communities. They were comfortable moving from the townships into affluent white communities and back, and they proved far more effective middlemen in a number of business sectors than any of the locals (there is a nod to their success in the excellent South African science fiction movie District 9).

In China, however, the established triad networks of Hong Kong and Taiwan have found the deepening relationship in mainland China between ‘privatised law enforcement agencies’ (as some sociologists like to call the mafia) and local Communist Party officials too powerful a network to dislodge (despite the eradication by Mao and his successors of many of the organised crime groups that dominated life in cities like Shanghai until 1949). The triads were more experienced than the local networks and didn’t face the usual language barriers, yet even so they haven’t dared to challenge the indigenous criminal groups now profiting from China’s inability to control its raging new markets.

At the same time, commercial activity across borders has swelled as crime groups exploit the new opportunities that globalisation offers. Some of the heroin produced in Myanmar’s border regions is diverted through Guangzhou into Hong Kong for local use and exported elsewhere in East Asia and on to the United States. In this instance, local narcotics traffickers (whose protection is often provided by the thoroughly corrupt Guangzhou police force) are happy to collaborate with the triads of Hong Kong as business partners and neighbours.

Although mafia transplantation has in general been limited since the end of the Cold War, co-operation between organised crime groups along the lines of production, distribution and retail of prohibited commodities has jumped significantly. Russian organised crime maintains contacts in Bulgaria, Italy, Colombia, the United States, Britain and many other countries where local groups may be interested in buying or selling their products, or laundering their money. The Russians will have a presence there but are unlikely to be the dominant group in the territory.

Organised crime is now a huge presence in the global economy. It is parasitic but by no means always debilitating. In the most extreme cases, it can cause major disruptions to the functioning of the state and the licit economy, as we see every day in Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. In such places as Somalia and Guinea-Bissau it plays a decisive political role. Even in advanced industrial nations, like Japan and Italy, the state has been unable to counter the pervasive influence of mafia structures in parts of the country.

With the dramatic recent increase in the demand for illicit goods and services, police resources around the world are simply insufficient to threaten illegal markets. And as long as drug prohibition remains the legislative standard, organised criminal groups around the world will have a substantial financial base. Nonetheless, scholars like Varese are beginning to show that rational social and economic policies can reduce criminal influence in both licit and illicit markets. It remains to be seen whether the online world presents barriers to the transplantation of mafia structures similar to those in the real world and what novel set of problems awaits law enforcement and security agencies as we enter the era of cybercrime.