McMafia : A Journey through the Criminal Underworld, is a remarkable piece of journalism by Misha Glenny. He follows corruption and organised crime around the word, drawing on interviews that reveal the global encircling of Mafia-like activity. His likening of it to international franchises, notably McDonalds, has given rise to the term McMafia wealth order. The first use of this term is the targeting of Zamira Hajiyeva by the National Crime Agency, in the UK, seeking to get her to explain how she came by the £16 million she spent in Harrods. The requirement for her to give an account of the source of her wealth is the first charge under a new anti-corruption law. In her case the fact that she is the wife of a former Azerbaijani banker, who was jailed for stealing millions from his state-controlled bank, adds to the suspiciousness of her spending spree.
The subsequent fictionalizing of Glenny’s book, with its James Bond style and satisfyingly comeuppance ending, took some of the sting out of what is a serious international concern. The seeping into political activities of organised criminal groups throughout the world in quite factual, although the extent of this is, by its very nature, difficult to assess. The secret, carefully hidden activities of those criminals who form some sort of organisation are much more difficult to penetrate than the average burglar or rapist who ends up in captivity, thus available for interview and psychological dissection. Consequently the 500+ page tome that is The Handbook of Organised Crime and Politics, which reviews studies of the interactions between organised criminals and politicians across about 30 countries from every continent, is a timely and salutary introduction to an importantly growing area of social science.
The book is edited by Felia Allum, a senior lecturer in politics at the University of Bath, UK and Stan Gilmour, a local area policing commander in Reading, UK. Such a rare combination of academic and practitioner speaks to the increasing sophistication of some British police officers as well as the embracing of issues of public significance by British academics. But far from being journalistic, or just exhortations to do better, the book is packed with hard-won accounts of the links around the globe between many different forms of systematic criminality and political processes.
Central to the argument of the book is the recognition that whilst the concept of ‘organised crime’ is a loose one, any group of three or more people who work together over time to break the law for financial or other material gain, pose a particular challenge to the rule of law. These networks range from street gangs, through variable sets of individuals on to those that have settled organisations. The latter often given the generic label of a ‘mafia’. The crucial findings across studies in Europe, the Americas and South East Asia is that in many places politicians benefit from the support of criminal organisations. In turn those organisations require the backing of politicians.
The interactions between criminals and politicians can range from lobbying, seeking preferential treatment for contracts in return for help in getting out the vote, as in South Africa for example, through to nepotism which opens the door to criminal influence on policy, common in South East Asia, through to overt corruption, a problem endemic in Eastern Europe.
The societal destructiveness of the corrupt influences is most apparent in the way natural resources are the focus of exploitation. Most obvious in Africa, these processes syphon off much needed income from the population at large. They also blight the environment contributing to its degradation, a further impact on the local inhabitants as well as contributing to larger scale disasters.
The message of the book comes through clearly. Weak states and those in transition, with fragmented political system provide the milieu for organised crime to flourish. Limited or no international cooperation further enfeebles state agencies in tackling the globalised nature of organised crime that Misha Glenny so thoroughly documents. In this regard it is therefore curious that there is no reference to the UK in the book. Its current politics is certainly fragmented, is in an unpredictable state of transition and risks losing its international collaborations. Zamira Hajiyeva’s exotic spending spree demonstrates the vulnerability of the UK to money laundering at the very least, and in all probability to other forms of corruption.
The book is consequently a crucial wakeup call to the “hidden and dangerous relationship” between organised crime and politics. It raises the urgent need develop ways of combatting this poisonous link in order to “safeguard democracy and the rule of law”.