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McMafia, where crime is supersized
Author and journalist Misha Glenny talks international syndicates and the power of television
Special to The Globe and Mail

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Thursday, February 22, 2018 – Page A17

For a man telling a terrifying tale, Misha Glenny is startlingly chill. During an interview in Toronto last week, Glenny (an author, BBC correspondent and Guardian journalist) walked me through the world of McMafia - both his 2008 non-fiction bestseller and the new eight-hour BBC/AMC drama series that's been spun from it, of which he's a producer.

What a tangled, treacherous world it is, where the collapse of the Soviet Union, the loosening of international monetary laws, the rise of the internet, the globalization of capital, the greed of bankers and politicians, the ease and anonymity of cryptocurrency and the cunning of cybercriminals come together to create a dark economy of human trafficking, gun running, drug smuggling and money laundering.

Much of the latter takes place via shadowy real estate purchases in Vancouver, London and New York - hello, Trump Organization.

Since the series premiered in Britain on Jan. 1 - it arrives in Canada and the United States on Feb. 26, and will be shown around the world on Amazon - not a day has gone by in British news without some McMafia reference. Not on the TV pages - in the international, business, crime and comment sections. The Russian embassy tweeted objections. Russian papers called Glenny for interviews. Two weeks ago, British Parliament proposed legislation that would allow the assets of foreigners to be seized if they couldn't prove they were earned legally; it was instantly christened "the McMafia law." The series's star, James Norton, has been touted as the next James Bond. The 10-year-old book is back on bestseller lists, and hit No. 20 on Amazon. Glenny's next book, Nemesis, about the cocaine lord who ran the largest favela in Rio de Janeiro, has been optioned for a feature film.

Growing up in London, Glenny, 59, was forever being cheek-kissed by the Russian guests of his father, Michael, a translator and academic. Droll, Oxford-educated, alarmingly intelligent, Glenny spent his 20s as a political activist, smuggling books and dismembered Xerox machines into Eastern Europe to aid opposition movements such as Poland's Solidarity. As a freelance journalist in the eighties, he chronicled upheavals in Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia.

In the nineties, he watched as nascent capitalism in Russia became linked with the emergence of vast organized-crime networks.

In a wide-ranging conversation, Glenny discussed international syndicates, whether he fears for his life and the power of television. Here are some highlights.

Is Canada part of McMafia?

It helps to divide organized crime into zones of production, like Colombia and Afghanistan; zones of distribution, like Yugoslavia or Mexico; and zones of consumption, like the United States and Europe. Canada is fascinating because it's all three at once. It produces a lot of marijuana and synthetic drugs such as MDMA. It's also a distribution hub because the U.S./ Canada border is unpoliceable at the moment. And you have the sensitive issue of First Nations territories that cross the border, which are used occasionally for shifting product. And the icing on the cake, which we also have in London, is that Canada is a currency-laundering centre. Half of the top 100 properties in Vancouver, nobody knows who the owners are. They hide behind anonymous companies. They could be KGB officers, bent Canadian businessmen, Colombian drug dealers, Nigerian oilmen. We don't know.

You spill a lot of secrets in your work.

Have you ever feared for your life?

My friend Roberto Saviano wrote Gomorra, about the Camorra, the Naples crime syndicate. He detailed secrets and named names. Now he lives surrounded by seven guards, moving house every night, with his family in witness protection. I do something different. I go around the world, talk to gangsters and map the world of organized crime - but also its absolutely critical twin, the corruption of bankers, lawyers and politicians. After money laundering, crime syndicates move on to reputation laundering. They may get upset with me, but because they're trying to appear straight, the last thing they would do is go after me.

How did you and the series's creators, Hossein Amini and James Watkins, fictionalize such sprawling information?

Hos, James and I started talking in early 2013. Hos makes no secret that one of his biggest influences is The Godfather.

The main character, Alex Godman [Norton], is the London-born son of a Russian gangster. He begins Episode 1 as an upright banker.

Then, like Michael Corleone, he's pulled into crime.

Some of the characters are fictionalized composites of real people. And all of the crime storylines are true. In Episode 2, we watch a Russian woman kidnapped in Cairo by Orthodox Christians, taken by Muslims and Bedouins and then handed to Jewish Israeli gangsters.

That's all true. In organized crime, national and confessional divisions are frequently meaningless. They all work together.

You spent three weeks in the show's writers' room. And you brought in special guests.

The writers were able to ask me, would this product be moving from Mumbai to East Africa or South Africa? I'd tell them the routes and the groups involved. I brought in a guy who was a close associate of several Russian organized-crime syndicates in the nineties. I brought in a criminal hacker. He happened to be there on the same morning as the director of Europol, the European police force. We had to take the hacker out the back route.

You do a cameo in Episode 5.

I play a BBC reporter, so it was falling off a log. James rang me up the week before, "Can you get to Split, Croatia, on Monday?" I said, "Hold the front page, I'm there." ... It was fantastic fun.

I also visited the set in Belgrade, Zagreb and London. We shot the exteriors in France, Russia and Prague. The interiors, deserts, beaches and fancy houses are done in Croatia.

What can TV exposure bring that a book alone can't?

This subject ... goes to the very heart of the crises we're seeing in the world today.

Cybercrime has completely revolutionized crime. It requires no violence whatsoever.

You can sit in Kazakhstan, attack someone in L.A. and cash out the money in Dubai.

People need to know about this, and with a TV show, you can reach tens of millions of people at the same time.

What can be done?

The battle is on. Since my book was published, McMafia culture has spread - the financial crisis, the rise of authoritarianism in the West, the rise in political corruption.

... But we've also seen forces of resistance emerge. The publication of the Panama and Paradise Papers was really important.

You have NGOs such as Transparency International or Global Witness, which have been uncovering this stuff and publishing it. At the heart of all of this is the rise in economic inequality over the past 40 years.

Manufacturing and traditional capitalism have been seized by financial capitalism, which is one of the most parasitic phenomena history has ever witnessed.

Sounds like good material for Seasons 2 and 3.

We've already got them arced out. We're just waiting to be renewed.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Associated Graphic

Merab Ninidze features in McMafia, a new eight-hour BBC/AMC drama series spun from Misha Glenny's bestselling book of the same name.

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