February 6, 2011 10:39 pm

The mob finds it hard to migrate

Mafias on the Move
By Federico Varese
Princeton University Press $35 (£24.95)

Organised crime is in many ways an international enterprise – suppliers of flesh, drugs and contraband operate in great trans­national networks, with hierarchical labour armies maintaining the flow through terror and extortion, bribery and high-level sanction. From Chinese DVD sellers (a trade that can involve murder and kidnap) to Romanian bag-snatching gangs using children trafficked into the UK, the world, according to Commander Sharon Kerr of the London specialist crime directorate, is experiencing “an exponential growth in serious and organised crime”.

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In his 2008 book McMafia, Misha Glenny estimates that the new international criminal networks account for about 15 per cent of the world’s gross domestic product – bound up with a spiralling level of corruption throughout much of the world.

Yet crime spreads in deliberate and rational (to the criminal) ways. Crime families and groups depend on kinship networks; they need a reputation for violence; they need time to grow and service their ties with officialdom and calibrate how far to use persuasion, how much to pay in bribes, how shocking should be their violence. None of this transplants easily.

Federico Varese, professor of criminology at the University of Oxford and an authority on mafias, has made his reputation in two ways. He is careful, painstaking, willing and able to pore through police, local authority and parliamentary files in search of hard facts. Yet he is as reckless as a freelance reporter out to make his name in the global badlands – trekking about the tougher areas of his native Italy, delving into the vicious gangs that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union and patiently acquiring on-the-ground knowledge of the Chinese crime world, growing at the same breakneck speed as the economy it both assists and corrupts.

His method is to compare mafia transplants with those that failed and assess what has made the difference. Most of his examples are from recent decades, but one chapter contrasts the fabled and wildly successful relocation of Mafiosi from Sicily to New York in the early part of the last century with the failed efforts of many Sicilian men of honour to establish themselves, in the same period, as masters of crime in the booming trading centre of Rosario, Argentina. Disputes, which mafias often make their name in settling, were subject to arbitration by entrenched local customs and the incomers could get no lock on labour supply to small enterprises.

They did so, however, in the 1960s and 1970s, in the town of Bardonecchia, near Turin – a part of Italy where civic values and interpersonal trust were thought to be high, but where transplanted individuals from Calabria, members of the ’Ndrangheta organisation, managed to lock on to the construction industry, supplying illegal labour to contractors. They also managed to ensure that an anti-Mafia mayor was replaced by a more accommodating politician and so cowed the population (including their priests and bishop) that protests against criminality were deserted while rallies in support of the accommodating politicians were well attended. A police report found “a very low propensity to help the authorities in their investigation”.

Yet in Verona, to which Mafiosi were also exiled at around the same time (Italy had a soggiorno obbligato for southern criminals, an internal exile), the strangers remained strange and unwelcome. It was a flourishing illegal drugs centre and many prominent fascists, with a propensity for thuggery, lived there. But the drugs marketeers were too many, too mobile and in no need of protection: the Calabrese stayed out in the cold.

The same was true of a Russian gang, the Solntsevo mafia, who moved to Italy in the 1990s. Though there was a rudimentary Russian criminal network, they never established a permanent organisation. Gang members did, however, succeed in Hungary – helped by a breakneck tumble into the market economy, scant protection for new enterprises from the state and the chance of controlling the oil market. They remain there still.

In China, Varese’s sojourns in the industrial metropolises of the south showed him that Triad gangs from Taiwan and Hong Kong were active, controlling gambling and prostitution, but that it was “the corrupt fragments of the state apparatus that matter”.

Especially in countries that have passed rapidly from state socialism to the market, what Varese calls a “protection deficit” allows mafias to flourish. Though transplantation can be hard, the trends favour the creation of more organised gangs. Even if mafias are local, the localities in which they flourish are likely to grow.

The writer is an FT columnist

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