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TEDGlobal 2009

Misha Glenny: How global crime networks work

July 23, 2009

Journalist Misha Glenny spent several years in a courageous investigation of organized crime networks worldwide, which have grown to an estimated 15% of the global economy. From the Russian mafia, to giant drug cartels, his sources include not just intelligence and law enforcement officials but criminal insiders.

Misha Glenny - Underworld investigator
Journalist Misha Glenny leaves no stone unturned (and no failed state unexamined) in his excavation of criminal globalization. Full bio

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These are grim economic times,
00:12
fellow TEDsters, grim economic times indeed.
00:15
And so, I would like to cheer you up
00:18
with one of the great, albeit largely unknown,
00:21
commercial success stories
00:24
of the past 20 years.
00:26
Comparable, in its own very peculiar way,
00:28
to the achievements of Microsoft or Google.
00:31
And it's an industry which has bucked the current recession
00:34
with equanimity.
00:37
I refer to organized crime.
00:39
Now organized crime has been around
00:42
for a very long time, I hear you say,
00:44
and these would be wise words, indeed.
00:47
But in the last two decades,
00:49
it has experienced an unprecedented expansion,
00:52
now accounting for roughly 15 percent
00:55
of the world's GDP.
00:59
I like to call it the Global Shadow Economy,
01:01
or McMafia, for short.
01:04
So what triggered this extraordinary growth
01:07
in cross-border crime?
01:10
Well, of course, there is globalization,
01:12
technology, communications, all that stuff,
01:14
which we'll talk about a little bit later.
01:17
But first, I would like to take you back
01:20
to this event:
01:23
the collapse of communism.
01:25
All across Eastern Europe, a most momentous episode
01:27
in our post-war history.
01:31
Now it's time for full disclosure.
01:33
This event meant a great deal to me personally.
01:36
I had started smuggling books across the Iron Curtain
01:39
to Democratic opposition groups in Eastern Europe,
01:43
like Solidarity in Poland,
01:45
when I was in my teens.
01:47
I then started writing about Eastern Europe,
01:49
and eventually I became the BBC's chief correspondent for the region,
01:53
which is what I was doing in 1989.
01:57
And so when 425 million people
02:01
finally won the right
02:05
to choose their own governments,
02:07
I was ecstatic,
02:09
but I was also a touch worried
02:12
about some of the nastier things
02:14
lurking behind the wall.
02:16
It wasn't long, for example,
02:18
before ethnic nationalism
02:20
reared its bloody head
02:22
in Yugoslavia.
02:24
And amongst the chaos,
02:26
amidst the euphoria,
02:28
it took me a little while to understand
02:30
that some of the people who had wielded power
02:32
before 1989, in Eastern Europe,
02:35
continued to do so after the revolutions there.
02:39
Obviously there were characters like this.
02:43
But there were also some more unexpected people
02:47
who played a critical role in what was going on in Eastern Europe.
02:51
Like this character. Remember these guys?
02:55
They used to win the gold medals in weightlifting
02:58
and wrestling, every four years in the Olympics,
03:00
and they were the great celebrities of communism,
03:03
with a fabulous lifestyle to go with it.
03:06
They used to get great apartments in the center of town,
03:09
casual sex on tap,
03:11
and they could travel to the West very freely,
03:13
which was a great luxury at the time.
03:16
It may come as a surprise, but they played a critical role
03:19
in the emergence of the market economy
03:23
in Eastern Europe.
03:25
Or as I like to call them, they are
03:27
the midwives of capitalism.
03:29
Here are some of those same weightlifters
03:31
after their 1989 makeover.
03:34
Now in Bulgaria --
03:37
this photograph was taken in Bulgaria --
03:40
when communism collapsed all over Eastern Europe,
03:42
it wasn't just communism;
03:45
it was the state that collapsed as well.
03:47
That means your police force wasn't working.
03:49
The court system wasn't functioning properly.
03:51
So what was a business man in the brave new world
03:54
of East European capitalism going to do
03:59
to make sure that his contracts would be honored?
04:01
Well, he would turn to people who were called, rather prosaically
04:05
by sociologists, privatized law enforcement agencies.
04:08
We prefer to know them as the mafia.
04:12
And in Bulgaria, the mafia was soon joined
04:16
with 14,000 people
04:19
who were sacked from their jobs in the security services
04:21
between 1989 and 1991.
04:25
Now, when your state is collapsing,
04:27
your economy is heading south at a rate of knots,
04:31
the last people you want coming on to the labor market
04:34
are 14,000 men and women whose chief skills
04:37
are surveillance,
04:40
are smuggling, building underground networks
04:42
and killing people.
04:45
But that's what happened all over Eastern Europe.
04:48
Now, when I was working in the 1990s,
04:51
I spent most of the time covering
04:56
the appalling conflict in Yugoslavia.
04:59
And I couldn't help notice
05:02
that the people who were perpetrating the appalling atrocities,
05:04
the paramilitary organizations,
05:08
were actually the same people running
05:11
the organized criminal syndicates.
05:13
And I came to think that behind the violence
05:16
lay a sinister criminal enterprise.
05:20
And so I resolved to travel around the world
05:23
examining this global criminal underworld
05:27
by talking to policemen,
05:30
by talking to victims, by talking to consumers
05:32
of illicit goods and services.
05:35
But above all else, by talking to the gangsters themselves.
05:37
And the Balkans was a fabulous place to start.
05:42
Why? Well of course
05:45
there was the issue of law and order collapsing,
05:47
but also, as they say in the retail trade,
05:49
it's location, location, location.
05:51
And what I noticed at the beginning of my research
05:55
that the Balkans had turned into a vast transit zone
05:57
for illicit goods and services coming from all over the world.
06:02
Heroin, cocaine,
06:05
women being trafficked into prostitution
06:07
and precious minerals.
06:10
And where were they heading?
06:12
The European Union, which by now
06:14
was beginning to reap the benefits of globalization,
06:16
transforming it into
06:20
the most affluent consumer market in history,
06:22
eventually comprising some 500 million people.
06:25
And a significant minority
06:28
of those 500 million people
06:31
like to spend some of their leisure time and spare cash
06:33
sleeping with prostitutes,
06:36
sticking 50 Euro notes up their nose
06:38
and employing illegal migrant laborers.
06:41
Now, organized crime in a globalizing world
06:44
operates in the same way as any other business.
06:48
It has zones of production,
06:50
like Afghanistan and Columbia.
06:53
It has zones of distribution,
06:56
like Mexico and the Balkans.
06:58
And then, of course, it has zones of consumption,
07:01
like the European Union, Japan
07:05
and of course, the United States.
07:07
The zones of production and distribution
07:10
tend to lie in the developing world,
07:13
and they are often threatened by appalling violence
07:16
and bloodshed.
07:20
Take Mexico, for example.
07:22
Six thousand people killed there in the last 18 months
07:24
as a direct consequence of the cocaine trade.
07:28
But what about the Democratic Republic of Congo?
07:32
Since 1998, five million people have died there.
07:36
It's not a conflict you read about much in the newspapers,
07:42
but it's the biggest conflict on this planet
07:44
since the Second World War.
07:47
And why is it? Because mafias from all around the world
07:49
cooperate with local paramilitaries
07:52
in order to seize the supplies
07:55
of the rich mineral resources
07:58
of the region.
08:00
In the year 2000, 80 percent of the world's coltan
08:02
was sourced to the killing fields
08:06
of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
08:08
Now, coltan you will find in almost every mobile phone,
08:12
in almost every laptop
08:16
and games console.
08:18
The Congolese war lords were selling this stuff to the mafia
08:20
in exchange for weapons,
08:23
and the mafia would then sell it on to Western markets.
08:25
And it is this Western desire
08:29
to consume
08:31
that is the primary driver
08:33
of international organized crime.
08:36
Now, let me show you some of my friends in action,
08:39
caught conveniently on film by the Italian police,
08:43
and smuggling duty-not-paid cigarettes.
08:46
Now, cigarettes out the factory gate are very cheap.
08:49
The European Union then imposes the highest taxes on them in the world.
08:52
So if you can smuggle them into the E.U.,
08:56
there are very handsome profits to be made,
08:59
and I want to show you this to demonstrate
09:02
the type of resources available to these groups.
09:04
This boat is worth one million Euros when it's new.
09:07
And it's the fastest thing on European waters.
09:11
From 1994, for seven years,
09:15
20 of these boats
09:18
made the trip across the Adriatic,
09:20
from Montenegro to Italy, every single night.
09:23
And as a consequence of this trade,
09:26
Britain alone lost eight billion dollars in revenue.
09:28
And instead that money went to underwrite the wars in Yugoslavia
09:33
and line the pockets of unscrupulous individuals.
09:37
Now Italian police, when this trade started,
09:41
had just two boats which could go at the same speed.
09:44
And this is very important, because the only way you can catch these guys
09:48
is if they run out of gas.
09:50
Sometimes the gangsters would bring with them
09:53
women being trafficked into prostitution,
09:55
and if the police intervened, they would hurl
09:58
the women into the sea
10:00
so that the police had to go and save them from drowning,
10:03
rather than chasing the bad guys.
10:05
So I have shown you this to demonstrate
10:09
how many boats, how many vessels it takes
10:12
to catch one of these guys.
10:14
And the answer is six vessels.
10:16
And remember, 20 of these speed boats
10:18
were coming across the Adriatic
10:21
every single night.
10:23
So what were these guys doing with all the money they were making?
10:25
Well, this is where we come to globalization,
10:29
because that was not just the deregulation of global trade.
10:33
It was the liberalization of international financial markets.
10:36
And boy, did that make it easy
10:39
for the money launderers.
10:42
The last two decades have been the champagne era
10:44
for dirty lucre.
10:47
In the 1990s, we saw financial centers around the world
10:49
competing for their business,
10:53
and there was simply no effective mechanism
10:56
to prevent money laundering.
10:58
And a lot of licit banks were also happy
11:00
to accept deposits
11:03
from very dubious sources
11:06
without questions being asked.
11:08
But at the heart of this, is the offshore banking network.
11:11
Now these things
11:15
are an essential part of the money laundering parade,
11:18
and if you want to do something about illegal tax evasion
11:21
and transnational organized crime, money laundering,
11:25
you have to get rid of them.
11:29
On a positive note, we at last have someone in the White House
11:31
who has consistently spoken out
11:34
against these corrosive entities.
11:37
And if anyone is concerned about what I believe
11:40
is the necessity for
11:44
new legislation, regulation, effective regulation,
11:47
I say, let's take a look at Bernie Madoff,
11:50
who is now going to be spending the rest of his life in jail.
11:54
Bernie Madoff stole 65 billion dollars.
11:58
That puts him up there on the Olympus of gangsters
12:04
with the Colombian cartels
12:07
and the major Russian crime syndicates,
12:09
but he did this for decades
12:12
in the very heart of Wall Street,
12:14
and no regulator picked up on it.
12:16
So how many other Madoffs are there on Wall Street
12:19
or in the city of London,
12:22
fleecing ordinary folk
12:24
and money laundering?
12:26
Well I can tell you, it's quite a few of them.
12:28
Let me go on to the 101 of international organized crime now.
12:32
And that is narcotics. Our second marijuana farm photograph for the morning.
12:36
This one, however, is in central British Columbia
12:40
where I photographed it.
12:43
It's one of the tens of thousands
12:45
of mom-and-pop grow-ops in B.C.
12:47
which ensure that over five percent
12:50
of the province's GDP is accounted for by this trade.
12:53
Now, I was taken by inspector Brian Cantera,
12:57
of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police,
13:02
to a cavernous warehouse east of Vancouver
13:04
to see some of the goods which are regularly confiscated
13:06
by the RCMP
13:10
from the smugglers who are sending it,
13:12
of course, down south to the United States
13:14
where there is an insatiable market
13:17
for B.C. Bud, as it's called,
13:19
in part because it's marketed as organic,
13:22
which of course goes down very well in California.
13:24
(Laughter)
13:28
(Applause)
13:30
Now, even by the police's admission,
13:31
this makes not a dent in the profits, really,
13:34
of the major exporters.
13:39
Since the beginning of globalization,
13:41
the global narcotics market has expanded enormously.
13:43
There has, however, been no concomitant increase
13:47
in the resources available
13:50
to police forces.
13:53
This, however, may all be about to change,
13:55
because something very strange is going on.
14:00
The United Nations recognized
14:02
earlier this -- it was last month actually --
14:04
that Canada has become a key area of distribution and production
14:07
of ecstasy and other synthetic drugs.
14:13
Interestingly, the market share
14:17
of heroin and cocaine is going down,
14:19
because the pills are getting ever better at reproducing their highs.
14:22
Now that is a game changer,
14:27
because it shifts production away from the developing world
14:31
and into the Western world.
14:35
When that happens, it is a trend
14:39
which is set to overwhelm our policing capacity in the West.
14:41
The drugs policy which we've had in place for 40 years
14:45
is long overdue for a very serious rethink,
14:49
in my opinion.
14:54
Now, the recession.
14:56
Well, organized crime has already adapted
14:58
very well to the recession.
15:00
Not surprising, the most opportunistic industry
15:02
in the whole world.
15:04
And it has no rules to its regulatory system.
15:06
Except, of course, it has two business risks:
15:10
arrest by law enforcement,
15:14
which is, frankly, the least of their worries,
15:16
and competition from other groups,
15:18
i.e. a bullet in the back of the head.
15:21
What they've done is they've shifted their operations.
15:23
People don't smoke as much dope, or visit prostitutes quite so frequently
15:26
during a recession.
15:30
And so instead, they have invaded financial
15:32
and corporate crime in a big way,
15:34
but above all, two sectors,
15:36
and that is counterfeit goods
15:38
and cybercrime.
15:41
And it's been terribly successful.
15:43
I would like to introduce you to Mr. Pringle.
15:45
Or perhaps I should say, more accurately, Señor Pringle.
15:48
I was introduced to this bit of kit by a Brazilian cybercriminal.
15:52
We sat in a car on the Avenue Paulista
15:56
in São Paulo, together.
15:58
Hooked it up to my laptop,
16:00
and within about five minutes he had penetrated
16:02
the computer security system
16:05
of a major Brazilian bank.
16:07
It's really not that difficult.
16:10
And it's actually much easier because
16:12
the fascinating thing about cybercrime
16:15
is that it's not so much the technology.
16:17
The key to cybercrime is what we call social engineering.
16:21
Or to use the technical term for it,
16:25
there's one born every minute.
16:27
You would not believe how easy it is
16:30
to persuade people to do things with their computers
16:33
which are objectively not in their interest.
16:36
And it was very soon
16:39
when the cybercriminals learned that the quickest way to do this,
16:41
of course, the quickest way to a person's wallet
16:43
is through the promise of sex and love.
16:47
I expect some of you remember the ILOVEYOU virus,
16:50
one of the very great worldwide viruses that came.
16:53
I was very fortunate when the ILOVEYOU virus came out,
16:57
because the first person I received it from
17:00
was an ex-girlfriend of mine.
17:03
Now, she harbored all sorts of sentiments and emotions towards me at the time,
17:05
but love was not amongst them.
17:10
(Laughter)
17:12
And so as soon as I saw this drop into my inbox,
17:14
I dispatched it hastily to the recycle bin
17:18
and spared myself a very nasty infection.
17:21
So, cybercrime, do watch out for it.
17:26
One thing that we do know that the Internet is doing
17:30
is the Internet is assisting these guys.
17:32
These are mosquitos who carry the malarial parasite
17:35
which infests our blood when the mosy has had a free meal
17:38
at our expense.
17:42
Now, Artesunate is a very effective drug
17:44
at destroying the parasite in the early days
17:47
of infection.
17:50
But over the past year or so,
17:52
researchers in Cambodia have discovered
17:54
that what's happening is
17:57
the malarial parasite is developing a resistance.
18:00
And they fear that the reason why it's developing a resistance
18:03
is because Cambodians can't afford the drugs on the commercial market,
18:06
and so they buy it from the Internet.
18:10
And these pills contain only low doses
18:13
of the active ingredient.
18:15
Which is why
18:17
the parasite is beginning to develop a resistance.
18:19
The reason I say this
18:23
is because we have to know
18:25
that organized crime
18:27
impacts all sorts of areas of our lives.
18:29
You don't have to sleep with prostitutes
18:32
or take drugs
18:35
in order to have a relationship with organized crime.
18:37
They affect our bank accounts.
18:39
They affect our communications, our pension funds.
18:41
They even affect the food that we eat
18:43
and our governments.
18:47
This is no longer an issue
18:49
of Sicilians from Palermo and New York.
18:52
There is no romance involved with gangsters
18:55
in the 21st Century.
18:58
This is a mighty industry,
19:00
and it creates instability and violence
19:03
wherever it goes.
19:06
It is a major economic force
19:08
and we need to take it very, very seriously.
19:10
It's been a privilege talking to you.
19:14
Thank you very much.
19:16
(Applause)
19:18

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Misha Glenny - Underworld investigator
Journalist Misha Glenny leaves no stone unturned (and no failed state unexamined) in his excavation of criminal globalization.

Why you should listen

In minute detail, Misha Glenny's 2008 book McMafia illuminates the byzantine outlines of global organized crime. Whether it's pot smugglers in British Columbia, oil/weapons/people traffickers in Eastern Europe, Japanese yakuza or Nigerian scammers, to research this magisterial work Glenny penetrated the convoluted, globalized and franchised modern underworld -- often at considerable personal risk.

The book that resulted is an exhaustive look at an unseen industry that Glenny believes may account for 15% of the world's GDP.

Legal society ignores this world at its peril, but Glenny suggests that conventional law enforcement might not be able to combat a problem whose roots lie in global instability.

While covering the Central Europe beat for the Guardian and the BBC, Glenny wrote several acclaimed books on the fall of Yugoslavia and the rise of the Balkan nations. He's researching a new book on cybercrime, of which he says: "The key to cybercrime is what we call social engineering. Or to use the technical term for it, there's one born every minute."

Watch TED's exclusive video Q&A with Glenny: "Behind the Scenes of McMafia" >>

The original video is available on TED.com
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