Wednesday, 3 January 2018

pass the Almas for another episode of McMafia(c)

I’ve been watching that new McMafia series. The one with the frequent jump-cuts around the world of high-end corruption. Trafficking, drugs, laundering, floating casinos the list goes on. All overlaid with bursts of sudden violence.

I read Misha Glenny’s McMafia book some years ago. His original book deals with the same themes, but is quite different from the fictional story presented in the TV show.

For me, the book put many encounters into place, like finding the picture for a jigsaw puzzle. I’d travelled around and run into the edges of things explained in the book.

An example was in the streets of Bari and Naples, where young kids would run up clutching 10 packs of cigarettes. 200 cigarettes to sell for a few dollars. There were too many packs and too many brands for it to be a random truck heist. No, I realised this was organised, but had no real sense of the scale. Glenny’s book describes this, complete with the (alleged) involvement of the manufacturers, the manoeuvring of the untaxed bonded goods, the speedboat dash from Montenegro to Bari. And then suddenly the goods become presentable as good value. And everyone in the chain has made some money.

A similar scheme when I worked around Moscow. There it was gasoline being sold in plastic containers from paste tables. Not just one or two, but again a whole industry. This relied upon smuggled fuel, and routes had been set up from the Balkan states to get the fuel across the border in organised shipments. It could be an ostensible NATO convoy of 100 tankers, topped and tailed with a NATO vehicle. It could be a convoy of smaller adapted cars, each of which could take up to 500 gallons of fuel.

These schemes and the ones that shipped caviar at 10,000x margins were part of a much bigger web of corruption. Get the small money and turn it into big money. A complex web of transactions but always with a net flow of cash upwards.

Add in the drug cartel inputs and it is easy to see how the streets of Moscow were filled with armoured Mercedes, top flight Porsche and convoys of dark-tinted Hummers.

The Glenny book covers a lot more of the way the businesses worked and describes some of the major centres, such as the Balkans. I also spent time in the old Yugoslavia, on the cusp of its split. Despite the League of Communist rule, a walk around Belgrade showed a divided city. Both the well-heeled and poor farmers jostled together, ahead of the extremes of Slobodan Milošević’s Serbia. Glenny’s book (I suspect more overtly than the TV show) talks about some Serbians and their use of violence as enforcers for the various crime syndicates.

Another suspicious area was Bulgaria. I’d visited via the comedy of Plovdiv International, where the baggage handling was literally a chain of men who threw the luggage between one another to get it into the terminal. Stark, cyrillic communist posters were the main form of advertising, yet the street rates for currency exchange were ten times the official ones. As westerners we could live very well for pennies. Contrast it now with the shiny modern terminal at Sofia, although still raise an eyebrow towards the many bonded warehouses positioned around the borders.

And so it continues today, with the upper money washed and filtered via London's Global Laundromat into empty apartments and mansions (money at rest) with the bulk of it tucked away into neat British Virgin Island brass plate shells with the small change providing funding to support hard-done-by politicians.

Revealing to me is the robustness of the systems used. Their resilience to changes of government or regime, and the way they can operate so flagrantly in the public eye. The TV show illustrates a part, but it is also salutary to think that most of the ultra-rich extras in the well-heeled crowd scenes have equivalencies of the main story being told.

We can only wait for the stories of money laundering around –ahem- 5th Avenue to finally break.

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