Undercover Economist

Globalisation and the mafia

In September 1996, Boris Sergeev, the director of an import-export company from Rome, was in Russia to conclude negotiations for a lucrative contract to import frozen meat (his name has been changed). Negotiations went well, and Mr Sergeev celebrated by booking a suite at a luxury hotel near Red Square and heading to the fourth-floor bar.

At five minutes to seven on September 23, two men entered the hotel, displayed a fake pass to reassure its armed guards, and took the elevator to the fourth floor. They walked past the prostitutes at the bar and approached Mr Sergeev’s table. Then they pulled out two silenced pistols and shot him four times in the head. The men then calmly walked back to the elevator, returned to the lobby, and six minutes after entering the hotel, they had disappeared into the bustle of the Moscow night.

It is with this story that Federico Varese begins his book, Mafias on the Move. Professor Varese, of Oxford university, is an expert in the study of organised crime. Mr Sergeev, it transpires, was attempting to establish an outpost of the leading Russian mafia group, the Solntsevskaya, in Rome itself – one of many attempts by a mafia group to open an international branch.

Given that everything seems to be global these days, including the drug trade and the sex trade, it stands to reason that mafias should be global too. By “mafias”, criminologists mean a particular type of criminal group that tries to control markets and territories. Mafias on the move do so far from home.

For example, more than 50 years ago, the ’Ndrangheta mafia from the south of Italy attempted to cartelise the construction industry in Bardonecchia and the drug trade in Verona, both in the north of the country. Mr Sergeev’s mafia was even farther afield. The conventional wisdom, bolstered by a host of popular books, is that globalisation makes these efforts easier and that crime is now thoroughly transnational.

Varese begs to differ. Mafias, he says, are intrinsically local. They derive their power in part by a penetration of local civil society and politics, and in part from the inability of their victims to relocate.

Rocco Lo Presti, an ’Ndrangheta boss from Calabria, was entirely successful in transplanting his mafia to Bardonecchia. But the process had nothing to do with trade between the north and south of Italy. Lo Presti’s methods were to control local politics and to cartelise the construction industry, which by its very nature was immobile. Many construction firms welcomed Lo Presti’s policy of keeping out their competitors; illegal migrant workers thanked Lo Presti for finding them jobs. Lo Presti provided valuable services to well-entrenched local interests at the expense of society as a whole.

But when the ’Ndrangheta tried to monopolise Verona’s large drug trade they found themselves frustrated. Verona was too large to have its elections manipulated, and Verona’s drug dealers had no need of ’Ndrangheta protection because they knew and trusted each other.

But the chief problem for the ’Ndrangheta was that the drug trade is intrinsically mobile and competitive. When threatened, dealers and couriers moved around. Precisely because drugs were a footloose industry, the southern mafia failed to control them.

It turns out that globalisation itself is no help to a mafia, and frequently a hindrance. We should be more wary of emerging-market economies where there is money to be made but a weak state. Without a local industry in need of protection, there is little opportunity for a mafia to gain a foothold.

“If mafiosi exist in an area where no significant unprotected market exists,” writes Varese, “I contend that they will simply be unemployed mafia enforcers.”

Also published at ft.com.