As Los Angeles drug lords return to Latin America and Muscovite extortionists export their knee-busting trade to Italy, organized crime appears to be thriving in the global economy. Yet the tabloid-driven impression of a profitable and relentless mob diaspora can be misleading—at least according to Federico Varese, a professor of criminology at the University of Oxford. His new book, Mafias on the Move—part The Godfather, part The World Is Flat—provides a nuanced picture of the modern gangster industry, a business that strikes out as often as it succeeds when thugs try to take their act abroad.
Most contemporary organized crime groups, Varese argues, lack the ambition and the capacity to exploit Thomas J. Friedman's metaphorically flat earth. Even with the disappearance of Cold War barriers and the rise of digital communication and easy jet travel, crime syndicates from Northern New Jersey to Eastern Europe don't hop continents in search of tax breaks and cheap labor. They move to new territories for defensive reasons—escaping the police, say, or angry rivals. When they operate overseas, Varese writes, they tend to do so as passive investors in legitimate businesses, not as hitmen.
The Moscow-based Solntsevskaya, for example, emerged from the former Soviet Union to field more than 5,000 members and supported itself by protecting businesses from mysteriously burning down or being raided by the Russian tax authorities. In the 1990s gang fratricide prompted some members to migrate to Italy, where they began to invest in furniture export and similar mainstream businesses. Yet, Varese notes, Italy didn't offer particularly useful resources for facilitating the group's core activities—racketeering, drug smuggling, prostitution—back in Russia. "Nor was Italy," he continues, "a place where a firm-owned subsidiary could act as a conduit for valuable local knowledge to be used in Russia." Apart from an occasional murder—boys will be boys—the Solntsevskaya Rome branch maintained a relatively low profile.
Thankfully, Hungary provided the group greater opportunities. Yet chance, rather than corporate strategy, is responsible for the boon. When Soviet-era order disintegrated in the 1990s, the new government in Budapest couldn't provide emerging businesses with reliable means of resolving disputes or protecting private property rights. Into the vacuum stepped the Russian mob, which benefited from the demand for its muscular services. It also had no trouble recruiting new members, since the Red Army, in its heyday, had maintained a large presence in Hungary.
Varese's international underworld tour also stops in Taiwan and Hong Kong, where local police offensives against the Sun Yee On and other triads have driven gangsters to mainland China. While the migrant mobsters had the advantages of common language and family networks, their criminal enterprises were sharply curtailed on account of the more established protection rackets dominated by corrupt mainland police. Don't cry for the triads, though. Varese writes that the immigrants are enjoying the flowering of capitalism by investing in China's booming restaurant and hotel industries.
This involuntary, on-the-lam migration also applies to the Latino gangs that flourished in Los Angeles during the 1980s. According to Varese, their more recent expansion into countries such as Guatemala was hardly expansionist. In the '90s, U.S. authorities forced members of the Latin Kings and their rivals to leave the country because many members lacked legal status. "Contrary to what was suggested by the media and some scholars," Varese writes, "Latino gangs in California had not sought to expand their franchise and drug distribution network through relocation to Central America." They were forced there by law.
Mafias on the Move doesn't grapple with the intersection of crime and the Internet because Varese—whose research focuses primarily on 1990s crime records—has a constricted view of this newly developing topic. "There is no instance of a mafia offering protection to computer hackers or traders in sophisticated derivatives," he writes. "Mafia might use the Internet for conducting frauds or to invest their money in the stock exchange, but they do that as customers, not as protectors." That may be true as far as traditional organized crime groups are concerned, but it neglects the networks of cybercriminals that trade globally in stolen credit cards. And the shadowy gangs of computer vandals who probe the mainframes of major U.S. corporations and government agencies, possibly with encouragement from intelligence agencies in China and Russia. Varese ought to consider an update; organized crime is evolving, even if it isn't spreading. Its latest generation seems to be figuring out how to do business abroad without ever leaving home.