***** Mafias on the Move: How Organized Crime Conquers New Territories. By Federico Varese; Princeton University Press, press.princeton.edu; 288 pages; $39.95.
Has globalization swept through the world of organized crime? That question has been the subject of a fierce debate among law enforcement experts and criminologists in recent years. Many have taken the view that the international expansion of major crime groups—especially those that emerged after the Cold War—is an inevitable process, much like the rising integration and interdependence of the world’s lawful markets.
Oxford University lecturer Federico Varese, a leading theoretician on organized crime, has weighed in with a much more nuanced view. Varese argues convincingly that organized crime, like politics, is fundamentally local, which is why, in his view, transplantations of crime groups are more the exception than the rule.
The strength of organized crime groups as disparate as the Sicilian Mafia, the Japanese Yakuza, and Mexican drug cartels lies with their ability to control and defend a physical territory. In their respective territories, he argues, they are able to direct the production, flow, and sale of illicit goods and services, or at least extract a tax from them. They are able to enforce contracts (whether legal or illegal). And they are able to corrupt—to a greater or lesser degree—public officials. These advantages are harder to establish in a new country without knowing the language and without the necessary local institutional supports. Plus, going to a new locale requires possibly infringing on the territory of a homegrown crime group.
Varese cites many examples of failed transplantations, including a disastrous attempt by a major Moscow crime group to establish a branch in Mafia-dominated Italy. To be sure, some crime groups have been successfully transplanted: witness the Mafia’s rise in America in the 1920s and 1930s. But this was a special case. Italian immigrants schooled in Italian Mafia techniques had the expertise and ruthlessness to take over lucrative illicit markets created under the special circumstances of Prohibition.
What has happened is the increasing cooperation among criminal groups along illicit supply chains; this is sometimes mistaken for globalization. For example, Colombian cartels produce cocaine that is smuggled into the United States by Mexican crime groups and then retailed by locally established street gangs.
What lies ahead? The message from Varese appears to be that no matter how many individuals are arrested, including kingpins, the underlying illicit markets will continue to thrive as long as the underlying market forces are sufficiently dynamic. Organized crime is based on the fundamental concept that demand creates supply. Stem the demand, and you attack the heart of organized crime.