- Visitors & Friends
- About the University
'Mafias on the Move'
By Federico Varese | 28 Mar 11
Organised crime is spreading like a global virus as mobs take advantage of open borders to establish local franchises at will. That at least is the fear, inspired by stories of Russian mobsters in New York, Chinese triads in London, and Italian mafias rooted in places as diverse as Germany, Canada and Australia.
As Federico Varese, Professor of Criminology at Oxford University, explains in his book, the truth is more complicated. Professor Varese has spent years researching mafia groups in Italy, Russia, the United States, and China, and argues that Mafiosi often find themselves abroad against their will, rather than through a strategic plan to colonise new territories. Once there, they do not always succeed in establishing themselves. Professor Varese spells out the conditions that lead to their long-term success, namely sudden market expansion that is neither exploited by local rivals nor properly managed by authorities. Ultimately the inability of the state to govern economic transformations gives mafias their opportunity.
In a series of matched comparisons, Professor Varese charts the attempts of the Calabrese Ndrangheta to move to the north of Italy, and shows how the Sicilian mafia expanded to early 20th-century New York, but failed around the same time to find a niche in Argentina. He explains why the Russian mafia failed to penetrate Rome but succeeded in Hungary. In a pioneering chapter on China, he examines the challenges that triads from Taiwan and Hong Kong find in branching out to the mainland. Based on field work and filled with dramatic stories, this book is a sober assessment of the risks posed by globalisation and immigration for the spread of mafias. Books asked Professor Varese about his research.
How were you able to penetrate this world to write this book?
Well, most of the data I use are derived from surveys, official documents and court files. I also travelled to various parts of the world and interviewed people involved in organised crime, as well as those who fight it. I usually do a lot of preliminary reading on a given situation, identify people who might be knowledgeable and try to reach them. When I am lucky and the interview goes well, they in turn introduce me to others.
It sounds like a very dangerous topic to study. Is there much research available elsewhere in this area or are you the only one brave enough to tackle it?
I make sure that I do not take unnecessary risks and always make clear that I am neither a cop nor I am interested in exposing particular individuals, but rather to understand (and possibly explain) a phenomenon. In my field, organized crime studies, there are a few people who use this method. What is quite unique about this book is that I also study cases where organised crime failed to take root. Most studies are of positive cases. However, one can understand a phenomenon only by studying also its absence! Here in Oxford, people with theoretical interest similar to mine are grouped around the Extra-Legal Governance Institute, located in the Sociology department.
What defines the ‘mafia’ as distinct from a criminal gang?
For me, a mafia group is one that attempts to govern a territory or a set of markets. So it is not just a group of people involved in criminal activities, even if they have a rudimentary organisational structure. For instance, the Sicilian mafia is the collection of mafia groups that share the same ritual and basic rules and competes with the Italian State in order to control a territory in Western Sicily. Beside the Sicilian mafia, the Yakuza, the Italian American mafia, the Russian ‘mafia’ and the Hong Kong and Taiwanese triads are examples of mafias.
Why are Mafiosi often abroad against their will, as argued in your book?
A significant finding of my book is that most often Mafiosi find themselves abroad against their own will, contrary to the common perception that that are some sort of global Professor Moriarty expanding rationally to every corner of the world. They are there because they try to escape state prosecution and arrest, or because they try to escape internal mafia feuds. For example, Vyacheslav Kirillovich Ivan’kov, often described as the Solntsevo plenipotentiary in the United States in charge of creating the Russian Mafia in America, left his homeland in 1992 to avoid being killed by fellow Mafiosi. Many Japanese Yakuza active in the Philippines are in fact former members expelled from their group. After the Rose Revolution of 2003-05, the Georgian President launched a crackdown on the remnants of the vory v zakone (a kind of local crime bosses). As a direct consequence of police repression, some escaped to Moscow while others fled to Spain and other European countries. Similarly, campaigns against organised crime in Taiwan conducted in 1984, 1990 and 1996 led to Triads ‘brothers’ escaping to China, where they are now well entrenched. As Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America, 'the happy and the powerful do not go into exile'. Rather, 'poverty and misfortune' make them move. An aspect of globalisation is at work here: repression in a corner of the world causes unwanted effects in another.
The media does give the impression that the Mafiosi have many more opportunities to capitalise on now than they did in a less globalised world. Is this the case?
The particular type of criminal groups that interest me––mafias––is rather localised. Surely the easier it is to move and transport people and goods, the more illegal markets, such as trafficking of people and drugs, can flourish, but it does not mean that mafias are the main organisers of these markets. Indeed, globalisation and technological innovation can erode the ability of traditional mafia groups to control some businesses. For instance, travel agencies are now mainly online: mafia groups that control a territory and try to force them to pay protection money cannot find them as easily as when travel agencies were just another shop on the high street.
What are the main barriers to their success?
The book argues that under certain conditions, mafias do succeed in becoming rooted in new territories. The barriers to their success are the presence of powerful local competitors, such as a local mafia or corrupt police forces that double as criminal protector. Or a legitimate state that is able to manage significant economic transformation, sapping up the demand for extra legal forms of governance, which the foreign mafias can supply. Also, it takes time to become familiar with a new territory, and information has to be gathered. On the other hand, when Mafiosi happen to be present in a new territory and a demand for their protection services emerge, they best placed to exploit them.
What sort of threat do Mafiosi pose today?
As in the past, the represent an illegitimate source of power of within the territory of many developed countries. Ultimately, they are a source of power that is unfair. They also make markets less efficient. The political climate at the end of the 20th century and in this decade has promoted the erosion of state monopolies over policing and security, and citizens are encouraged by governments to become 'responsible' for the provision of their own protection. We have to ensure that that mafias and mafia-like groups do not exploit such a protection deficit in countries where the states are relatively weak.