What Shelley said of poetsłthat they are the unacknowledged legislators of the worldłcould be said more truthfully of journalists. Journalists, especially those who stick with their stories for years, can have a defining impact on how people and legislators understand, not just single issues, but the world as a whole. When the story is organized crime today, the connections between journalism and legislation, like the redefinition of people's understanding of their world, are bound to be profound.
How seriously the people directly involved with criminal legislation take a book on organized crime is surely a good indication of its worth. By this test Jeffrey Robinson's The Merger comes strongly recommended: a few minutes on the Internet will show just how highly law-enforcement agencies, politicians, and the legal profession regard Robinson. One finds that police, business, governmental, and political groups from around the world frequently invite Robinson to work with them. (He was a keynote speaker in Montreal in October at the major, RCMP-sponsored, International Money Laundering Conference). One also finds that The Merger itself quickly became required reading in law school courses on organized crime.
Robinson's readers will scarcely need this official sanctioning to convince them The Merger is a great accomplishment and that reading it can be a mind-altering, paradigm-shifting experience. The Merger is a comprehensive, visionary, and devastating study of the globalization of organized crime. Robinson reveals how crime groups function with near impunity in Asian, African, European, and North and South American arenas, and strives to reveal the increasing capacity and willingness of sophisticated criminal groups to work together to further their conspiracies, corrupt governments, and enhance their already stupendous profitability. It is hard to imagine many people for whom reading The Merger will not result in a reassessment of how they think our world works, or could ever work, politically, economically, morally, or culturally. Criminal traffic in people, prostitution, narcotics, stolen goods, fraudulent schemes, money-laundering services, counterfeits of anything and everything, and in weapons and toxic and nuclear materials have all simply grown to such gigantic proportions that confronting them cannot leave anyone unchanged.
The Merger redraws the geography of the world, undermining our faith in political and economic orders and bringing previously little known places into new prominence. Even long-standing criminal centres like Sicily and Columbia appear now only as parts of a complex criminal underworld. Thus, for instance, Ciudad del Este in Paraguay becomes, rather than a remote frontier town, a major criminal crossroads of illicit global trade, with more cash transactions annually than anywhere else on earth except for Hong Kong and Miami.
The Merger similarly rejigs our thinking about the global significance of places like Nigeriał"travellers carrying a Nigerian passport might as well have had 'smuggler' stamped on their foreheads"; Viennała neutral crime-free zone where gangsters from around the world go to work out strategy; Akwesasneł"all roads lead to Akwesasne"; Arubał"the world's first Mafia state"; Russiał"a full-fledged mafiocracy"; Canadałthe money-laundering "Maytag of the north."
Information spills off every page of The Merger: "Organized crime needs an ethnic base"; the Yakuza "is Japan's biggest corporation turning over $75 to $85 billion a year...four times the combined revenues of Sony and Toyota"; "In Germany, Russian criminals are responsible for one-third of all crimes"; "The retail value of drugs...flowing through [South Africa] represents...more than half of GDP;" "British Columbia is the home...of the richest Hell's Angels club in the world"; "Whenever the tribes seem to set up a business, the mob shows up nearby"; "Indians are cover"; "The single most important asset of any democracy is its justice system"; "The criminal justice system is on the verge of collapse"; "the future of [Internet criminality] is beyond comprehension". Robinson's criminal gazetteer is almost endlessly fascinating.
The Merger can be faulted for two things perhaps. Although Robinson provides a generous bibliography encompassing books, academic papers and dissertations, newspaper and wire service pieces, and reports of government bodies and policing agencies, The Merger lacks an index. It is not nitpicking to point this out. For without an index to guide one, flipping through the book's fifteen chapters to review the interconnections between individuals, gangs, types of criminal activity, law enforcement agencies, investigations, national bases, and international alliances, soon becomes frustrating, and one's grasp of the intricate tangles of international crime syndicates remains imperfect.
The Merger's other fault lies in its occasional lapses into sensationalism and apocalyptic rhetoric. Robinson's writing skills are formidablełhe remains focussed even as he takes us through maze after maze of personal relationships, events, and details; his prose is vivid, pithy, constantly absorbing; his sense of story, flawless; but now and then he slips into an apocalyptic tone that seems extraneous to The Merger's analytical and investigative narrative. There may be something characteristically American in this aspect of Robinson's writing. On the other hand, only time will tell whether Robinson's apocalyptic urgency to warn about the ever-growing potential for organized crime to wreak havoc on individuals, societies, and states is warranted or not.
In marked contrast to Robinson's book stands Lee Lamothe and Antonio Nicaso's Bloodlines. Lamothe and Nicaso deliberately veer away from the temptation to present underworld figures as, not necessarily more powerful than they are, but more demonic, more nearly omniscient and "darkly sinister", than they really are. Lamothe and Nicaso want to highlight the individual human faces of the Caruana-Cuntrera families that have reigned as the world's most powerful criminal clan for the last three decades.
The much-intermarried Caruana and Cuntrera families emerged from the Mafia culture of rural Sicily and began emigrating in mid-century to places like Canada and Venezuela. From their new homes they have put together a criminal network of global scope that handles billions of dollars derived from the drug trade and money laundering. Bloodlines traces the origins of this "almost impenetrable" extended family, its ascent to its dominant position among Mafiosi, and the international police operation led out of Toronto that saw the family dealt a major blow with the 1998 arrest of the clan's leaders.
In Bloodlines, we see the Caruana-Cuntrera behaving at times as "just a family like any other family" as one relative, feeling persecuted by police, managed to describe his money-laundering, fraud-disseminating, politician-buying, heroin and cocaine smuggling family to himself. One of the means by which Lamothe and Nicaso reveal the domestic and private lives of their subjects is by quoting from transcripts of police wiretaps which are by turns cryptic, inarticulate, expletive-laden, or hilarious. Thus, we learn of the liking of the Caruanas for breakfasting on McDonald's pancakes and hash browns, of Caruana-Cuntrera weddings, funerals, and in-fighting, of Alfonso's diabetes, of Gerlando's doting extramarital love for one tough Anna ("a breath of fresh air" after "the whining women in the Caruana-Cuntrera family").
One amusing conversation occurs between a Caruana associate, Oreste Pagano, and his chic Venezuelan wife Milagros:
"I bought Rocco Barocco [perfume] for you."
"Rocco Barocco? You bought Rocco Barocco for me! You bought Rocco Barocco for me! How many did you buy? I don't just want one."
"I bought you two."
"Ohhh, my love."
"I bought you [makeup] for the eyes..."
"You drive me crazy."
"...and for the mouth..."
"Son of a bitch! Don't tell me any more. I'm going to..."
"...three bags of perfume, eau de cologne, cream, everything...Valentino day and night cream."
"Stop, stop. Enough. Enough."
"Wait, I haven't finishedł"
(Making sobbing noises) "No, no."
"Lipstick, eye shadow...Lilla from Alain Delon, for you...I bought you Dolce & Gabbana, Shalimar, Clinique..."
"Enough, I'm sweating!...I'm going to..."
"Versace jeans, white with pink designs, and two black suits, complete ones with skirts..."
(pause) "What else?"
Amusing, but ultimately more depressing than entertaining. For such mindless greed lies at the heart of the Caruana-Cuntrera criminal dynasty. Other than the characteristic southern Italian cultivation of bonds of blood and family, none of the possible romances of criminalityłno Robin-Hoodism, no charismatic if outlaw individualism, no motivation to ethnic or political redress by other meansłare even faintly relevant to the Caruana-Cuntrera. It is just squalid deceit, murder, and human degradation in the cause of bags of cash for hash browns, Rocco Barocco, and despicable self-indulgence. Lamothe and Nicaso's effort to portray the Caruana-Cuntrera and other crime figures not as 'superhuman monsters' but above all as human beings ends up recalling Arendt's phrase about the banality of evil.
Unfortunately Lamothe and Nicaso's writing isn't always as memorable as the lowlife conversations they transcribe. Bloodlines distinguishes itself from The Merger not only through its unsensational presentation of character, but through prose that is uneven and much inferior to that of The Merger. Especially in the early chapters, there is something hackish in the way Bloodlines is writtenłits focus is often diffuse; and its emphasis, haphazard. To be fair to Lamothe and Nicaso, some of the slackness in the writing may be due to the difficulty of pinning down the activities of people who are much on the move and have good reason always to be secretive. Certainly the book's prose and its story tighten up as the authors begin to recount the better documented saga of Project Omerta, the investigation that began almost by accident in 1995 and nailed the family in 1998.
These books tell stories with real heroes too, heroes whose integrity and bravery must bewilder the criminals they track: heroes like Italian magistrate Giovanni Falcone whose pursuit of Mafiosi and corrupt politicians ended when he was martyred with his wife and bodyguards in 1992; and closer to home, heroes like officers Ben Soave, Bill Sciammarella, and Larry Tronstad whołagainst unlikely oddsłcarried out Project Omerta. One doesn't want to exaggerate the risks such men run, but the ruthlessness of cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar says much about what police world-wide face. Escobar's cartel murdered four presidential candidates; twenty-five judges, among them a Supreme Court eminence; 178 policemen, in a single year; and many hundreds of gangsters and ordinary citizens, including those on an airliner Escobar had blown up.
Read these books. Willful ignorance is not bliss; it is irresponsibility. Bloodlines and especially The Merger will not leave your view of the world intact. They will convince you that the fight against contemporary organized crime is critical, and depends, perhaps as much as on effective public officials, on an informed population and electorate. ņ
Douglas Brown lives in Montreal and teaches English at John Abbott College. He is an award-winning poet and has published articles on a wide variety of subjects. At present he is completing a manuscript of poems, and a study of W.H. Auden's collaborations with Christopher Isherwood and with Chester Kallman.