One evening in the winter of 2004, while working as Newsweek‘s Jerusalem bureau chief, I found myself in a dark parking lot outside a banquet hall in suburban Tel Aviv, waiting for Israel’s most powerful gangster, Ze’ev Rosenstein, alias the “Fat Man.” The son of Romanian Jewish immigrants, born in Jaffa, just south of Tel Aviv, Rosenstein controlled one of the world’s largest international drug trafficking rings, and had survived seven assassination attempts, including an aborted guided missile attack on his convoy a few months earlier.
I had spent weeks trying to arrange a meeting with him, and was staking him out at his eldest son’s wedding. Rosenstein pulled up to the banquet hall’s marble-columned entrance in his armored Mercedes, followed by a koda full of bodyguards. He emerged from the back—a short, compact man, nicely dressed in a charcoal suit—with three young sons. I called out his name, and Rosenstein froze, looking nervously between me and four security men. They quickly formed a cordon around him. “Private party, bud,” the burliest of the bunch told me in a New York accent, semiautomatic M-16 dangling from a shoulder strap. I never got to talk with Rosenstein.
So I was interested to find the Fat Man showing up in Misha Glenny’s McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld, his engrossing and disturbing survey of international organized crime in the post–cold war era. A long-standing expert on the Balkans and a former correspondent for the BBC, Glenny is also the author of The Fall of Yugoslavia (1992), the definitive account of the violent breakup of that country under Slobodan Milosevic, and he is intimately familiar with the ways that Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, and other Balkan countries became mafia states during the sectarian wars of the 1990s. Here he shows how organized crime syndicates throughout the world have become increasingly interconnected and interdependent, in a crooked form of globalization.
Ze’ev Rosenstein is a typical felon of the global age. His rise from petty jewel thief to international drug dealer coincided with Israel’s emergence as a transit point of criminal routes stretching from Moldova to Dubai to Miami Beach. In the 1990s, together with software and information technology, organized crime was beginning to have a major part in the Israeli economy. The mass migration of Russian Jews to Israel in the post-Soviet era brought with it underworld criminals who recreated their syndicates in Israeli cities. These Russian mobsters in turn transformed Israel into a principal link in the global sex trade: Glenny found that Bedouin gangs working with the Russians have smuggled thousands of young women from Moldova, Russia, and other Eastern European countries into Israel across the Sinai Desert to work as prostitutes. (Many were held as sex slaves.) Meanwhile, loosening restrictions on money flow and the rise of financial safe havens such as Dubai made it easier for criminal organizations in Israel and elsewhere to expand their operations around …