A drug-smuggling scene in McMafia. Photograph: Nikola Predovic/BBC/Cuba/Nikola Predovic
The BBC’s dramatisation takes fictional protagonist Alex Godman on a journey from a high-rolling London of Kensington mansions and chic hedge-fund offices, to the counterfeit sweatshops of Prague, the brothels of Tel Aviv and smugglers in the Egyptian desert, via assassinations, rapes and bombings. Godman is portrayed as an immensely sympathetic character, as indeed is every member of his criminal family. This echoes Glenny’s nonjudgmental approach in the original book, but may incur the charge of excusing the inexcusable. Is Glenny braced for disapproval? He sighs.
“Some people involved in organised crime are clearly off-the-scale psychopaths who enjoy violence. But that is, in my experience, a minority. Most are simply living in a social structure that is so far away from Shepherd’s Bush, where I live, that it is really hard to go in there and say: ‘That is amoral behaviour.’ So I’m not excusing them. But I don’t want to be moral. I want to show people the way the world works, and for them to make up their minds about what is moral and immoral. I can assure even Daily Mail readers that they would take a turn to the dark side as well if they have no choice. On the whole, I think people are fundamentally good and they do not engage in criminal activity if they can avoid it.”
Does he worry that the glossy opulence of the TV series runs the risk of glamorising crime? “It is glamorous!” he says. “I mean, there are people in Brazil who are involved in really terrible criminal things, moving vast amounts of cocaine, who are invited to the most glamorous parties and who throw the most glamorous parties.”
Since the publication of McMafia, Glenny has become a world authority on organised crime. His latest book, Nemesis, about a Brazilian favela drug lord, is an international bestseller being adapted into a feature film. It followed his 2011 investigation of cybercrime, DarkMarket. “Traditional organised crime is feeling the impact of digital disruption as much as any other business. You don’t need violence if you’re involved in cybercrime, because you can be in Kazakhstan attacking someone in LA and you cash out the money in Dubai. You don’t need a baseball bat in that situation. You don’t need to be a thug. So cybercrime is attracting a whole new kind of character to the world of organised crime today.”
Law enforcement is, Glenny says, simply becoming overwhelmed. What does he think can be done? “If you want to do something about organised crime, the quickest way to do it is legalise drugs, or decriminalise, or at least start down that road. In Latin America, more than 100,000 people are murdered every year because of drug laws fashioned in Washington. It’s unconscionable. It’s the most immoral thing that I’ve come across. Anyone who has worked in Central and South America, if they don’t come out demanding drug law reform then in moral terms they’re criminals as far as I’m concerned. It’s appalling.”
It’s true, he concedes, that if drugs were removed from the black market, criminals would diversify into other forms of contraband. “But nothing – nothing – comes even close to an equivalently valuable income stream. The key thing is that you’d get sufficient tax revenues to deal with the associated health problems of drugs. You’re no longer having to deal with people who were getting that revenue and buying weapons with it, so you also reduce the violence. For example, in 2016 Colorado accrued in taxation from marijuana about $140m on sales of almost $1bn. That is more than twice the amount from alcohol sales and part of that money is hypothecated for the education and health systems. Has civilisation collapsed in Colorado? No, it hasn’t, because they’re smoking as much dope as they were before. It’s just that’s it’s no longer organised crime who are getting the benefit, it’s the state.” He shakes his head. “It’s just a no-brainer.”
The 59-year-old has been making this argument for years, but his first TV show has catapulted him into an unfamiliar limelight, and at moments he still seems to be adjusting his eyes to the sudden brightness of his own star. It comes after a particularly dark chapter for Glenny. His wife, the BBC presenter Kirsty Lang, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2016, and two years earlier, his daughter from his first marriage took her own life. It has been a shattering three years. I wonder whether McMafia’s success now feels to Glenny like some kind of karmic reparation from the universe.
“No,” he says, “but I’m utterly, utterly thrilled about it. This series takes the subject very, very seriously, and will focus many more millions of people’s minds on the issues than I could ever do by just writing a book.” Lots of viewers, he points out, buy drugs, sleep with trafficked sex workers or wear counterfeit T-shirts and perfume. Does he want them to watch McMafia and think about how they spend their money at the weekend?
“Ab-so-lute-ly I do.”
• McMafia starts on New Year’s Day at 9pm on BBC One, with episode two airing the next day. McMafia by Misha Glenny (Vintage, £10.99). To order a copy for £9.34, go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders minimum p&p of £1.99.