The course of true crime runs smooth

Only seven people died at the St Valentine’s Day Massacre: not much of a body count by modern-day standards, when a single distressed teen who runs amok with daddy’s Ruger manages just about as well. It also wasn’t quite the expert cut-down we imagine from having seen Billy Wilder’s chilling re-enactment at the beginning of his classic comedy “Some like it hot”. A variety of weapons were used, including scatter guns and revolvers, which muddies up the cinematic image of a line of trench-coated pros sporting big-drum Thompsons. And among the dead were a moonlighting mechanic, who just happened to be there, and an optician who liked to hang out with mobsters (they lived interesting lives and died interesting deaths).

Indeed, only two of those killed were actually active members of the Bugs Moran gang and none of them were Bugs himself, even though he was the prime target. All in all, it wasn’t Mr Capone’s finest hour. Fact is, organized crime wasn’t very organized in those days. But then, it didn’t have to be. For the most part it was only up against the Keystone Kops. So why on earth, with all of today’s powerful arsenal of weapons for the chemical, biological, financial and criminological analysis of a hot or cold trail, with ever more intrusive surveillance techniques, with internationally orchestrated prevention and enforcement methods etc., do we still seem to be losing the war on crime in general and organized crime in particular?

Aspire to something higher

One obvious answer is that criminals are more highly motivated than their opponents. The potential rewards are huge and the price of failure (lose a finger, lose a family member, get dead) also helps to sharpen one’s wits.  Another answer is that as long as the US government refuses to realize that the absurd prohibition policy of the pre-War period, which actually created organized crime in the first place and was discontinued because it was such a high profile failure, is even more absurd and an even greater failure when doggedly applied to the entire world’s trade in illicit drugs. Why should a policy that signally failed to prevent alcohol abuse magically work for cocaine and heroin?

A third reason is that crime has smartened up so much of late, and the business world has become so risk-happy and cut-throat, that it is now difficult to distinguish between the power-suited, money-grubbing capitalists on the one hand and the power-suited, money-grubbing villains on the other. Crime syndicates, cleverly disguised as offshore venture-capital companies, routinely advance big sums for legitimate start ups, mergers, buy-outs and international expansions. They can generally offer better terms than the average merchant bank (after all, they don’t have to account to anyone but themselves for the money) and they are genuinely interested in your success if it means a safe cut of some real business growth, and equally interested in your failure.

The latter will be a pretext to strip-sell your assets before dragging you through their on-shore book-keeping for a few years as a tax loss. Green energy start-ups are particular favourites: no one expects them to make a profit for the first decade anyway and they are a brilliant way for mobsters to get their hands on huge, poorly audited and non-recoverable federal or European subsidies. The sports and entertainment industries are also preferred targets thanks to their spectacularly un-transparent accounting practices.

Watch that corkscrew!

Tony, Jack and Marilyn were right to be scared, of course. Drugs and prostitution are still the number one money raisers and these fields of enterprise are as vicious as ever. So the path of true love and true crime can still be violent and messy. But while some may yet like it hot, most of our new-age gangsters have cooled to sub-zero temperatures in their attempts to create the deepest and most undetectable cover. The modern Morans and Capones now work so far from the dirty end of the stick as to be unrecognizable to their own minions and unknown to the authorities. Every time you read of a big crime ring being busted you can be sure that the circus moved on long ago. Those were just the fall guys.

The real impresarios of villainy are sitting right at the top of governments, are embedded deep in the very institutions and mechanisms intended to combat them and serve as hatchet men for international dealings between major states, such as Russia and China, and emerging economies in Africa and Asia. How else could China have secured almost the totality of “rare earth” supplies from Africa right under the nose of the most powerful cartels of European and US buyers, without even offering top dollar? How else could the Russian government disenfranchise major multinational companies of their holdings without even facing a significant legal challenge? How else could dictators of third-world nations squirrel away tens of billions of dollars of what was ostensibly aid money? Verily, they have their exits and their entrances.

But the greatest single factor serving the cause of organized crime is also its greatest potential nemesis. The opening of borders and creation of ever-larger economic groupings, with all that this entails in the free movement of people, goods and services, internationally enhanced contracting and faster financial communications, is doubtless the best incentive for expanding criminal organizations to get into the institutional and global-business mainstream, as that’s where the really big money is. However, the ever-watchful eye of the internet community is making it harder to hide those dirty deeds. Meanwhile, the annoying independence of European judiciaries from political or economic pressure has and continues to be a well-dimensioned fly in the criminal ointment, as many judges and prosecutors at the highest level continue to show great courage in the face of this smooth-talking or bullying riff-raff and simply will not be bought off, bombed out or otherwise deterred. And they are gradually getting the legislative tools they need to help them. It’s a very long tunnel, but I believe there is light at the end of it.

Nobody’s perfect

Frank Gusenberg, the only one of the massacre victims who did not die immediately, despite having fourteen bullets in him, refused to grass on his executioners. When asked who had shot him he said “nobody shot me”, thus probably saving his family’s lives. Well, once the Teflon force shield protecting the mighty from prosecution begins to flake away, “nobody” may turn out to be not so perfect after all. On Valentine’s Day 2011, diamonds are still a girl’s best friend, but it’s getting harder to wash the blood off without being discovered. Roses are still red, but it’s getting harder to grow them using secretly exported banned insecticides by the barrel-load and harder to harvest them using slave labour without someone blowing the whistle. Candy is still dandy and liquor is still quicker, but it’s getting harder to forge the labels of the top brands and stick them on bottles of cheap hooch without the ever watchful excise departments getting leery.

Spats, Bugs and Al are all still with us, they have even been joined by a host of other nationalities and criminal styles. They are still as fashion-conscious as ever, as brutal as ever and infinitely more powerful. They are as deeply into construction materials, financial services and utilities as they are into drugs, prostitution and pornography. But the increasingly efficient interlocking of law enforcement services, a growing spirit of internationalism within the judiciary and an observable willingness, at last, to strengthen not only the opportunities of global trade, but also the reins of global governance will eventually deprive them of the oxygen that is currently so plentiful in the many and diverse loopholes left by our lack of an international justice system that is equal to our economic and social realities. For only when the playing field is truly flat will it become impossible to exploit weakness on a grand scale, and only when the world is truly round will it become impossible to piss in the corners. “Poupoupidou”, says the French connection. “Boo-boo-bee-doo”, says Marilyn! “They shrink when they’re marinated”, say I.

Edwin Drood

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