'McMafia' isn't fiction — corruption is a global problem

'McMafia' isn't fiction — corruption is a global problem
© Getty

This week, AMC launched the gripping new crime drama, “McMafia”. The show tells the shocking story of modern day organized crime, corruption and money laundering that spans the globe — from the UK to Russia, Mexico and everywhere in between. While McMafia’s storyline is fictitious, its themes are chillingly real.

Corrupt deal-making at the highest level is happening right now, even in the U.S. In a year that has already seen ending anonymously-owned companies a top priority for some U.S. lawmakers, “McMafia” shines a light on these secretive companies and the uncomfortable truths that we at Global Witness have been campaigning on for many years.

Based on a non-fiction work by our advisory board member, Misha Glenny, “McMafia’s” themes reflect much of the work we investigate, expose and campaign to change. From money laundering through elite financial institutions to criminals operating undetected through anonymously-owned companies, we seek to shine a light on corrupt activities which destroy lives and further entrench global inequality.

Corruption is big business — one which knows no borders and hijacks political and economic systems in the pursuit of profit at any cost. “McMafia” takes us behind the scenes to show us just how this works. It demonstrates in stark terms how criminals today aren’t always mobsters lurking on street corners. They can be bankers — like “McMafia” protagonist Alex Godman — who act as knowing participants, one step removed from the bullets and blood depicted in the show.

We see characters like this in many of our investigations. Corrupt politicians and dictators, bribery-riddled oil deals, and shadowy businesses are propped up, guided and protected by teams of lawyers, bankers and accountants. These professionals, the so called “gatekeepers” to the global financial system, don’t just enable corruption — they profit from it.

So, if we’re serious about combating corruption that impoverishes tens of millions of people and criminality that puts millions more at risk, we have to look at who is operating behind the scenes, and how.

If “McMafia” reflects real life, what can we do about it?

We’re campaigning for solutions to stop this systematic corruption from sweeping across our cities, towns and communities. The solution is clear: get rid of anonymous companies.

Anonymous companies — companies that do not disclose their real owners — are key to laundering the proceeds of crime and corruption. These companies are the financial “getaway cars” that middlemen like Alex Godman use to move, hide and spend these ill-gotten gains. We’ve seen the use of these opaque structures in nearly every corruption investigation we’ve done for more than 20 years.

Alex Godman went all the way to the Cayman Islands to set up his secretive companies, but the U.S. is actually the easiest and one of the most popular places to create such companies. You can create an anonymous company in all 50 states — it only takes a day or, in some cases, an hour, to register, and no state requires companies to disclose their real owners.

This might soon change, however. For the first time in a decade bi-partisan consensus for putting an end to anonymously-owned companies is emerging.

For example, last month, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee convened to discuss legislation that would put a stop to the creation of such companies. The hearing, Beneficial Ownership: Fighting Illicit International Financial Networks Through Transparency, marked the third Congressional hearing on this topic in 2018 alone. This, along with other recent developments, shows that momentum towards tackling the problems posed by anonymous companies continues to grow.

Progress has already been made in the EU and UK. This past December, the EU adopted legislation that will require all companies formed in the EU to publicly disclose their owners when they are formed and to keep that information up to date. The UK passed similar legislation in 2016, and now has a working public registry of company ownership.

Even countries that are struggling to combat endemic corruption at home, such as the Ukraine and Nigeria, are implementing or exploring implementation of such public registries.

Now it’s time for the U.S. to step up and do the same. “McMafia” teaches us that organized crime and corruption are now global in scope. The U.S. and its financial professionals must no longer be complicit in facilitating corruption and the transfer of illicit funds that destroy livelihoods at home and around the world.

Our banks shouldn’t be havens for dirty money. Our companies shouldn’t be used as fig leaves for heinous acts. And a set of high flying bankers and lawyers shouldn’t be able to turn a blind eye to injustice while pocketing the profits with no questions asked.

Mark Hays is the head of the anti-money laundering campaign at Global Witness.