Anthropologist has lessons for journalists
by Posted Sat, Dec 1 2007
Carolyn Nordstrom is an anthropology professor at the University of Notre Dame who ventures into dangerous realms unknown to most journalists, then shares her stunning findings in books about the illegal global trade in “products” ranging from slave labor to everyday household goods.
Nordstrom disguises her sources and subjects, to protect them (and possibly herself) from retribution. She does not always identify the geographic locales where she observes and listens, although in Global Outlaws, it is at least apparent that she conducted much of her research in remote villages throughout the war-torn, mostly impoverished African nation of Angola. Any journalist reading Nordstrom must show willingness to trust her. To the best of my knowledge, she has earned trust. After 40 years as an investigative journalist, I am amazed at how much I could learn from Nordstrom, both theoretically and practically.
Take money laundering, for example. Understanding its global nature has long been a goal of mine, and I thought I had begun to understand the details by studying how banks and government regulatory agencies try to guard against it. Nordstrom demonstrates convincingly that a huge amount of money laundering begins in places like Angolan villages built around transporting questionably obtained goods that are profitable in international trade.
She introduces readers to a man she names Tiago, who operates a “cool drink shop” on a dusty street in Kalunga, Angola, in a place where many journalists would probably assume electricity is non-existent. In fact, given the money Tiago has made from coordinating off-the-books transport of questionably obtained products, he can afford electricity — which powers sophisticated computer and telephone systems and allows him to communicate with anybody at anytime around the world.
As Nordstrom chatted with Tiago, he received a telephone call, informing him that one of the truck drivers hauling refrigerators from a remote Angolan pick-up point to Kalunga appeared to be missing. Had the driver appropriated the cargo for himself? Had his truck crashed.? Had it been hijacked by commercial rivals or rebel forces fighting the government?
Tiago did not know, but he had sophisticated means of finding out and would do so because the refrigerators were worth perhaps $65,000 wholesale and more than that retail. Tiago purchased the refrigerators with American dollars; Angolan currency is worthless on the international market.
To get the dollars, Nordstrom explained, he had to work the extra-legal markets — arms for diamonds for food for gas for international commodities for refrigerators. To complete this set of business circuits, his drivers crossed the border, traded merchandise for diamonds for dollars, journeyed back across the border at an unmarked spot, taking the poorly guarded back roads to Kalunga. Common practice, and completely illegal.
The money earned by Tiago would not be declared to any government tax agency or deposited in any recognized bank. Instead, Nordstrom said, men such as Tiago and their “‘offices” provide a window on how unregulated economies have grown into a multi-trillion-dollar global phenomenon, and they are a key to understanding money laundering in the twenty-first century. While authorities are trying to bust laundering by looking for cash entering banking and financial systems from “shady” sources, the Tiagos of the world are using far more sophisticated systems that no one is monitoring. Quietly and efficiently they are amassing invisible fortunes.
Nordstrom’s lengthier explanation of precisely how Tiago and his ilk launder the cash they receive is clear, credible and mindbending.
Another mindbending section of Nordstrom’s book focuses on the transportation of illegal goods by water. To uncover the illegal global economy, Nordstrom talked her way onto a container ship hauling illegal goods. She saw first-hand port after port how government inspectors are either overwhelmed or non-existent. Nobody ever asked to see her passport or other documents as she walked freely around the ports after the ship docked.
When engaged in discussion with Nordstrom, the ship’s crew “burst into laughter” at the mention of claims from the Bush administration and other governments about tight security. “We can’t figure out the USA at all,” crew members told Nordstrom, according to her notes. “There is all this table pounding about terrorism and security, and absolutely none exists. We talk about it all the time; we could blow up just about anything anywhere here and no one is even around to see it.”
Few journalists who demonstrate the intelligence and guts to follow in her footsteps and publish their findings for a wider audience can reach Nordstrom’s success.