What’s not cool: The UNODC’s demand-side denialism on cocaine

 

A very quick reaction post this one. I just read through the United Nations Office on Drugs & Crime’s World Drug Report 2014… and I’m unsure whether the writers are being disingenuous or intellectually dishonest, or how many revisions and blue-pencillings it went through on its way to publication.

 

Consider this tweet.

 

 

 

Now, there’s nothing there that’s untrue, as far as it goes. But let’s look at the graph around use and seizures in the US over that period – a pretty good index of availability, right?

 

Cocaine prevalence & seizure UNODC

So OK, we can see that the US seems to bear that story out as far as it goes. Availability looks like it’s declined, in the major market shown at least. I mean, users aren’t getting their hands on any. Nor are the cops. So it must be down (as the report then goes on to say) to supply-side successes in the War On Drugs. Central and South American eradication efforts are bearing fruit, hurray.

 

No, wait. What? It’s that simple? Crop eradication has meant less availability in the US? Well, that’s not the way it normally works, I don’t think. I mean, the price didn’t go up, not according to users I know. (Anecdotal! But, uh, pretty robust.) And that happens if there’s steady demand but a shortage of supply, right? I mean, that’s a market.

 

Well, let’s look at what else happened between 2006 and 2012 in the major markets for cocaine globally (they’d be America and Western Europe, according to the report). Well, I’m drumming my fingers here. Did ANYTHING happen that might conceivably have led to fewer people wanting to buy cocaine (demand), that in turn led to lower availability?

 

Let’s look at this, from ZeroHedge.

 

Casino Gambling

Oh wow, look: There was this huge dip in gambling spend in the USA over that exact same period! 2006-2012 sure was a dip. So, was there less supply-side availability of bets? Or might something have happened that lowered demand for both cocaine and gambling among consumers in affluent Western markets? God, I’m really stuck as to what that might be.

 

Let’s look at another graph, from Tim Duys’ Economists Review – plucked from among thousands in a hurried and random manner – see if that helps. This is real personal consumption expenditure, and that huge dip is the period we’re looking at.

 

Consumer purchasing power in the recession

OK, look, I can’t ignore this any longer. Was there… was there a recession or something? I mean, if there was a recession in the West, then that would stop consumers spending, right? On stuff, including those nice-to-have lifestyle luxuries like gambling and the odd line of coke, right?

 

Of course. And that’s exactly what happened. But to admit that the recession is largely responsible for the drop in cocaine use would mean two things. First, that the War On Drugs is fighting the wrong enemy, and that supply is not the problem here, but demand. Second, that the war is unwinnable, because you cannot stop goods making their way to centres of demand without somehow addressing those appetites that drive demand. Which means Americans, and Western Europeans.

 

And that means intervention. And that means big government, and investment and education, and all those dirty words that put additional zeroes on Government balance sheets. (Nobody minds if those zeroes are on the military budget, to help eradication efforts in Colombia. But put them into a budget that might stop the next generation paying cartels for nosebag that we then have to pay again for soldiers to go and torch, and that sounds dangerously like nanny state madness, right? Give me strength.)

 

Of course, the report can’t address everything. It may be that looking at the deeper causes of cocaine’s hemisphere-wide blizzard is outside of the remit of the UNODC’s researchers. But it’s a hefty report – 82,264 words including footnotes, to be precise. And the word “recession” appears twice. In references given as footnotes. And neither of those references concerns the reasons for cocaine’s sudden partial disappearance from streets, homes, noses and impounded contraband during the recession.

 

The economy is growing again. Here comes consumer spending. The dirty habit’s ours, not Colombia’s or anyone else’s. That the UNODC can’t seem to address that makes for a dangerous cognitive dissonance that will cost more lives, and plenty more zeroes, in in the coming decade.

 

Well, I daresay a more careful reading will bring out hitherto undiscovered nuance. But for now, the World Drug Report 2014 – or at least the way it’s been edited and represented – feels like a ducked opportunity. The UNODC feels more like an arm of US foreign policy than it’s felt in years. And the War On Drugs feels bigger, and more hopelessly wrong, than ever.

 

You can download the entire report as a PDF here.

 

Rockin’ in the free world: Gorbachev, poppies and the death of Kurt Cobain

If you really want to know about Nirvana – from who killed Kurt Cobain to the rise of grunge and the Generation X tag – don’t listen to the conspiracy theories; ask a historian.

 

Soviet anti-drugs poster

 

The news of Kurt Cobain’s suicide broke 20 years ago today. The anniversary of his death – which probably took place sometime on the 5th April 1994 – from a self-inflicted gunshot at his home in Seattle, has already picked up its fair share of coverage.

 

There are also plenty of silly conspiracy theories. In the parlour game of ‘Who killed Kurt Cobain?’, anyone but Kurt Cobain will do.

 

Yet in historical terms, the story of what happened to Kurt Cobain is much bigger, darker and more mysterious – and ultimately, more important to us all here in 2014 – than the shopworn horror show of celebrity, depression, public addiction and suicide suggests. Like all the great detective stories, it deals in the kinds of details outside the jurisdiction of coroners and local cops. In this telling, the soap opera of a pop star’s life and the frenzied search for clues in the music is a distraction from another, more compelling trail of evidence, leading towards a far larger crime.

 

When American political economist Francis Fukuyama called the Cold War’s close ‘the end of history’ in 1989 – a phrase that gained global currency when he published The End of History & The Last Man in 1992, victorious, insulated America applauded. The rest of us weren’t sure whether to laugh or cry. Far from signalling the final, settled dominance of Western liberal democracy as Fukuyama predicted, the collapse of the Soviet Union had already led to the re-emergence of ethnic and political loyalties long suppressed – and nursed – by the comfortable stasis of the bipolar world. Because the same Cold War that had kept African puppet states, the Iron Curtain and European ethnic divisions in a kind of stasis for the past 40 years had also kept a little piece of death – the seed of his success and his suicide – away from Kurt Cobain. But it too was free now. And it was looking for him.

 

There’s an uncanny symmetry in Nirvana’s rise and the fall of the established order. The band’s breakthrough sophomore album (and the singer’s eventual albatross) Nevermind went nuclear over Christmas 1991 – the very week Mikhail Gorbachev signed the decree ending the USSR. Just a week later, on New Year’s Day 1992, Nevermind hit Number One, pushing Michael Jackson’s Pepsi-sponsored Bad off the top of the Billboard chart. We woke on that first morning since 1922 without a Soviet Union in the world (it ceased to exist as an entity at midnight on New Year’s Eve 1991) to find that Nevermind had conquered the globe instead.

 

It would be the first Nirvana record for which the band’s traditional way of sharing royalties out by even thirds would end up recarved by Cobain’s lawyers in the principal songwriter’s favour. No more comrades-in-arms indeed.

 

In fact, success had made lots of once-simple things dreadfully complicated for Kurt. Good, straightforward relationships – with his band, his record company, his wife, his fans – had become complex, shifting. They couldn’t be trusted. Everyone wanted something. All relationships and values were now calibrated in terms of money. It was a very post-Cold War feeling indeed.

 

No wonder the monstrous, freakish success of Nevermind led to the re-emergence of all sorts of long-dormant insecurities in Cobain. That happens when you’ve won, chart battle or political standoff. He’d become popular, but was it for the right reasons, in the right way? He worried away at his own worthiness, his authenticity. It didn’t help that he was convinced ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was little more than a cop of another band’s tune. He and bassist Krist Novoselic were consumed with fear that people would see the song for the Pixies rip-off they confessed it had started life as. He didn’t like the fact that he wanted money enough to get heavy on Krist and Dave Grohl about it. ‘Pennyroyal Tea’ was a disguised dig at his own watching of every penny royalty. At the moment of his greatest triumph, Cobain was panicked. He felt like an impostor in his own life. And the more he felt like that, the further he retreated into the drug that made it matter less. Heroin. It have him the power to shrug it off. To say: Never mind. (By 1992, with the heroin-chic circus around him starting to reach the fashion glossies, he wrote a letter to fans explaining his struggle with rehab, in luring the phrase, “Hope I die before I turn into Pete Townshend.” )

 

Would he have been better off without Nevermind’s success? He often seemed to think so. What is beyond doubt is that while a global tsunami of fantastically good, cheap heroin from the former Central Asian borderlands of the USSR might have been the catalyst for grunge’s super-slow, warm’n’fuzzy sound and (to quote Billy Corgan) “I’m fucked up, you’re fucked up” mantra, it was the very worst thing for anyone experiencing exactly those feelings Cobain now harboured, exactly that need for refuge, at exactly that point.

 

Yet the wave of heroin kept building. And its appearance at grunge’s cradle was part of a Faustian pact much, much bigger than any that Kurt could make – or for that matter, Alice In Chains’ Layne Staley, or Blind Melon’s Shannon Hoon, or Hole’s Kristen Pfaff, or Mother Love Bone’s Andrew Wood, or anyone dealing in low-tuned, warm, slack, sludgy sleepwalking music in those melancholic, oceanic, autumnal-looking picture sleeves.

 

The invasion of Afghanistan just over a decade earlier had been the Soviet Union’s most public, costly and longest-drawn-out mistake. Before 1979, Afghanistan’s opium fields exported very little along westward routes. But the CIA’s (and Pakistan’s) assistance for mujahideen fighters resisting the Soviet occupation extended to getting the occupiers hooked on heroin. Production rose, and transportation was provided – Pakistan army trucks coming and going with bales of the stuff every day.

 

At the same time, there is evidence to suggest official (and increasingly desperate) Soviet plans to cultivate Afghanistan as a heroin patch, and to destabilize the West by facilitating supply lines to Europe and the US. (As early as 1971, a KGB directive designated M·120/00-050 outlined Soviet plans to use heroin to destabilize the West. And by 1986, Soviet state-operated freighters were sailing from Soviet Baltic ports, and arriving in Rotterdam, London, Denmark and elsewhere laden with hundreds of kilos of high-grade heroin.)

 

Encouraging it was one thing. Controlling it was another. Like a nuclear arms race that would leave unattended warheads lying around who-knew-how-many unstable, newly independent republics the day Nevermind hit the top, this was the sort of tactic that works during occupation and stasis, but backfires after.

 

The Soviets withdrew in 1989 – crippled by addiction, demotivated, bust. (How very early grunge.) The withdrawing soldiers, quartermasters, pilots, diplomats, drivers, construction workers, kids, all took their Jones with them. Their contacts and supply routes – often officially protected – stayed open for business. And sure enough, a huge problem that had been underground in the ’80s became a huge problem that had gone mainstream. And a system that put its faith in young pioneers, in ideology and the commitment and belief of workers, found itself ill-equipped to survive the point where those young pioneers shrugged, stayed home and jacked up.

 

And all the time, there came more heroin. And with the domestic market more or less saturated, it had to go somewhere. The product was there; the infrastructure was there; the corruption was still there. And now, as the ruble collapsed, came the sudden, pressing need to make hard, convertible currency. Down on the Afghan-Pakistan side, too many people had been making too many US dollars for too long to stop now. And on the now-ex-Soviet side, plenty of people – demobbed people, people whose future inside the system suddenly looked a lot less secure – suddenly found they had an opportunity. A simple trade.

 

South-East Asia’s heroin – difficult to transport to Europe or the US, and therefore invariably expensive and degraded by middle-men – suddenly had a far more attractive rival product to contend with.

 

These were wild times on a new Silk Route. Western Autobahns thronged with Trabis; Highway E55 on the Czech-German border became the world’s longest brothel, cars fitted with blackout screens and grubby curtains rocking and jerking through the bitter winter night. Adventurous tourists and robber capitalists alike swarmed East, overwhelming Moscow, Kiev, Minsk, Almaty and Tashkent with dollars and promises and legally enforceable contracts. And the heroin and the money flowed, aided by police corruption, desperation and the irresistible gradient of supply and demand.

 

Britain, Scandinavia and Western Europe were easy staging points for the now-free-to-travel vessels, trucks and containers of the former USSR. And once you were in Rotterdam, Copenhagen, Liverpool or London, the world – namely, the USA – was your oyster. The cheap heroin that had brought Russia to its knees was too good an opportunity for gangs on both sides to miss.

 

Slacker and grunge in the West, refuseniks in the East, were all borne along on the wave of unassailable apathy by history’s largest release of Afghan opium from a failed war. As a retort to the propaganda of struggle for a brighter utopian future (whether chasing a communist ideal or a floating hard-currency dollar), “Never mind” is pretty final.

 

It’s an intriguing thought. Had it not been for the disaster of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, and the ensuing collapse of the USSR, would Kurt Cobain have died as he did? Perhaps the bigger question is whether grunge itself could have become so big. Did that specific, one-time-only combination of the Afghan mujahideen, Gorbachev and Reagan, and a newly entrepreneurial network of heroin gangs save us all from LA hair metal?

 

Or perhaps the question is more important still. Maybe all those people in the East who shrugged and turned away from their manifest destiny were part of a more global idea of Generation X than we’d imagined. Maybe their piece of the Berlin Wall was our Adbusters. We’d all been peachy keen recruits to the system, before the shrug. This was history made not by people saluting or rallying, but by people retreating, copping out, shrugging it all off, saying ‘No’.

 

Which brings us back to that silent house in Seattle 20 years ago. Kurt Cobain didn’t die of a heroin overdose, of course. He died because he shot himself. The autopsy revealed large quantities of heroin in his system, alongside plenty of other stuff, mostly prescription Rohypnol and other garbage. Autopsies don’t say where the heroin came from. They don’t talk about why it’s suddenly flooding streets, gigs, friends’ bedrooms, hotels. They don’t address the economics. It takes history to do that.

 

Seattle, the E55, Berlin, Russia, Armenia, Kabul, Rwanda, Estonia, Rotterdam. 20 years later, you can trace more and more lines. Now it’s the West’s turn to retreat from Afghanistan. Opium production has soared during our occupation. It’s going to go somewhere. Maybe we should listen out for it. It’s there, in the music, and the celebrity news too.

 

To steal a 1989 line from Kurt’s hero Neil Young – whose “It’s better to burn out than to fade away” Cobain quoted in his suicide letter – we’re all rockin’ in the free world now.

 

Film: Feature documentary ‘The Notorious Mr Bout’ to premiere at Sundance

[Update to this story 12/1/14: The Notorious Mr Bout has just been added to the BBC’s Storyville season for 2015/16.]

 

The Notorious Mr Bout, a feature-length documentary film on ‘Merchant of Death’ Viktor Bout – in which I appear and on which I consulted – is to premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

 

Matt Potter features in Maxim Pozdorovkin and Tony Gerber's Merchant of Death film about Viktor Bout

The Merchant of Death, behind bars in Thailand (Used by kind permission, from the film ‘The Notorious Mr Bout’)

 

 

The 90-minute documentary is produced and directed by Maxim Pozdorovkin and Tony Gerber, whose latest film on Pussy Riot won international acclaim and was banned in Russia. Its screening at Robert Redford’s Sundance Festival in Utah this January comes in advance of its international release and tour of European and American festivals.

 

The film follows the rise and fall of Viktor Bout – family man, polyglot, raconteur, and the world’s most notorious smuggler of illicit arms, currently serving time in a US jail – from Soviet military days to Africa, Afghanistan, through his arrest in Thailand for offering to supply arms to Colombia’s FARC rebels, to his conviction in a New York courtroom and beyond.

 

It’s exciting news here, and if you’re interested in organised crime, arms trafficking, the violent chaos of the Soviet breakup, modern terror tactics or the shadow world uncovered in Outlaws Inc, my guess is you’ll love it.

 

It promises to be a great film, and I’m making myself available for interview and comment both around the Sundance schedule and through the year’s releases. Just contact me via the comments, or on Twitter, where I’m @MattPotter.

 

 

Crime & corruption: Are you a terrorist? If Yes, please tick box below…

 

Ever get the creeping feeling that the fight against corruption, money laundering and tax avoidance are doomed? Well, you’d be right. And here – in one phone call – is why.

 

I had a conversation with my bank about money laundering today.

 

I denied everything, naturally. Well, you would, wouldn’t you? These are tough times for money-launderers. We know they are because the government tells us, the police tell us, and the news media tells us.

 

Somali remittance services like Dahabshiil are getting the third degree amid claims they are conduits of funds to Al Shabaab. David Cameron recently “pressed the EU” on tax evasion, and has committed to a public register of company owners. “Those who want to evade taxes,” he thundered after this year’s G8 summit, “have nowhere to hide”.

 

Let’s leave aside for the moment the fact that the Prime Minister’s cherished City of London is one of the leading global hubs for money laundering licit and illicit (and if you haven’t read Nicholas Shaxson’s eye-opening book Treasure Islands: Tax Havens & The Men Who Stole The World, I would urge you to do so): the overall message is clear. Money laundering by the rest of us is a Very Bad Thing, and Inspector Cameron, HMRC and the G8 are totally on it.

 

So it was that, having announced I wished to make a deposit with my bank (actually switching some money from another account somewhere else), I was made to feel what it’s like to have nowhere to hide. Here’s how it went.

 

Me: “Hello, I’d like to make a deposit, please.”

 

Bank: “OK. Now, I do need to ask – in accordance with the new money-laundering regulations – where this money is from?”

 

Me: “It’s mine.”

 

Bank: “OK, that’s great, I’ll tick ‘savings’. Thanks.”

 

And that was it. That was the full extent of the change wrought by the new money laundering regulations.

 

So if you’re a Mexican drug lord, Al-Shabaab fighter or common-or-garden tax avoider from the UK, remember: you have nowhere to hide. Except, y’know, a mortgage or current account. So long as you don’t confess under thorough interrogations like this.

 

As the Monty Python sketch says: Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition…

 

 

 

 

Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout linked to UK horsemeat scandal… And we’re, like, totally shocked

Looks like someone’s finally catching on. This is the network my book is about:

“#Horsemeat firms linked to Russian arms dealer #ViktorBout” http://t.co/e4xTQnls.

Rebel militias, high street retail giants, Somali pirates, fashion brands, Peruvian drug lords, our own government, ready-meal makers, all depend on some of the same shady people, but we all get it cheap so don’t ask too many questions & act shocked when you’re rumbled.

Meanwhile, subcontracting is what makes the world go round, from the UN to arms dealers, blood diamonds to NGOs, and Afghan heroin to food processing. And if some of that gets mixed up on the way? There are enough weak links to mean it’s not your proble.

Free-Market Mercenaries: Matt speaking at Swansea University on 28th February

Matt will be talking transnational crime, Russian gunrunners and the deadly compromises between narco-mafias, FTSE 100 businesses, terrorists, ‘big aid’ and our own government at Swansea University on 28th February.

The event, titled ‘Free market mercenaries: Cocaine traffickers, Somali pirates, and how the Soviet Union won the Cold War’ is organised by Swansea University’s Research Institute in association with the History Faculty, and will start at 5.30pm in Fulton House on the main campus.

The topic is one the recent conviction of Russian businessman Viktor ‘Merchant of Death’ Bout has brought to global attention. Across the world, a secretive network of lawless, untraceable ex-Red Army airmen function as the delivery channel for everything from Afghan heroin and illicit guns to pirate ransoms, UN aid and supermarket flowers. They are living testament to what happened when the Soviet army met Western outsourcing, free-market economics and foreign policy. Matt has flown and worked with these fugitive airmen, and his adventures and investigations are revealed in the book Outlaws Inc, published globally last year and reissued this year in a new, updated edition featuring extra material on Britain’s part in what UN investigators call the “shadow network of illicit arms transfers” and transcripts of the secret tapes from the CIA’s wire during their sting operation on Viktor Bout.

In his talk, will be asking what their industry means for our self-image as citizens of an enlightened, post-Soviet world. Matt is speaking at the invitation of Dr Kelly Hignett, Lecturer in the School of History and Classics at Swansea University, specialist in crime and deviancy in the former Eastern Bloc and author of ‘Transnational Organised Crime and the Global Village’. Dr Hignett is also the woman behind the highly regarded blog The View East.

For a free invitation to the event as Matt’s guest, or if you’d like Matt to speak at an event, just email matt [at] mattpotterbooks [dot] com, or tweet me @MattPotter.

 

Full press information, interview requests, serialization or review copies of the new, expanded edition of his acclaimed book Outlaws Inc., are available from Dusty Miller, Director of Publicity at Pan Macmillan in London. Email: D.Miller@macmillan.co.uk; Telephone: (+44) 20 7014 6188.

 

 

 

 

Video: “Cocaine coffee tables?!” CNN bosses, the craziest cop in Brazil, and me

 

It started perfectly innocently. I was out with a friend on Thursday, and the phone rang. I didn’t pick up – it was ten o’clock, and I’d worked my way through six large glasses of what I remember being an increasingly smooth Italian red, and a couple of bottles of Grolsch for good measure. I’m not a big drinker, and it’s not my usual style, but this guy was over from Sierra Leone, he’s an old friend, and, and… and it explains why I didn’t pick up.

It was a New York number.

The second time it rang, less than a minute later, I picked up. It was CNN. Could I make it to their London office? They had some story kick off with Brazilian smugglers in a plane, they’d been brought down by a cop using only his cujones and a Toyota corolla, and could I comment?

Not a chance. I’m a little tipsy. No way. Nope. Find someone else, someone who isn’t afraid, I mean really afraid, of making a lemon of himself on a prime-time network news show. I gave them my final ‘No’. Put the phone down. That was a close call.

 

 

Well, here’s the interview. I guess they got more than they bargained for, and the show’s bosses sent out a tweet within the hour hashtagged #justtobeclear, clarifying that they do not condone the use, possession, sale, purchase or production of “coffee tables made of cocaine”.

 

 

What can I say? They’re persuasive people.

 

Analysis: Auto destruct: the curious case of the flaming Mercedes (…not to mention the Audis BMWs, Porsches & VWs)

Who (or what) is behind Berlin’s bonfire of the coupés?

This time, it was Porsche lighting up the night with its flames. A high-spec Cayenne, freshly waxed with all the extras. Its owner had parked it outside his apartment around midnight on the 21st September. By ten to five in the morning, it was just another charred, smouldering shell on another Berlin sidestreet.

 

There are no sirens, no flashing lights in Friedrichshain, the gentrifying suburb on the firmer eastside. For the red-eyed Polizist blowing on his styrofoam coffee, it is all too familiar. On the front seat of his squadcar, his radio crackles. His colleague stretches the tape around the Cayenne and the blackened husk of what was once a VW Polo parked next to it. Another cop posts notices on neighbouring apartment lobbies and doors.

 

By now, the question of the early summer – who was the phantom arsonist, torching luxury cars on a nightly basis, sometimes by the dozen? – has become a shrug. These cases – and there’s another coming in on the radio from just across the ditch in Kreuzberg – take the figures close to 400 since June. Nobody I talk to on the street is quite sure how close, simply because they say they’ve lost track. They are almost always luxury models, almost always German-made.

 

As the first Autobrände (‘automotive firebombings’) filtered in, the Bullen – hard-bitten city cops – had figured it was business as usual. Germany is no stranger to automotive arson, and the past four years have seen its crime map becoming a pincushion of charred marques: VWs, BMWs, Audis, Mercedes take the brunt, but only because, well, that’s most of what you see in Germany. There’s even a special website, brennende-autos.de – or “Burning Cars” – where you can chart the latest car arson action. But though there have been waves before, mostly those cases were scattered, occasional, and varied in their methods: petrol on the backseat and a tossed match; rag in the fueltank.

 

Under pressure from a city hall anxious to see the incumbent mayor win a third term, investigators started out handling it like those cases: old-fashioned, low-key policework, pick up the clues, wait for a pattern, arrest the fraudster or pissed-off boyfriend. Nothing to see here.

 

But this summer, something unusual happened: the arsons multiplied, then multiplied again, spreading quickly out of control.

 

Not that there was no method, at least at first. The attacks were all concentrated around just a few square miles of central Berlin; they were all discovered in an advanced charred and smouldering state – there were no fireballs, no explosions, no smashed glass. They burned silently, from the inside. One local resident told me it reminded her of human spontaneous combustion.  It was the ultimate stealth method, nearly impossible to stop or detect, and most importantly of all, it buys the firebug time.

 

This is the method. A quiet street, the early hours – between 1am and 5am, when the city is emptiest. A wedge of barbecue firelighters inside the front wheel arch, by the kerbside tyre. By the time the flames are visible to the next dog-walker, cop or shiftworker to pass, it’s too late: the rubber tyre has gone up like reunifocation day firework, and the engine, exposed to the flames licking up the inside of the wings and causing the fuel tank to overheat and erupt, has exploded. Seconds later and the car is a fireball encased in metal: 1,000ºC on the insides, the frame smoking and collapsing in on itself. The arsonist is long gone – vanished on foot or bicycle while the firelighters were still just small bundle of white cubes wedged under the tyre of the mark.

 

Such was the speed with which the firebug spread that reports awaiting processing became backlogged. At one stage, police were reduced to modifying their theories and their list of suspects on the fly, as data entered into the computers forced on-duty officers to abandon searches midway through and head to new addresses.

 

By August, nine cars a night were being razed, with the weeknights 15-17th alone claiming 40 automotive arsons. Since the hot, dry Berlin summer kicked in, the total was 372, and creeping nightly towards 400.

 

There were now those within the department – and in Berlin – who argued that this was no longer a crime, but an epidemic; a kind of spreading madness or mass hysteria. They argued it could no longer possibly be a case of who was torching the cars, but why so many others had started torching them too.

 

Every time they thought they had a pattern, it would break. The most attractive blanket suspects for a long time were radical political factions. The rapidly gentrifying neighbourhoods of Kreuzberg and Mitte seemed to draw most of the fire – the former West- and East-Berlin’s radical urban neighbourhoods whose long-standing inhabitants have a deep suspicion of the incoming hipsters, executives and media types whose arrival has brought lurching rent-rises, bulldozers and big, bad brands.

 

The authorities focused on the fact that many of the charred and burning wrecks lining these neighbourhoods each morning were luxury models. That was enough for them to make the left-wing radicals connection. And that meant they, the same cops who until a week or two ago had been prepared for the usual collaring of disgruntled ex-lovers and parking disputes – were now effectively running an anti-terror operation.

 

German terror cells have a history of fetishistic attachment to their cars that rivals that of the yuppies, businessmen and suburbanites they oppose. For a few heady years in the 70s, the BMW enjoyed the nickname “Baader-Meinhof-Wagen”, because of that group’s preference for the marque – and specifically its top-of-the-range models, capable of outrunning police pursuers. This time, initial suspicions settled on the car as economic symbol. The dark side of these automotive symbols – BMW’s terror-group adherents and mad owners, VW’s Nazi origins and slave-labour production lines, Mercedes’ staff-car iconography – still has a heavy voodoo that would make them magnets for fringe groups looking for a symbol.

 

They didn’t need to look far.

 

In these bohemian heartlands, shiny status rides attract flack every day. Locals had long been voicing the need for direct action, just like the glory days of the 1970s and 1980s, when their running battles with the police who kept trying to break up their protests and raid their homes for drugs – tactics they saw as creactionary attempts to cleanse leftist communities – made headlines, with burning cars and water cannon staples of the nightly news. This time, the locals felt, the cleansing was being achieved economically, by stealth, with chain outlets replacing family businesses and tenants (nobody buys in Germany) forced out by property developers. As the arsonist or arsonists struck again and again, the police became convinced the local radicals were executing a risky homegrown terror campaign: a “bonfire of the brands”.

 

As the burnings overtook past years (until now, 2009 had been the arson epidemic everyone talked about) the authorities, having reclassed 155 of the 372 cases on record as ‘politically motivated’ crimes, responded with numbers. This too was just like the 1970s: 500 extra police would patrol the city suburbs, every night. Helicopters would keep watch from above. Chasing down suspects with searchlights.

 

They proved useless. The low-key nature of the detonation – all it took was a few seconds kneeling beside a car, pretending to tie your shoelace while you pushed the firelighters into the wheel arch – made the arsonists impossible to catch.

 

The mayor, Klaus Wowereit, was a worried man. His conservative challenger Frank Henkel was now campaigning on the issue, claiming he’d set up a Berliner Bürgerwehr, or Citizen’s Vigilante Militia, to combat the problem if he got elected. The police immediately hit back. “Bounty hunters belong in Westerns,” said their spokesman. “Vigilante justice is much more of a danger.”

 

Feeling the heat, Berlin Police began offering €5,000 for tipoffs, no questions asked. Rainer Wendt, head of the German Police Union, went on TV, making “a desperate appeal for tips from all citizens.”

 

In the meantime, they had another problem. No sooner had they begun to investigate the left-wing terror/direct action theory than the wave of fire spread, beginning to engulf rattletrap traders’ vehicles, scrapheap-dodgers and second-hand Fords and Opels parked across the city. By late September, the targets were more or less indiscriminate: a police spokeswoman read out the nightly toll to jaded press in a deadpan voice: “One Opel Corsa on Rigaer Strasse. Old registration, Time of burning around 1.40am. Another Opel, unidentified, parked next to the first. Old registration. One Audi, Bernkastelerstrasse, Weissensee district. Time reported, 6.30am.”

 

I asked the police who they thought they were dealing with now. Off the record, one businesslike Berlin cop told me the only possible explanation was a “coalition, just like the politicians… some people early on were certainly protesting. But that created a new condition and everybody who wanted to could burn something.”

 

The result was, if not a madness, a wave of oddly opportunistic bacchanalia. The normally buttoned-up people of Berlin, given the perfect cover, wanted to see what it would be like. Copycats – many, police believe, otherwise law-abiding people who had never entertained the thought of arson before – found the temptation too much to resist.

 

Then came the third wave. The disgruntled, the vengeful and the jilted could suddenly get even, Scott-free, courtesy of the epidemic. Fraudsters, anyone who fancied a new car. Underappreciated wardens, neighbourhood watchmen, even firemen. Only four suspects have been jailed, with seven more free but under investigation. Clearly, the police were desperate: one, a pretty 21-year-old identified only as Alexandra R, was arrested for being in the vicinity of a car on a dark street with a spraycan in her hand.

 

That morning, police announced a breakthrough. They had arrested someone they believed to be a key figure on the wave of automotive arson. Someone who had been arrested – and freed – on suspicion of torching cars once before, in that long hot summer of 2009. They could put him at the scene, apparently convincingly, of a handful of burnings.

 

They named him Tobias P, a 25-year-old Berlin resident. Tobias is a freelance crime snapper. Under the name ‘Andreas’, Tobias had been covering the burnings – often first on the scene, always great pictures – and selling his photographs of the cars police now suspect him of torching back to Berliner Zeitung city newspaper, other media, and the police themselves.

 

Meanwhile, the firebug has spread to Moscow, with the long, hot weeks of high summer claiming between four and nine cars every single night. The same methods. The same complex relationship between residents and the luxury cars that line their suburbs.
Perhaps, after all, we get the riots we deserve. This summer in the Middle East, long-standing dictators in military fatigues got bazooka-toting rebel armies. In London, Manchester and Birmingham, decades of mixed messaging about aspiration and cut throat competition begat locusts in branded clothing, devouring electronics and sportswear stores.

 

And in Germany – as ever – it all came down to das auto. The VWs, the Audis, the BMWs, the Mercedes, the Porsches. The post-war economic miracle, in moulded chrome, dirty secrets as standard. Berliners’ symbol of the fat years, once so comforting and lasting, now pouring black smoke from the hood as dawn breaks over another Kreuzberg sidestreet.