My top five films and books about trade, smuggling and international crime

During the Christmas period I spent a lot of time watching mainly terrible movies, and reading some amazing books. It also got me thinking about which films and books cover the same ground as my blog, the results are below, if I’ve missed anything interesting or obvious, do let me know!

Lord of War

Fantastic tale of a Ukrainian arms dealer, who crisscrossed the world supplying African warlords and other rebels in need of illegal weapons. He makes a fortune and corrupts himself in the process – the film is partly based on the life of Victor Bout the notorious arms dealer who was only put behind bars this year. Nicholas Cage is perfect in the lead, as is Ethan Hawke playing DEA agent Jake Valentine chasing him. The film is a riveting story and a detailed look at how the illegal arms trade supposedly works.

Blood Diamond

Worth watching for Leonardo Di Caprio with a South African/Zimbabwe accent, he plays Danny Archer an unscrupulous diamond smuggler. This being a Hollywood film the chance for redemption is not far away, it’s a gripping film, which as the title suggests covers the brutal trade in diamonds across Africa.


A film based on a Channel 4 series of the same name, it follows a number of players in the USA/Mexican drug trade, including Michael Douglas as a US “Drug Czar”, the ironic twist being that his daughter is a drug addict. The ever charismatic Benicio Del Toro is a Mexican cop and Catherine Zeta Jones is the wife of dead drug lord, now trying to keep his empire together. The film is almost documentary like in its approach and an excellent though now dated introduction to the Mexican/US drug trade.


Bit of a cheat as I have only seen a brief clip of this documentary film at a talk about the death of Chut Wutty and the illegal logging trade in Cambodia. The subject of logging in Cambodia and elsewhere is a sadly under reported issue. From the clip we saw the film looked excellent so deserves a place on the list; a trailer can be seen here.

China in Africa

This low key documentary looks at Chinese farmers and entrepreneurs trying to make a living in Zambia, the difficulties they face and their views on living in Africa. It also gives voice to the thoughts and feelings of the African workers they hire. Simultaneously it follows a Zambian minister in China, meeting dignitaries and trying to sign a trade deal. The film is almost anthropological in its approach, with no judgement or commentary made upon the events or implications of the film and all the better it is for this approach. It doesn’t contain what you might call a riveting plot, but a must for anyone interested in the China Africa axis.


The Dragons Gift

The definitive take on the Chinese role in Africa, written by Professor Deborah Brautigam at John Hopkins University, who brings 30 years of knowledge and experience of this subject to the book, it is wide ranging and goes into great nerdy detail on subjects like interest rates on loans and the exact nature of aid given by the Asian giant. It is generally pro-Chinese and there is an excellent blog which takes over where the book left off. The fantastic first hand research and longevity of the Professor’s career shine through the pages of this book.


Written by journalist Misha Glenny, this book is an astounding glimpse into the organised crime groups which have mushroomed since the end of the Cold War, the level of access and resulting detail is what makes the book stand out, you really get the feel for the menace and danger that surrounds these crooks, criminals and mafisio. I’m looking forward to revisiting this book very soon and it was a major inspiration for my own writing.

New Powers

This book written by a Cambridge academic is an exploration of India, China and Brazil’s rise and their place in the shifting global balance of power as well as their behaviour in the world’s trading and diplomatic forums. Each country’s aims and tactics within international forums are well analysed and the book is written in witty manner, making the book academic yet highly readable.

Outlaws Inc. Flying with the world’s most dangerous smugglers

This book is the story of ex-Soviet airforce pilots who criss-crossed Africa and Asia carrying cargos legal and illegal in the giant Soviet era Antonov aircraft, it is bit repetitive in places, but there some great tales in the book and you get a real sense of a hidden mysterious world of smugglers, criminals and arms dealers operating from exotic locations which lends the book a romantic edge I did not expect from the title.

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