Coronavirus: Worldwide, Organized Crime Profits From Health Crisis

Image taken from a video document distributed by the press office of the Italian rifle police showing a policeman opening bags seized at the Ndrangheta. AFP PHOTO / ITALIAN CARABINIERI POLICE FORCES

Text by: Romain Philips Follow

New drug routes, increased presence in the medical sector, cybercrime, territorial control ... For several months, the mafias and other organized crime networks have taken advantage of the health crisis caused by the coronavirus.


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The closing of borders, containment measures and the cessation of international trade has put a brake on the world economy . Dependent on the latter to camouflage their activities, organized crime networks were also affected by the Covid-19 crisis . For example, many countries have reported shortages of certain drugs, higher prices, and the use of lower quality products.

“  Most of the trafficking, particularly with regard to drugs, has continued. We have also seen new traffic appear  , ”explains Clotilde Champeyrache, economist at the CNAM (National Conservatory of Arts and Crafts) and criminologist who has published several works on mafia organizations. In Africa, “  drug trafficking and poaching have dropped a lot  ,” Martin Ewi, technical coordinator of the ENACT project (Strengthening Africa's response capacities to transnational organized crime) at the Institute for Human Rights, told RFI . Security Studies (ISS) based in Pretoria, South Africa.

Read: Africa: the drug market explodes, state of play

Regarding new traffic, an increase in cybercrime has been observed in many countries, as has the resale of drugs or masks. Between 3 and 10 March 2020, more than 34,000 surgical masks were seized by Europol . “  The health sector is one of the areas where we have seen one of the largest increases in traffic. The groups that were involved in drug trafficking, now that it has become more difficult, are in the health field,  ”explains the member of the ENACT Project. In South Africa, the ban on the sale of alcohol had also given rise to an illegal trade.

According to a report by GITOC (Global initiative against transnational organized crime), the countries of Central Asia have experienced a drop in drug seizures. Other countries, such as Niger, have reported traffic stops while in Nigeria it continues, "  with an increase in the use of postal services  ". 

In Europe, Italy also notes a decline in seizures, but the opposite has been observed in Spain. “  In March and April, 14 tonnes of cocaine were seized in Spain. A figure six times higher than the same period of the previous year  ", according to Manuel Montesinos, deputy director of customs surveillance at the Spanish Tax Agency. Thus reinforcing the hypothesis that the Italian mafias - whose major part of the cocaine traffic in Europe is controlled by the Calabrian mafia - now favor Spain as a gateway for cocaine to Europe. In France, drug trafficking has dropped from "  30% to 40%  ", according to the Minister of the Interior, Christophe Castaner.

Organized crime is also taking advantage of new goods transport to bring drugs to market. For example, on April 14, 14 kilos, the equivalent of more than one million euros of cocaine, were seized in France in a truck transporting protective masks bound for the United Kingdom. During another operation, a scam concerning several million masks was also dismantled by several European countries. 

In "  the Balkan countries and the Middle East  ", the impact on traffic was less strong. Egypt reports " medium  " seizures  unlike Iran which reports "  large drug seizures meaning that large-scale drug trafficking is still in progress  ".

" As soon as there is a crisis, serious organized crime is the first to benefit from it "

Learning from past crises, "  the majority of affected illicit drug organizations and markets have adapted and evolved their business models to adapt to new operating environments  ," says GI-TOC. This is evidenced by the sale of drugs at home which has greatly increased in the face of the impossibility of customers to move during periods of confinement or the new routes taken by Colombian cartels to transport their drugs to the United States.

History has already demonstrated the adaptability of criminal organizations. The 1980 earthquake in the Naples region had enabled the Neapolitan mafia, the Camorra, to invest the economy greatly. The 2008 economic crisis, by allowing mafias to invest their liquidity in the banking system, had also been a boon for organized crime who wanted to infiltrate the legal economy. “  As soon as there is a crisis, serious organized crime is the first to take advantage of it. So yes, there is going to be a phenomenon that will make the economy even more gray,  ”says Clotilde Champeyrache. 

From the start of the pandemic, criminal organizations changed their habits to take advantage of them. All that is emergency management, health emergency has been diverted with even more marked control of the territory  ," notes the criminologist. By distributing masks and food aid or by organizing containment, criminal networks have thus strengthened their "  control of the territory  ".

In Guadalajara, Mexico, it was Alejandrina Guzman herself, the daughter of El Chapo, the Mexican drug trafficker recently convicted by the American courts , who distributed food and masks bearing the image of her father. In Italy, the Calabrian and Sicilian mafias, Cosa nostra and Ndrangheta have also helped the thousands of informal workers in the country. In the Brazilian favelas, some drug traffickers imposed confinement on families, arguing that organized crime organizations were better able to protect the population than President Bolsonaro.

Through these " social  " actions  , organized crime "  strengthens its legitimacy  " and its grip on its territories and can easily have "  small workforce who will be there to render service to organized crime later  ", warns Clotilde Champeyrache. Criminals are doing everything to maintain relations with the population,  " adds Martin Ewi, referring to the situation in certain "  crime-dominated  " districts of Cape Town, the capital of South Africa.

Convenient loans to " take over businesses "

In conditions of economic crisis brought about by containment measures, it is extremely easy for mafias, for whom liquidity has continued to flow, to take advantage of these economic difficulties. Criminal organizations "  are the first to resume troubled activities, replace this money and get rich by lending at usurious rates  ", explains the economist.

On the other hand, the authorities are worried that the aim of the mafias is not to get rich, but to return to the capital of companies. “  Having access to the legal economy is essential for organized crime. This allows them to cover the tracks on the nature of money, to launder it and to declare legal income  ”, according to Clotilde Champeyrache.

Investing heavily in businesses also allows organized crime to take over state subsidies. In an economic emergency, subsidies are allocated by governments quickly and on a massive scale with simplified security and control measures. And that too, criminal organizations know how to take advantage of it,  " explains the researcher.

On Thursday May 28, 2020, Italian police arrested 73 people involved in a large criminal network in southern Italy. On behalf of Ndrangheta, they are accused of having diverted 110 million euros from public and European funds. The purpose of this criminal network was to take control of the system of all public markets in Calabria  ", according to the police. By investing in legal companies, the Calabrian mafia was able to win "  at least 22 public contracts, in a systematic fraud against the Calabria region and the European Commission  ". Seven of these markets, between 2007 and 2013, represented more than 40 million euros.

It is in particular for this reason that the four so-called "frugal" countries (Netherlands, Austria, Denmark and Sweden) insisted on 23 May on the need to involve European prosecutors and those responsible for the fight against corruption in the European recovery plan .

Identifying the adaptability of criminal organizations  "

In certain regions, "  the mafia becomes almost like a benefactor for which a certain part of the society is grateful  ", worries Nicola Gratteri , the prosecutor of Catanzaro , the capital of the region of Calabria, which leads a war against the mafia for several years.

Recognition that could push some residents to join organized crime? This is one of the concerns of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Rising unemployment, falling incomes and rising prices of illicit crops may make joining a drug cartel more and more attractive,  " said the UN agency in a report on the impacts of Covid-19 on organized crime.

The post-Covid-19 therefore promises to be already busy for the authorities fighting organized crime because crime, taking advantage of the ongoing crisis, continues to infiltrate the licit economy. “  The real problem will be to identify the adaptability of criminal organizations. And there, the police will be forced to carefully observe the nature of the agents who operate in the economy  ”in the future, concludes Clotilde Champeyrache.

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