By a Biometrica staffer
In late 2020, much before anyone ever imagined that a deadlier variant of the Covid-19 virus would sweep across the world and wreak renewed havoc on healthcare and governance systems, organizations like the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) warned that the pandemic had brought about new opportunities for organized crime groups (OCGs). Measures to prevent the virus from spreading, like lockdowns and restrictions, did affect OCGs much like the rest of us.
For instance, the UNODC said in a report in July 2020 that the Covid-19 crisis disrupted drug trafficking chains; changed the dynamics of demand, supply, and prices of illicit drugs; made it difficult to use traditional smuggling routes; and constrained activities related to the trafficking of persons and the smuggling of migrants. But even as it did that, it also opened up other opportunities for OCGs. There’s a “parallel pandemic” of crime threats linked to Covid-19, INTERPOL Secretary General Jürgen Stock warned at the start of this year.
Widespread sweeping global crises, like the one Covid-19 caused, give OCGs more room than otherwise to infiltrate the legal economy. Struggling private businesses are more likely to look for loans on the illicit market than during normal times. Then, of course, there’s the management of the pandemic itself that also brings new opportunities to the table for criminals, and that doesn’t just just include chances to enter the counterfeit masks and medicines market. There have been instances where OCGs have even boosted their standing in communities by delivering aid packages to the common man to increase their influence in those communities.
In this piece, we give you an overview of how the modi operandi of OCGs changed because of and in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Infiltration Into Legal Sectors
One of the biggest opportunities for OCGs, as we mentioned earlier, is that the Covid-19 gave them chances to expand their influence into legal sectors of the economy.
Back in April, for example, Biometrica wrote about how OCGs were cutting themselves a piece of Italy’s strong tourism sector, according to a report published by Italian think-tank Demoskopika. That report showed OCGs had managed to carve out a $2.6 billion cut in Italy’s tourism sector. These mafia groups typically take control over legitimate businesses so that they can launder money from their illegal activities like trafficking of drugs and arms, experts say, according to an article by the Organized Crime And Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). Around 4,400 businesses are at risk of mafia infiltration, the OCCRP article said, citing Demoskopika, largely for the purpose of money laundering. This problem has only been worsened by the Covid-19 pandemic.
According to the UNODC report, businesses in the transport, hospitality, arts, retail, and beauty sectors are particularly vulnerable to infiltration by OCGs. When these businesses began to reopen, some may have found themselves either in the debt of OCGs, or directly controlled by them. OCGs can seize control either through an exchange of money for buying shares or by directly taking over operations. This generates more opportunities for criminal activity, including money laundering and trafficking, enabling OCGs to further expand their control and power over the legitimate economy.
Then there were some sectors that saw a significant spike in demand due to the pandemic, such as medical devices, pharmaceutical products, e-commerce, food retail, cleaning, and funeral services. Procurement procedures were relaxed by governments to shore up their defenses against the pandemic, especially during the initial months of the virus’ spread and after the first vaccinations were launched. And it’s in the hope to exploit this surge in demand that OCGs moved into some of these sectors, UNODC said in the report, adding that there was already some evidence of this.
For instance, falsified medical masks have been seized in Spain and Italy; attempts to smuggle vital equipment have been stopped in Ukraine, Iran, and Azerbaijan; and one Mexican cartel has been promoting the production of falsified Covid-19 medical products and forcing pharmacies to sell them. In June, a record number of fake online pharmacies were shut down under Operation Pangea XIV, targeting the sale of counterfeit and illicit medicines and medical products, INTERPOL said. The operation showed that criminals were continuing to cash in on the demand for personal protection and hygiene products generated by the Covid-19 pandemic, it added.
With governments around the world investing large sums into shoring up their economies and making sure their vulnerable populations are cared for, appropriation of public funds is another target area for criminals. As recently as Aug. 16, INTERPOL issued a global alert saying OCGs were trying to defraud governments with fake offers to sell Covid-19 vaccines. The warning came after around 60 cases were reported from 40 different countries where individuals in health ministries and hospitals have received offers for Covid-19 vaccines approved for distribution in their country.
The massive scale of the Covid-19 pandemic exposed weaknesses in governing structures in various levels and ways. One of it was in terms of providing emergency aid that was desperately needed in the poorest and most vulnerable communities. With governments struggling to keep up in some cases, OCGs “stepped in” to deliver aid packages and other necessities, which allowed them to exert more control over the geographies and territories where they operate.
Some examples of this, per the UNODC report, include cases in Italy, where mafia affiliates used fake charities to deliver packages to those in need. Mexican cartels supplied bundles containing food and sanitizers to states and cities under their influence. Yakuza groups in Japan handed out free masks, toilet paper, and tissues to pharmacies and kindergartens. Even the Taliban got involved by posting health teams to remote areas of Afghanistan to help tackle the virus. Militant group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham distributed health information to the public in the Syrian province of Idlib. In South Africa, there are reports that gangs in Cape Town called a temporary truce to hand out food parcels.
What’s more, while carrying out some of these activities, OCGs made sure communities and wider populations in the geographies they operate in knew exactly who was supplying the aid. Publicity stunts were staged to drive the message home. For example, one Mexican cartel posted videos of armed individuals handing out bags of groceries from the back of a pickup truck, and other cartels stamped their logos on the packages they delivered, the UNODC says.
These activities do not just strengthen the hold of OCGs in their respective communities. They also serve as a way to highlight the failures of governments and diminish the legitimacy of official agencies. And, as a result, OCGs may find it easier to continue with their activities in the future in those communities and may even find it less tough to recruit new members.
The organized crime threat, especially in relation to vaccines, combined with international terrorism and cybercrime, has created an unprecedented dynamic criminal situation, requiring a global response, INTERPOL said in January. Being aware of this is necessary to combat the latest threats posed by OCGs. As INTERPOL reminds us all on its Covid-19 safety guidelines page: “Criminals don’t take breaks. Even as everything around us is being put on hold, they are looking for new ways to generate profits.”