Despite these complications, specialists agree that the big mafias will adapt to the new situation.
Last March 12 was a fateful day for the N´drangheta. Police monitoring the quarantine in the Calabrian town of Bruzzano Zeffirio stopped a man who said he was bringing food to a friend. When asked where he was going, the passerby gave the address of an abandoned house. Police became suspicious and sent officers to monitor the building.
Through one of the windows they soon saw smoke from what appeared to be a cigarette. As a statement by the Carabinieri explains lyrically: “that house could not be the home of a simple honest citizen.” And it wasn’t.
The one who smoked in there was Cesare Cordì, the capo of the Calabrian mafia -the famous N´Drangheta-, who was arrested thanks to “the environmental conditions generated by the health emergency.”
Although less literary than the fall of the fugitive Cordì, this coronavirus-created “health emergency” has had consequences for the operational capacity of organized crime groups around the world.
From China, where the outbreak appeared, to Europe, Latin America, the United States, Africa and the rest of Asia, border closings and restrictions on movement have paralyzed cross-border businesses such as traffic of drugs, people and animals.
These illegal emporiums have seen their supply routes blocked or distribution hindered by increased police deployment and confinement.
“The pandemic has been a major disruption to organized crime,” confirms Mark Shaw, director of the Global Initiative against International Organized Crime (GI).
“For example, Nigerian criminal networks spread around the world that transport small amounts of drugs by plane have seen their business paralyzed because there are no flights to take,” he explains.
CHINA AND NARCO DE MEXICO
The cessation of flights and the paralysis of exports in countries like China are another key factor in understanding the impact of the pandemic on the underworld. A report released this month by GI highlights the case of the Mexican cartels, which have been unable to import the chemicals they need to produce fentanyl and the methamphetamines with which they supply the drug markets in North America for weeks.
“China is the leading producer of these chemicals, and its border closures have made it very difficult to produce very popular drugs like glass,” sums up Chris Dalby of the Latin American organized crime research group Insight Crime.
This setback for the supply and distribution capacity of the drug trafficking it has also reduced the entry of cocaine in Europe and the one of heroin that, from Asia, has hitherto arrived in large quantities in southern Africa through countries such as Mozambique.
The closure of China has also affected the mafias that supply clothing and jewelry to merchants in central Mexico DF. According to Dalby, imports, now discontinued, of this type of merchandise are the responsibility of the criminal group La Unión de Tepito.
Through a subgroup called Los Marco Polos -in honor of the Venetian pioneer of trade with China-, the Union of Tepito buys this contraband in the Asian country and sells it to small merchants in the Mexican capital, who are also extorted by the band.
“Many of these businesses are refusing to pay what are called ‘rents’ or ‘vaccines’,” says Dalby. “Why keep paying protection if they don’t even give us the merchandise?” More and more merchants ask, according to the Insight Crime expert.
Despite these complications, the specialists contacted by Efe agree that the big mafias will adapt to the new situation.
“Sources from the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) tell us that the large cartels of Mexico, the Jalisco Cartel and the Sinaloa Cartel, are already looking for alternative sources of supply to produce drugs, “says Dalby.
THE PRICE OF THE ‘COYOTES’
Restrictions on movement imposed by authorities around the world have also complicated the sale of drugs to the final consumer.
The prohibition to go out and the presence of the military and police make the work of the ‘camels’ practically impossible and have reduced crimes with violence to minimum levels.
According to the GI report, regions like the Balkans have experienced in recent weeks “a reduction in homicides and robberies”. “Civil society activists expect fewer mafia killings in the coming months in countries like Serbia and Montenegro,” the study highlights.
Country closures are also a problem for human traffickers, who are having more difficulty than ever crossing borders in Europe and are already suffering the consequences of measures against the virus in transit countries such as Libya or Niger.
According to GI, fear of the virus causes many of the potential migrants and refugees to give up traveling, and at the same time arouses hostility against traffickers who are still active in communities that normally cooperated with this business.
Reports from Libya, for example, speak of attacks on Egyptian traffickers in fear of infections. These difficulties have led human traffickers, the ‘coyotes’, to raise the prices of their services. “They have already increased substantially in Central America and on the border of Mexico with the United States, “says Dalby.
“We think that, for the moment, there is going to be much less illegal migration. First, because prices have risen and, second, because people are afraid of the coronavirus.”
AWARDS WITHOUT CONTROL
Fear and the health emergency have also brought with them new forms of business outside the law.
“The shortage and the urgent and unexpected demand for materials, such as sanitary, open many opportunities,” says Aubrey Belford, researcher at the Project for Information on Corruption and Organized Crime (OCCRP).
“Everyone is trying to buy and have access to gloves, masks, tests, miracle cures,” says Belford, who lives in Kiev and finds Ukrainian websites almost daily that sell disinfectants and other products at exorbitant prices.
“Some of them receive orders and then they don’t deliver the products,” he says. “Panic leads people to unknowingly press the ‘buy’ button.”
The state of emergency with which many governments have responded to the pandemic also offers “enormous opportunities” for corruption. “Large amounts of money are being awarded with great speed and little vigilance,” says Belford, who fears that this “secrecy” will allow “great abuse” by politicians and private companies.
As recently revealed by the Ukrainian publication Bihus.info, the Kiev Department of Public Health ordered several hospitals to prepare separate rooms, larger and with dark glass, before possible infections from high dignitaries.
These VIP patients should also be guaranteed the supply of medications and that they be treated by doctors with at least five years of experience.
The Covid-19 It hit China first and its impact now fully affects Europe and the United States.
“If it spreads in equal measure to places like South Africa or Latin America, it will bring even more disruption,” says Mark Shaw of GI. “In those places, criminal gangs have a much stronger presence in the territory, and could take advantage of the pandemic to gain prominence by enforcing curfews, quarantines, etc.”
Some of that is already happening in Latin America, explain Insight Crime sources investigating these phenomena.
In Colombia, dissident FARC guerrilla leaders have set up checkpoints to enforce the curentena and threaten reprisals for those who do not respect it in the areas of the departments of Cauca and Nariño (southwest).
Meanwhile, the Red Command criminal group – created by imprisoned criminals and which controls the traffic of cocaine and public life in many favelas of Rio de Janeiro- is imposing quarantines in slums around the city of Rio de Janeiro. This situation is repeated with other criminal gangs implanted in other suburbs.
“In a way, these groups feel responsible for protecting the communities they live in,” says an Insight Crime researcher.
In the case of Venezuela, it is the collectives (urban paramilitaries) created by Chavismo to defend the revolution that, in the slums of Caracas, lead the application of the curfews ordered by the Government.
“There are images showing members of groups declaring the curfew together with the military and special forces of the Government, which seems to have subcontracted this work to these groups,” says this source. “The collectives are more deeply rooted in the communities and there is an element of fear that gives them power over the people.”
Like other people and organizations, criminals and mafias seek to adapt as quickly as possible to new circumstances, and in many ways they demonstrate more inventiveness than those who operate within the law.