Organized Crime during Covid-19

How criminal groups are benefitting from the pandemic.

by Silvia Ecclesia

While states struggle in deciding whether to impose stricter measures against Covid-19 or not, mafias around the world take advantage unnoticed of the pandemic. As the economy slows and poor areas remain abandoned by governments, criminal organizations emerge as the saviour of the people: not the heroes we want but the only ones we have. 

The imposition of a new lockdown looms over Italy. Naples inflamed with violent protests against this possibility joined by people coming from all different industries and different social stratum. The imposition of a second complete lockdown of all “non-essential” activities means the ruin of small businesses and independent workers. During the previous lockdown, the government provided subventions to multiple job categories but the money was little and slow to come. And when the state fails, crime thrives. 

When you think about organized criminal groups (OCGs), don’t think of them only as a group of ugly looking armed drug dealers that menace helpless citizens and make war with each other. The “mafia” is a type of welfare state: a completely unethical and corrupt one, but still a welfare state. Criminal organizations come and make investments where the economy is more shattered; they act as lenders where banks don’t want to reach; and they provide protection where the state is not able to. Even in normal times, they benefit from the weakness of certain areas in terms of social security and economy but now, that these issues are growing, more than ever organized criminal groups present themselves as the alternative welfare. 

Covid-19 and containment measures are bringing to their knees those who were already at the margins of the economy. People that made a living out of non-traditional, informal or independent work solutions (for example: irregular caregivers, seasonal workers, small shop owners, employees paid on piecework) are left with no income and drawn more and more towards criminal organizations. Having no other choice, they are co-opted by OCGs or involved in their networks as debtors and subject to threats and extortions. The Italian Camorra is one of the oldest and most embedded mafias in Italy based in the Campania region (where Naple is). During the crisis caused by the virus they provided local sinking businesses with loans at zero-percent rate of interest, gaining their loyalty. However, what this debt is going to entail in the future we can only imagine. 

Criminal groups will leverage their almost unlimited economic resources to infiltrate in new territories and sectors. They are already expanding their presence in the areas of food distribution, cleaning services and funeral parlours. In Mexico, cartels give food and sanitizers to poor areas; and the Japanese Yakuza, the “traditional” country’s criminal organization, is giving face-masks and other supplies to pharmacies and kindergartens. They are profiting from the situation to reinforce their presence on the territory and ensure the continuation of their activities in normal times. They sneak into those cracks where governments can’t reach and assert their presence; a presence that will mean corrupted elections, embezzlement of public funds and clientelism in the future. 

Another sector obviously under risk of infiltration is healthcare: the difficulties in which hospitals find themselves open the doors for acts of bribing, and money laundering. OCGs creeped into those areas where a high demand of certain products is not met by the market and started selling fake Covid-19 tests, sub-standard masks and sanitizers, and other fake products to hospitals and pharmacies.  

This phenomenon is not new at all. Criminal organizations have always profited from difficult times to thrive. During the plague in the 1600s, the city of Milan put criminal groups in charge of controlling the streets and managing the corps and similar patterns repeated during the 1800s cholera outbreak. More recently, Yakuza took advantage from the 2011 earthquake in Japan to gain contracts for their construction companies. Today, South American countries are experiencing similar trends as assistance in the suburbs and the management of corps is delegated to non-state groups often affiliated with drug cartels.

Criminal organizations are not just an italian problem. They are in every part of the world and the chaos caused by the pandemic is going to make them stronger where people were already at risk. The Italian Anti-Mafia Investigative Office has adopted special measures (here in italian) to fight mafias during Covid-19. However, while criminal organizations adapt in no time, italian bureaucracy is very slow. In other parts of the World, especially developing countries, State governments are helpless in front of this phenomenon and mafias are free to operate. The UNODC released a research paper (here) in July with the scope to alert countries, however, the issue had a feeble echo in the international arena. 

States need to be vigilant on how their funds are used but, most of all, they need to be fast in supporting the lower social classes and poorer areas before OCGs could act. A rapid response is fundamental but at this point is already too late. 

While the World might, and I really hope so, heal from Covid-19, how are we going to heal from the criminal drift that it caused?   

Silvia Ecclesia is a first year MIA student. Instagram: silvia_eccle 

Mafias del Mundo: Ndrangheta” by Eneas is licensed with CC BY 2.0.

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