The COVID-19 virus presents extraordinary challenges to the global community and to global governance. Not least of these is the degree to which organized crime may use the openings created by the political and social crises that the virus is bringing about to expand its impact, and build its legitimacy and reach with communities and governments alike.

This cynical opportunism in times of crisis is by no means unprecedented – mafia groups have long used the aftermath of humanitarian emergencies to strengthen their ties in communities and to leverage national governments for greater influence. The Yakuza gangs have been renowned first responders during earthquakes and tsunamis in Japan; the Jalisco cartel distributed aid to hurricane victims in western Mexico last year; meanwhile, al-Shabaab provides relief and distributes food assistance during Somalia’s cyclical droughts.

The literature on resilience, which spans people’s responses to a range of phenomena, from natural disasters and food insecurity to conflict settings, makes a clear distinction between shocks and stressors. Stressors are long-term, chronic strains, which progressively erode the viability, productivity and life chances of people. Violence and criminal governance are good examples of stressors. But the current pandemic, and the social distancing that has ensued, is a shock – an abrupt, unexpected and acute event, and evidence shows that shocks can fundamentally change existing paradigms.  

While health officials work to stem the virus and deal with public-health policy, those of us engaged in discussions around governance and the rule of law need to think forward about social policy and how to change local governance paradigms. How can we mitigate the negative impacts of the COVID-19 shock, and perhaps even turn it into a positive?

In the local governance space, there are three categories of actors operating interdependently. These are, firstly, the state, its institutions and local authorities; secondly, there is civil society, whose work is often targeted at the most vulnerable, and designed to maintain and facilitate public discourse; and, thirdly, local-strongmen and challengers to legitimate authority, often in the form of organized crime. In places where state institutions are strong, the latter category is kept under control and distant from people’s everyday lives, though never entirely absent. In weak states, where state authority and service delivery is limited, there are fewer barriers and greater opportunities for criminal strongmen to assert themselves. Each of these actors works to address the service-delivery failures and shortcomings of the others. In so doing, their motive is to build societal legitimacy in their own way.

In cases where the state cannot ensure security, criminal and vigilante groups step into the void and provide ‘protection’. Where people cannot legitimately make a livelihood, or access loans, credit or financial systems, they turn to loansharks, theft, prostitution, drug dealing and other forms of crime. As shops empty, or as states bar people from accessing certain licit and illicit commodities, those needs will be met through the black market and the dark web. Organized criminal entities use benign messaging and much the same methodologies as civil society to reach out to communities, but while their outreach methods may be similar, their objectives are far more sinister.

The COVID-19 crisis is creating a shock to society by increasing people’s
needs. This is overwhelmingly the result of an externally introduced health danger,
it is not (at least not yet) the result of state failure. So, at this time
of expanded community needs, it is critically important that whatever steps in
to fill that space is not organized crime.

What if the virus constitutes such a fundamental shock to the system of governance that it causes new forms of legitimate governance to emerge? What if it actually serves to build social capital and trust, and in doing so closes down the space for criminal groups to flourish? If that is to be brought about, it means investing now not only to meet the current challenges, but also to create an alternative reality of legitimate governance in places where criminal gangs now hold sway.

In face of the lockdown, there is evidence of impressive and important
social organization on the part of civil-society groups and communities
rallying to help their neighbours. We see this in the programmes that the
GI-TOC Resilience Fund supports across the globe. One of our grantees, whose
work usually involves providing support to children vulnerable to gang
recruitment in a high-violence area has moved towards delivering food parcels
and doing community outreach. Our grantee explains:

‘In troubled times, it is sometimes difficult to
give to others, because we may feel trapped in our own situations. For that
reason, we made the decision yesterday that the time to put our money where our
mouths are is now. Despite the virus limiting and infiltrating our lives, we
will not stop doing our care work. Through laughter and play,
relationships are built. Strong bonds that cause people to feel cared for, relationships
in which people make time for one another, are important. And people who live
in the security of safe relationships grow and learn faster. Therefore, our
focus is on the family as a community at home.’

In these very dark hours, in response to a potent, disruptive shock, communities need to forge closer bonds to make them stronger and more resilient. This may be achieved on social media and through WhatsApp groups, rather than in real community gatherings, through expressions of solidarity and communicating around common challenges. But the impact is the same, and it is hugely important in the collective fight against organized crime.

Empirical studies have shown that by improving community organization – defined as ‘the density of interpersonal ties and the prevalence of shared expectation for collective action’ – communities directly limit the ability of organized-crime groups to control territory, reduce the benefits of coercive violence and generate pressure to protect residents from exploitation.

From the GI-TOC’s experience in engaging with communities at local level in places where criminal governance is high, the virus constitutes an opportunity to roll back criminal governance. To help achieve this, there are three do’s and one don’t:


✅ Use this opportunity to invest in and reinforce government responses that have legitimacy. Service delivery is best administered through state actors where possible and practicable. If these services involve police or military deployments on a short-term basis, then every effort needs to be made to ensure that their interventions are conducted with the utmost probity.  

✅ Play a role in helping reinforce state legitimacy. Unfortunately, there have been reports of state institutions overstepping their mark, and of individual officials abusing their power. But it is early days, and astute leaders must work to urgently reverse such occurrences. This is a fundamental time to build state legitimacy and respect for the rule of law, so every act of aggression by a state actor, such as a police officer or member of the military, is symbolic of state failure. 

✅ Invest heavily in local civil society. Reinforce the creation of new voices and new leadership in damaged communities. Even without a more focused effort, a stronger civil society will incrementally close down the space for criminal governance and illicit opportunism. Where possible, also use the opportunity to build social solidarity against organized-crime groups and the illicit economy. While they suffer from the shock the virus has created, communities will be more sensitive to the harms the illicit economy has caused. Don’t allow people’s vulnerability and desperation make them turn to organized crime: provide alternatives where and when people will need it most. 


❌ Partner with criminal groups. Instead, isolate criminal figures and known traffickers. It should be said out loud that these are people who are widely known, but often untouchable. At a time when the political economy is shifting rapidly and substantially, urge governments not to join forces with criminals to enforce social policy, despite the reach of their local power. 

Mirroring the global economy, the global illicit economy is now under
enormous strain, as we described in our recent policy brief. We are not so
naive as to think that this is by any means a death knell for organized crime,
but there is a significant opportunity now to reduce its impact. Levels of
global illicit flows and their impact locally have been progressively and
incrementally growing to the point where their burden was placing an
intolerable burden on human development. The virus is a dramatic and catalytic
event that draws attention to the attrition to organized crime, but both are equally
insidious for long-term prosperity.  

Ultimately, the solutions
to both the problem of the virus and organized crime are surprisingly similar: they
involve building national and community solidarity against global damage while recognizing
global good.