Lyes Tagziria

Over the past 12 weeks, the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC) has closely monitored the impact of COVID-19 on the illicit economy and organized crime. We launched our series of COVID-19-related analysis with an overarching policy brief titled ‘Crime and Contagion: The impact of a pandemic on organized crime’, which outlined the four major ways in which we anticipated the pandemic would affect organized crime.

Since then, we’ve documented a raft of fakes and frauds, graft and grifters who have tried to exploit the pandemic for their own profits. We’ve borne witness to changing criminal-governance patterns in communities that are acutely affected by gangs who have met immediate local needs, but have also sought to intensify their control over communities.  And we’ve monitored the way in which states have taken abrupt policy pivots in response to the new urgent priority posed by the pandemic.

As we close off this 12-week GI-TOC special series of analysis and briefings, during which we captured, analyzed and disseminated the impacts of the pandemic on organized criminality through policy briefs, blogs and podcasts, it is evident that the impact of COVID-19 on organized crime is an issue that cannot yet be put to rest. At the time of writing, the regions where we are most deeply involved are seeing the pandemic surging, and not declining. Latin America has emerged as a more recent hotspot, accounting for half of global deaths. Parts of Asia and Africa too are still posting records for daily increases in cases.

In this three-month period, it has become apparent that COVID-19 is not just a public-health emergency but a triple threat that will have far-reaching consequences. It has become simultaneously an economic, governance and security crisis, and one which has struck the entire world in an unprecedented way, leaving no continent or region able to carry on as before. The implications and the legacy of the pandemic are likely to be far-reaching.

We have therefore decided that the #CovidCrimeWatch initiative will shift to a monthly format.  We will continue to round up emerging developments in the newsletter, highlighting the most interesting trends and developments reported in the media – and we will maintain an archive of all the news stories we find online as a resource for everyone to use. There are 500 articles listed already. Tracking global developments week-on-week has allowed us to examine how illicit economies have changed, how criminal actors have adapted and how state actors have responded. It also allowed us to assess which warnings and predictions were well founded, as well as the extent to which certain criminal markets defied expectations. In this week’s newsletter, we look back with the aim of doing exactly that.

We will continue to produce our podcasts – The Impact: COVID and Organized Crime – hearing from experts, our field teams and research staff, but the podcasts will become monthly rather than weekly.  And in our analysis, through blogs, podcasts, briefs and research reports, we will be shifting away from capturing incidents, but rather analyze and discuss some of the deeper ramifications of the pandemic, in addition to capturing evolving criminal market trends. This is what we have begun this week, highlighting a selection of issues on economics, security, policing and multilateral governance.  We hope that you continue to take value from our ongoing analysis.


N°1 – So it begins

The first story to feature in the #CovidCrimeWatch newsletter covered the disruption caused by coronavirus to certain criminal groups in Mexico, whose income largely derives from selling counterfeit goods. With air travel to and from China heavily restricted, criminal groups faced difficulty importing counterfeit goods into Mexico. This had knock-on effects on a crucial source of income for gangs, namely extortion fees.

Another criminal activity that would experience a considerable surge was cybercrime. A combination of factors, including a shift to remote working, the use of unsecure networks, and an increasingly vulnerable population due to economic uncertainty, created the perfect storm for online fraudsters and sophisticated cybercriminals.

N°2 – Governance, criminal style

Our second newsletter focused on criminal governance, a concept that would play an important role in the impact of the pandemic on organized crime. In a story that appeared to travel the world, it was reported that gangs in Rio de Janeiro were taking the law into their own hands. In the absence of a strong response by President Bolsonaro, gang leaders imposed a curfew to contain the spread of COVID-19 within the favelas.

We also got the first clue that different criminal groups would react to the pandemic and, more importantly, associated lockdown measures, in different ways. Whereas groups in Guatemala, for example, waived the weekly extortion fee for local businesses, the Unión de Tepito gang in Mexico issued a stark warning to ‘start saving, because there won’t be a reprieve because of the virus’.

N°3 – Nature’s temporary respite

Week three was all about the illicit wildlife trade and other forms of environmental crime. As we know, the novel coronavirus originated in China, which is also one of the most important players in the trafficking of illegal wildlife products. As with counterfeit goods, restrictions on air travel in and out of the global superpower had a serious impact on the demand for various environmental products originating in Africa, including the most trafficked form of endangered fauna and flora in the world, rosewood. The disruption at the latter stage of the global supply chain had an expected effect on illegal logging in Sierra Leone, one of the major source countries for precious wood species. Similar results were borne out in various countries of origin for gold, such as Colombia and Zimbabwe, where border closures and travel restrictions dramatically reduced prices, thereby putting a severe dent into the profits of miners, many of whom work informally.

N°4 – Vicious cycle of vulnerability

During the fourth week of the #CovidCrimeWatch initiative, the international community raised concerns about the increasing vulnerability of those trapped in conflict zones and other fragile states around the world, with the UN Secretary-General calling for a global ceasefire amid the pandemic.

In a newsletter published at the end of March, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria issued a call to arms for members to increase efforts towards global jihad, and in particular to target pandemic-weakened states where affiliated insurgents are already active. The GI-TOC highlighted the concern of some security experts that, with a number of leading troop-contributing countries withdrawing personnel, the global West would be left vulnerable in the fight against terror. In early June, French forces in Mali claimed to have killed Abdelmalek Droukdel, leader of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and several of his closest allies. This suggests that despite the pandemic, terrorists around the world have not simply been given carte blanche – though it may still be too early to tell.

Furthermore, border closures in many West African states almost halted migration flows in the region. Many migrants who had entered Niger in hope of reaching the Mediterranean ended up trapped in the Sahelian country, as neighbouring states imposed strict border-control measures to contain the spread of the virus. As we close off this series, most of those controls are still in place and many migrants remain largely in stasis. A number of recent incidents have, however, suggested that migrant smugglers are still trying to move people using the same potentially fatal methods.

N°5 – Altruism or cynical opportunism?

A story that was widely reported on was the apparent cessation of gang violence in Manenberg, one of the areas worst affected by gang violence in the Cape Flats of South Africa. A number of particularly notorious gangs were said to have called an unprecedented truce, turning away from violence and providing aid to their communities. However, GI-TOC research suggested that there was more to this story than meets the eye. It is true that gang members were delivering food and other aid packages to Manenberg residents, but in some instances, these parcels were used to conceal and smuggle drugs and guns. In other cases, the parcels either became currency to buy favour from the communities, or served as a reward for loyalty to the gangs. As we would later witness, criminal groups seeking to consolidate their social consensus in this way is not limited to South Africa. Mafia groups in Italy and drug cartels in Mexico also carried out acts of cynical opportunism masquerading as altruism.

N°6 – Less drug bust, more drug boom

The global drug trade is one of the most complex illicit economies in operation, but also one of the most headline-grabbing. From the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, speculation was rife over the impending collapse of this illegal industry, at least in the short term. On the one hand, lockdown measures did prove problematic to actors in the global drug trade, with some suppliers forced to ship larger quantities of drugs in anticipation of impending travel and trade restrictions, and then stockpile products until normal services could resume. But if the pandemic has proven anything, it is that players in the drug game are particularly resourceful in the face of adversity, from camouflaging drugs in shipments of medical equipment to modifying delivery systems to make use of home deliveries, taxis and even drones.

Our policy brief on the impact of the pandemic on illicit drug markets showed that the global outbreak poses an opportunity, just as much as a crisis, from the perspective of the illicit drug trade. Not only have the organizations and networks that produce, traffic and distribute drugs been able to weather the storm of the pandemic, but in many cases drug markets will strengthen as a result of COVID-19 adjustments. In time, law enforcement will find that certain drug groups have become further entrenched in local communities.

N°7 – Leveraging the lockdown

In our seventh newsletter, we focused on how criminal actors were exploiting government-imposed lockdowns, stay-at-home orders and nationwide curfews. In Tunisia, for example, the national 6pm curfew was a key driver of heightened illegal activity in the country’s forests. Violations of the forest code, including illicit logging, registered a tenfold increase from the previous year. This is attributed not only to a reduced risk of detection, but also the steep economic toll inflicted by the lockdown, which has led many to venture into illegal activity. The economic impact of the lockdown has also been exploited in Italy. Here, mafia groups have offered financial aid – in other words, loansharking – to businesses hit hard by the forced shutdown to vast swathes of the country’s legal economy. This issue was first explored in our virtual roundtable discussion with four of the most prominent anti-mafia figures in Italy. We examine it more closely in our special feature being published this week.

N°8 – Booming black market

By week eight, the #CovidCrimeWatch newsletters had focused extensively on the ways in which criminal groups had responded to the pandemic, and how existing illicit markets had either flourished or floundered. By the beginning of May, it was clear that South Africa’s ban on the sale of alcohol and tobacco had simply created a black market for the goods. As a result, prices were hiked up by informal sellers, and hundreds of thousands of buyers became criminals overnight. While the alcohol sale ban has now been partially lifted by the Ramaphosa government, there is no end in sight for the ban on the sale of tobacco products. The longer it goes on, the longer criminal groups are able to exploit the situation, reinforce the underground market and entrench themselves in society.

N°9 – Journey around the world

With people everywhere locked indoors as a result of global lockdowns, week nine’s newsletter took readers on a virtual tour, exploring the interaction between illicit economies, criminal actors and the coronavirus pandemic in all of the world’s major regions.

Starting with East Asia, where the virus first took hold, we looked at the surprising resilience of the drug trade, and the challenges facing the Yakuza gangs in Japan. We then turned to Europe, the second major epicentre of the pandemic, with stories pertaining to cyberattacks in the UK and prison releases in Italy. Crossing the Atlantic to the US and Latin America, we explored the thriving black market for cigarettes in Argentina and dived deeper into the issue of prisons and prison releases. Finally, we travelled back to Africa and the Middle East, where countries face threats from a flood of counterfeit medicine and an increase in artefact theft.

N°10 – Back to nature

In week 10, our newsletter focused on two cornerstones of global environmental crime: the illegal wildlife trade and illegal logging. On the one hand, it appeared as though the trafficking of wildlife products faced many of the same impediments as other illicit markets, not least the reduction in demand as a result of travel restrictions in and out of a number of source and destination countries. In South Africa, for example, government officials reported a significant decline in rhino poaching incidents since the beginning of the lockdown. On the other hand, given the economic toll of the lockdown on communities not just in South Africa, but across the continent, a significant number of people may turn to subsistence bushmeat poaching in order to put food on the table. The impact on illegal logging appears to be more linear, with increased illegal-logging activity reported in several countries around the world. While early reports, such as the one from Sierra Leone, suggested that global travel disruptions would bring illegal logging to a standstill, heightened activity in places like Myanmar, Guyana and the Democratic Republic of Congo suggests that rather than an impediment, the pandemic has created opportunities for criminal entrepreneurs.

N°11 – State behaviour amid the pandemic

Last week, we turned our attention away from illicit economies and criminal actors and looked towards the other side of the equation: the state’s response.

The pandemic has affected the capacity of those key state agencies that are usually charged with responding to transnational organized crime. The world has also seen report after report of law-enforcement officers and police acting with excessive force and brutality, and committing extrajudicial killings – from Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa to Honduras, France and, most recently, the US. Correctional facilities around the world have been facing the strain of the outbreak as prisons have become a hotbed for the virus. In a number of countries worldwide, prisoners have been released – being placed under house arrest for the most part – in order to reduce the risk of contagion. Another key pillar of criminal justice, the judicial system, has also been disrupted, with a number of countries shutting down courts during the pandemic. Lastly, we explored the global wave of attacks on media freedom, featuring a number of stories of journalists across the globe being imprisoned by increasingly authoritarian states for reporting on COVID-19 and their government’s response to it.


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#CovidCrimeWatch – n°9

#CovidCrimeWatch – n°10

#CovidCrimeWatch – n°11

#CovidCrimeWatch is curated by Lyes Tagziria.


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