Posted on 22 Apr 2020
Last week’s #CovidCrimeWatch looked at the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on fragile states and conflict zones around the world in light of the UN Secretary General’s call for a global ceasefire. We looked at how lockdown measures were having an effect on human-smuggling flows in Niger and how the Islamic State was looking to exploit the global emergency.
This week, we explore the intricacies of criminal-gang dynamics and the search for legitimacy that underpins the actions of these groups. Across the world, we are witnessing a shift in the way criminal gangs are interacting with communities. Groups that once plagued neighbourhoods with violence are now agreeing truces, delivering humanitarian-aid packages and holding public-health workshops about COVID-19.
Alongside this edition of the weekly newsletter, the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC) brings together four leading figures in the fight against organized crime in Italy, one of the countries hardest hit by COVID-19, to discuss how the mafia are repositioning themselves amid the pandemic, what the implications of such a repositioning might be and how the Italian government is responding (Click here to read more).
We have also published a photo report that explores the way in which groups in South African gang hotspot Manenberg are reacting to the outbreak (Click here to know more).
IOL, 11 April 2020
South Africa, a country with a major gang problem, has seen an unexpected benefit of the pandemic. In Manenberg, one of the areas worst affected by gang violence in the Cape Flats, rival gangs have called an unprecedented truce and are working side by side to help their communities amid the COVID-19 outbreak. One member of the notorious Americans gang told reporters that a number of different gangs, including the Americans, the Clever Kids and the Jesters, are all working together ‘to help Manenberg become a better place’.
While the cessation of violence is welcome, this is by no means unmitigated good news. As GI-TOC directors observed in a recent blog, seeing criminal groups step into the service-delivery gap created by these extraordinary events only strengthens their leverage with both the state and the community. As the crisis abates, gifts and assistance can become debts. And there is no sustainable mechanism being built to meet the vulnerability that is likely to continue long after the immediate sense of crisis passes.
This inaction was even criticized by a Cape Flats gangster. In his own words: ‘The government is allowing the people to look up to the gangsters. We’ve been shooting at each other here for six months non-stop. Twenty people killed, families destroyed, many small children who were killed, then we come in and we make peace. No shooting, nothing’s happening. What does government do now? They sit back. The government doesn’t come into the community to take the kids and recruit them into sports teams or social programmes. You’ve got the talent, let’s take the talented kids out of this place, but they don’t do it.’
A GI-TOC report in 2018 studied the phenomenon of gang violence in Manenberg, focusing on the community response to the extraordinary levels of violence in the area. The report praised the Cape Town suburb as a ‘sterling example of activism and community resilience in the face of the huge levels of violence it lives with and negotiates on a daily basis’. Instead, the state should empower and support the community to help it meet these challenges on its own terms instead of leaving it to fall into the arms of the gangs.
The Telegraph, 17 April 2020
In many countries around the world, from Brazil to Italy and South Africa, we have seen criminal gangs give a new meaning to the old adage that ‘charity starts at home’. Last week, Mexican cartels followed suit, and they made sure that everyone knew whom to thank. Across the country, criminal gangs have been putting on a PR masterclass, distributing boxes of food and medical supplies emblazoned with their names and logos. In the city of Guadalajara, Jalisco State, the daughter of notorious Sinaloa Cartel founder Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán was filmed distributing care packages printed with ‘El Chapo 701’ (her company’s name) and a stencil print of the drug lord to members of the community. The Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) has similarly been distributing packages in Jalisco marked ‘From your friends, CJNG, COVID-19 contingency support’, as have the Gulf Cartel in Tamaulipas and Los Zetas in Veracruz.
Approximately half of Mexico’s workforce operate in the informal economy, living at or below the level of subsistence. Therefore, if they are not able to go out to work, they will no longer have any source of income. The actions of these gangs are clearly part of a ‘hearts and minds’ strategy that is aimed at gaining support in the communities in which the gangs operate. Obtaining legitimacy in the eyes of citizens is crucial for criminal groups, as this would allow them to consolidate their reach into society. According to Siria Gastelum, a senior analyst at GI-TOC, ‘this so-called philanthropy is also used by the cartels deliberately to win the sympathy of the same people they terrorize. There is a strategy behind this aid.’
But it is not only criminal gangs that are ‘doing their bit’ for society – other actors have genuinely altruistic motives. Community groups across the country and in the wider region have been adapting to the changes enforced by COVID-19 and have been providing humanitarian aid to those in need. One of the groups helping their community is Colectivo Artesana, one of the GI-TOC Resilience Fund grantees in Guatemala.
LA Times, 7 April 2020
In the Central American state of El Salvador, gangs have adapted their use of violence to enforce community compliance with COVID-19 regulations . Whereas before, gangs in the country’s capital of San Salvador would use violence to extort businesses, they have now turned to threats of violence to enforce social-distancing measures. The gangs have adopted a number of tactics to ensure that citizens abide by the lockdown restrictions, including circulating voice recordings threatening anyone who breaks the rules and disseminating videos of gang members physically assaulting people for not adhering to the rules.
Of course, the gang’s newfound concern for the wellbeing of their communities does not stem from a sudden eruption of altruism, but rather is rooted – as is all gang activity – in self-interest. Gangs fear that a severe outbreak will cause significant disruption to their businesses, including extortion and the drugs market. Furthermore, these criminal groups are exploiting the pandemic to consolidate their control over territory. Some do this through violence, while others seek to achieve it through acts of apparent benevolence, such as providing soap and other basic necessities to those in need.
Al Jazeera, 6 April 2020
While the number of confirmed cases remains relatively low in conflict-stricken Afghanistan, the Taliban are taking no chances. A man describing himself as the newly appointed director of public health for Baghlan Province told reporters that in the past weeks the Taliban had started a public-awareness campaign, handing out leaflets and even holding workshops on how to prevent the spread of the virus.
As well as imposing quarantine measures on individuals suspected of having the virus, the Taliban is also offering COVID-19 testing kits. With all types of medical equipment in short supply across the world, the apparent availability of testing kits in Taliban-controlled areas – and the full PPE with which Taliban members are equipped – raises suspicions in regard to the potential criminal means by which the group obtained them.
The issue of criminal involvement in the realm of medical supplies is explored in ‘Dark Pharma and COVID-19’, the second episode of the GI-TOC’s podcast series The impact: Coronavirus and Organized Crime.
The Union Journal, 16 April 2020
In remote rural borderlands, away from the densely populated urban hubs which preoccupy policymakers, the dynamics of the criminal economy can be quite different. Following the 2016 peace agreement in Colombia, FARC guerrillas – who were long involved in taxing and protecting the cross-border cocaine trade – laid down their arms and joined a national disarmament and reintegration process, which included renouncing the narcotics trade. While FARC remains broadly committed to the peace process, other armed groups have been in competition to control these lucrative routes.
Now, with the national army confined to barracks because of COVID-19, these armed groups are taking advantage, settling scores and conducting an increasing number of assassinations to secure control over territory. Fourteen social leaders have been killed since the first case of COVID-19 was registered in Colombia. This comes in addition to the 70 community leaders and activists and 20 ex-combatants who have been killed this year alone.
The head of the UN mission in Colombia was quoted last week as saying that the international community has a ‘collective obligation’ to ensure progress in the implementation of the peace agreement, arguing that ‘peace in Colombia cannot and should not be a casualty of the pandemic.’
#CovidCrimeWatch is curated by Lyes Tagziria.