Since the last #CovidCrimeWatch newsletter was published, the global death toll of the COVID-19 virus has surpassed 200 000. Although the US daily death toll may have peaked, and a number of European countries have gradually started easing restrictions, many other countries – including in Latin America and Africa – are likely still to experience the full force of the virus. And, as the number of cases continues to rise across the globe, further evidence of how criminality is adapting to the pandemic is emerging.

Last week’s newsletter featured stories from around the world exploring changing criminal-gang dynamics. Among the issues addressed were gang truces in South Africa, the growing phenomenon of ‘mafia welfare’ in many Latin American states and a public-awareness campaign launched by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Please see our virtual roundtable discussion with four leading Italian counter-crime officials, who discuss how the mafia may take advantage of the pandemic to advance their infiltration of society and the state.

In this edition of the #CovidCrimeWatch newsletter, we turn our attention to one of the mainstays of the global criminal economy: drugs. This is broadly considered to be the most lucrative form of all illicit markets, and changes in drug markets can have a huge impact on the fates and fortunes of many underworld groups. As we pointed out in one of the first publications of this initiative, the impacts of this coronavirus on organized criminal activity cannot yet be fully understood, and this is no less true for drug markets around the world. Illicit narcotics networks are among the most complex of all illicit entities, and are highly driven by local contexts along the chain from production to transportation to consumption. We have drawn from our field network and local news to take a snapshot of what’s happening. We will soon publish our next COVID-19-related policy brief, Impacts of the Global Coronavirus Pandemic on Illicit Drug markets, which amasses evidence from our analysts, and this topic will be discussed on The Impact: Coronavirus and Organized Crime, our accompanying podcast.

This week, the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC) publishes a policy brief on the ramifications of COVID-19 on human smuggling and migrant protection across the world, which is also the theme of the latest episode of the podcast.

GETTING THE DRUGS FROM A TO B

If there is one thing we know about organized-crime groups, it is that they are among the best at not only adapting to changes in circumstances, but anticipating them. In expectation of a global slowdown in travel and trade, the volume of cocaine shipped from Latin America to Belgium appears to have increased substantially throughout March. The volume of individual shipments, found in aircraft luggage or hidden in sea freight, suggests that drug-trafficking groups in Latin America were transporting as much of the drug as possible while they still could.

Nevertheless, traffickers appear to recognize the need to restrict their activities at a time when vehicular traffic has slowed down significantly. While some ‘cargo’ can still be concealed and smuggled among basic necessities, such as fruit, larger volumes of cocaine are often stockpiled, hidden somewhere or buried underground, until restrictions are lifted and normal service can resume. In the Calabrian municipality of Gioia Tauro, 500 kilograms of cocaine belonging to a member of the ‘Ndrangheta branch of the mafia was found buried in the countryside.

While Italian mafia groups continue to engage in their traditional illicit activities, of which the drug trade is one important component, there are concerns, as articulated by Oxford University researcher Zora Hauser, that these groups will soon also return to another, namely their ‘core business of protection and governance’. (Read more about the changing roles of the mafia during the pandemic in the virtual roundtable discussion published recently by the GI-TOC, in which four leading anti-mafia figures in Italy discuss the risks posed by the mafia, not least extortion.)

Traffickers elsewhere have also adapted their modus operandi to the new world order in which they find themselves operating. On 14 April, UK Border Force agents discovered 14 kilograms of cocaine, with a potential street value of up to £1 million, hidden within a consignment of medical supplies. The boxes of face masks in which the drugs were concealed were found in a van attempting to cross the English Channel.

This is not the first time that drug traffickers have attempted to smuggle narcotics by hiding them among shipments of medical equipment. In March, over a kilogram of cocaine was discovered by Peruvian police, hidden in a consignment of face masks destined for Hong Kong. At a time when crucial medical equipment is in high demand, drug traffickers are exploiting the increase in trade of such goods to evade border checks.

WHAT’S THE WORD ON THE STREET?

If drug suppliers are adapting to the changes in transnational trade, how has the coronavirus outbreak and associated government restrictions impacted street sellers around the world?

As evidenced by initiatives such as #IoRestoACasa, #YoMeQuedoEnCasa, #JeResteChezMoi and #StayHomeSaveLives, governments and citizens around the world have been spreading what has become the core message of this pandemic: stay at home. With people confined to their homes and facing the threat of heavy penalties if they flout the restrictions on movement, street drug dealers have had to adapt their delivery systems. According to reports, street dealers in Rome are making use of public transport, including buses and taxis, in order to make home deliveries to their customers locked up inside. A number of novel tactics have been reportedly adopted by drug suppliers, including walking dogs as an excuse to be outside or handing out packages in supermarket queues.

In Berlin, drug dealers attribute the recent hike in the prices of various drugs to increasing demand as customers began to stockpile. One dealer reported that many of his orders had either doubled or even tripled in volume, while another said that she had gone from selling 100 grams of cannabis a day to over 500 grams. Drug stockpiling has also been reported in the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada, as well as global cannabis hotspot, the Netherlands.

Nevertheless, these instances do not indicate a widespread trend in the global drug markets. While there have been cases of stockpiling of drugs in certain circumstances, it is likely that it is only a small subset of recreational users who have done this, rather than the typical dependent user. While dealers may be experiencing a boom in sales for the time being, and there is no evidence to suggest any supply chain issues yet, they recognize the potential disruptions likely to arise in the near future as a result of global lockdowns. However, as GI-TOC senior analyst Jason Eligh confirms, drug traffickers are accustomed to distortions in supply chains and have developed an ability to adapt to any changes in circumstances.

In eastern and southern Africa, a particularly worrying potential ramification of supply-chain issues caused by coronavirus-related travel restrictions is a price increase, and purity decrease, of heroin. Price increases are not a result of market forces, as many may believe, but rather a manifestation of profiteering on the part of dealers looking to exploit the crisis. As far as we can ascertain from the evidence available, there is no shortage of drugs in the market. Rather, the issue is one of access to the drugs.

CAN LEGALIZATION BOOST THE ECONOMY’S IMMUNITY IN LEBANON?

Although the number of COVID-19 deaths in Lebanon remains low (at 24 fatalities at the time of writing), the lockdown measures introduced there on 15 March have compounded the damage to the country’s economy, already devastated by a financial crisis. In a bid to introduce a much-needed stimulus to the economy, lawmakers in Lebanon voted to legalize the cultivation of cannabis for medicinal use. While the use of recreational cannabis will remain prohibited, the sale of medicinal cannabis is estimated to generate up to $1 billion a year in government revenue.

Despite the cultivation, sale and consumption of the drug being hitherto banned, Lebanon is among the world’s major producers of hashish, with the industry providing livelihoods to many in the Bekaa Valley, where most of the crop is cultivated. It is hoped that with the legalization of medicinal cannabis, the middleman role played by criminal actors in the sector will no longer be needed.

Read more:

Ucayali, Peru’s drug trafficking gateway to Bolivia and Brazil

Decriminalizing drug use as we contain the coronavirus is the humane thing to do

Peruvian coca farmers to Paris pushers, coronavirus upends global narcotics trade

Saisies de drogues en forte baisse

#CovidCrimeWatch is curated by Lyes Tagziria.


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