Since the end of January, countries across the world have introduced a wave of restrictive measures – the so-called ‘lockdowns’ – to contain the spread of the coronavirus, starting with the lockdown of Hubei Province in China, where the global outbreak originated. In the months that followed, new regulations were imposed in one country after another, posing a series of challenges to entire societies. But criminal actors around the world also saw opportunity.

Last week’s #CovidCrimeWatch newsletter explored changes in one of the mainstays of the global illicit economy: drugs. We explored how the pandemic has impacted the distribution of narcotics around the world, as well as the disruption to local dealers and their customers.

In past newsletters, we have seen how criminal groups have sought to take advantage of the pandemic, including hiding drugs among consignments of medical supplies, launching a wave of cyber scams and consolidating their social control among communities. But how have the lockdown measures been leveraged by criminal actors? This week, we look at how the restrictions placed on movement and the economy have allowed criminal activity to flourish, and how criminal actors will adapt once lockdown measures start to ease.

Accompanying this week’s newsletter, the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC) publishes a policy brief (‘Detour on the Road to Kyoto‘), which analyzes the implications of the postponement of the UN Crime Congress as a result of the pandemic.

Under cover of darkness

Reuters, 1 May 2020

Since 22 March, when the government announced the country was entering lockdown, the Tunisian forestry agency has recorded 200 violations of the forest code, ‘including illicit logging, unauthorised construction and hunting in forest areas’. This figure represents a ten-fold increase on the number of cases in the same period in 2019. In the space of two nights, 400 Algerian oak trees were illegally felled close to the Algerian border and subsequently turned into charcoal.

One of the main drivers behind this increase in illicit activity is the fact that with fewer people out and about after the 6 pm national curfew, it is simply easier for the loggers to carry out their work undetected. However, the increase in violations may also be a result of the steep economic toll inflicted by the nationwide lockdown. As GI-TOC senior analyst Matt Herbert explains, with significant numbers of people losing their jobs in recent months, they may have felt little choice but to venture into the illegal logging sector as a means of survival. ‘There’s only so long families can go without income,’ Herbert says.

Deception is in their blood

ABC News, 29 April 2020

Cybercriminals are exploiting fears of infection and the yearning for a vaccine. According to a research carried out by the Australia National University, a survey of 20 dark-web markets revealed that as well as offering personal protective equipment, tests and other forms of diagnostics, criminal actors were also selling supposed vaccines and antidotes, as well as other repurposed medicines. One of the lead researchers explained how one of the offerings on the dark web was the ‘blood plasma of a recovered COVID-19 patient’, or more specifically the antibodies present in the blood, offered to customers as a form of ‘passive vaccination’.

The online sale of contraband or counterfeit goods has taken place in countries all across the world. In Nigeria, the government has warned its citizens against the use of fake do-it-yourself testing kits. But the sale of goods on the dark web is not the only threat posed by cybercriminals. A policy brief published by the GI-TOC explored the rapidity with which the threat of cybercrime spread as the coronavirus morphed from an localized outbreak into a deadly pandemic. The outbreak created a perfect ecosystem for cybercrime to thrive, with lockdown measures precipitating an unprecedented shift towards remote working, a newfound reliance on electronic transactions and a rush for basic necessities.

The mafia: Lender of last resort

Corriere del Mezzogiorno, 30 April 2020

The fact that mafia groups in Italy – from the Neapolitan Camorra to the Sicilian Cosa Nostra and the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta – have enormous sums of money at their disposal is not news to anyone. These groups have built up their wealth via traditional illicit economies as well as through the systematic infiltration of the legal economy. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, many anti-mafia figures are raising concerns over the serious risk of extortion and usury at the hands of the mafia. As thousands of businesses across the peninsula have been forced to shut up shop, the mafia are ready to pounce on business owners battling to stay afloat as restrictions begin to ease.

According to government figures, cases of criminal loansharking rose by 9.1% in March compared to the same month in the previous year. The region of Campania, one of the poorest regions in Italy and home to the notorious Camorra mafia, had 40% of the total number of cases of usury recorded, although the true figure is likely to be significantly higher than the official figures suggest.

The issue of mafia exploitation is explored in detail in the virtual roundtable discussion published by the GI-TOC at the end of April. In the roundtable, four of the most prominent anti-mafia figures in Italy discuss the risks posed by the mafia’s practice of offering initially attractive loans that inevitably lead to extortion. They stress the importance of providing state aid to suffering businesses, because if business owners cannot seek help from the state, they will simply turn to criminal organizations. As the national Anti-Mafia Public Prosecutor Federico Cafiero de Raho explains, ‘the only tap that is always open and willing to supply water is the one belonging to the mafia’.

Migration U-turns

Reuters, 29 April 2020

Since 2014, there has been an 8 000% increase in the number of Venezuelans seeking refugee status worldwide, with millions of citizens fleeing their home country as a result of the economic and humanitarian crisis, the majority of whom have crossed the border into Colombia. However, since Colombia imposed a strict lockdown in response to the coronavirus outbreak, the ability of Venezuelan migrants to earn a living has been severely impaired. As a result, thousands of migrants are demanding to be allowed to return home. But the Venezuelan authorities have imposed limits on the number of border crossings permitted each day. Add that to the fact that many migrants are unable to afford the bus fare, and there is an increasing risk that vulnerable migrants may turn to smugglers to facilitate their journey back home.

Generally speaking, increased border restrictions have constrained the migrant-smuggling business across the world in the short term. However, as a recent GI-TOC policy brief explores, measures introduced to contain the spread of coronavirus are likely to increase the drivers of cross-border movement, including the vulnerability of migrants themselves, the militarization of borders and the further reduction of safe and legal migration routes. Furthermore, as hostility towards migration increases, the operating risks of smuggling networks look set to increase, together with the prices quoted to migrants for the service.

Fork in the road in the fight against the wildlife trade

New York Times, 29 April 2020

How has a virus that has travelled the world impacted the trade of something else that travels the world: wildlife? In eastern Asia – a key region in the transnational wildlife trade – the coronavirus is having a disruptive effect on the movement of illegally poached wildlife, in particular that of ivory and pangolin scales from Vietnam to China via air routes. This disruption has been attributed to a large degree to the increased security at borders, which in turn has led to traders offering major discounts on their illegal products or even freezing their operations. However, not all illegal wildlife trade has ground to a halt. There have been large seizures of rhino horn and pangolin scales that were being smuggled across the land border between Vietnam and China, and there is a growing concern that poaching gangs in Mozambique are seeking to exploit the depleted park rangers and precipitous fall in the number of tourists in the Kruger National Park in neighbouring South Africa.

However, perhaps an even more important question to pose is what the medium- to long-term impact of the pandemic will be on the illegal wildlife trade. Analysts and conservationists have argued that a significant number of people may turn to poaching activities as a consequence of the economic toll of the lockdown measures. Furthermore, the major drop in tourism, which funds large proportions of conservation efforts, has the potential to have considerable long-term consequences. A report by the Wildlife Justice Commission stated that ‘all indications presently show that the high-level trafficking networks will resume operations as soon as they are able, or will adapt and find alternative workarounds for the current blockages’.

However, this could also be a fork in the road for anti-wildlife campaigners and law-enforcement agencies. As cross-border movement has slowed and border security has strengthened, stockpiling of large quantities of various wildlife products is thought to have occurred in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. As a result, law-enforcement agencies have a chance to seize huge stockpiles of contraband, causing greater disruption to trafficking networks than would result from one-off seizures of shipments. More important perhaps will be the potential shift in global attitudes towards the wildlife trade, as there appears to be a growing recognition of the link between the latter and public health.

Read more

COVID-19: A perfect storm for the corrupt?

El Salvador: El otro virus, pandillas matan a más de 70 personas

Amazon leaders demand illegal miners stay away to protect tribal lives

Fears rise for illegal South African miners hiding underground in virus lockdown

#CovidCrimeWatch is curated by Lyes Tagziria.


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