Lyes Tagziria

As of mid-May, upwards of 4.8 million cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed, with the disease taking the lives of more than 300 000 people across the world. The United States accounts for just under a third of average global daily deaths; the United Kingdom has overtaken Italy in terms of overall deaths, and is now second to the US; Brazil has the second-highest number of average daily deaths, after the US; and there is no country in Africa that has escaped the menace of contagion. However, the global death rate is now finally easing after a peak in the average daily deaths of patients diagnosed with the virus in mid-April.

Last week’s newsletter explored a number of stories from all over the world, including the burgeoning black market for cigarettes and alcohol in South Africa, concerns raised over an increased risk of human trafficking post-lockdown and a survey that shed light on the resilience of the drug market in the UK. In line with the drug theme, the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC) published ‘Crisis and opportunity: Impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on illicit drug markets’, as well as a second podcast episode on cocaine trafficking during the pandemic, this time focusing on South America, West Africa and Europe. This week’s podcast will similarly look at the impact of the coronavirus on heroin supply chain.

This week, #CovidCrimeWatch and the accompanying blogs by GI-TOC Network members take you on a journey across the globe, 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 look at the resilience of the drug trade and the challenges facing the Yakuza gangs in Japan. We then turn to Europe, the second major epicentre of the pandemic, with stories about cyberattacks in the UK and prison releases in Italy. Across the Atlantic to US and Latin America, we explore the thriving black market for cigarettes in Argentina and dive deeper into the issue of prisons and prison releases. Finally, we travel back across the ocean to Africa and the Middle East, where countries face threats from a flood of counterfeit medicine and an increase in artefact theft.

For in-depth analysis of the situation in various regions, this week the GI-TOC presents a number of blogs focusing on the Western Balkans, Pakistan, the Korean Peninsula and Italy.


On 11 January 2020, Chinese media reported the first known death caused by the novel coronavirus, a week after researchers confirmed the existence of the new virus that had already infected dozens of people in Asia. Within 10 days, further infections had been confirmed in Japan, Thailand and South Korea. Lockdowns of varying degrees of severity were imposed throughout the region in the subsequent weeks. With harsh restrictions on movement and economic activity, how has the pandemic affected organized crime in the region?

The area comprising East and South East Asia plays a major role in transnational drug markets, being a source, transit and destination region for illicit narcotics. Despite many predictions to the contrary, evidence suggests that many links in the global drug supply chain have been unaffected by the pandemic. The production of methamphetamine in the region continues to hit record highs and prices have never been lower. Similarly, the 2020 opium harvest in Myanmar took place without incident, while drugs worth US$100m were seized in the Golden Triangle nation in early March. Overall, as concluded in the GI-TOC’s policy brief on illicit drug markets, ‘there remains insufficient evidence to support the assertion that chemical supply chains between Chinese precursor supply points and global synthetic drug producers have been significantly disrupted to the point that meth production capacity has been seriously compromised as a result’.

But while it appears that actors involved in the drugs trade have fared better than many predicted, it has not been easy going for the Japanese Yakuza. This notorious organized-crime network – which comprises a number of separate gangs – makes its money through what is known as ‘shinogi’, which includes activities such as drug dealing, blackmail, prostitution and protection rackets. But as huge swathes of the population in Japan – including many elderly Yakuza, who make up the majority of the network’s leadership – confine themselves to their homes, the criminal group’s profits have dwindled. Illegal brothels no longer have any customers and gang members cannot travel to collect extortion payments. To compensate for lost income, younger Yakuza members have turned to selling face masks at extortionate prices and are engaging in online fraud to scam members of the public. While criminal activity continues, older Yakuza gangs have sought to restore their reputation (which has been damaged in recent years after a government crackdown turned public opinion against them) by offering public services such as handing out medical supplies and even offering to help disinfect a cruise liner that had been quarantined in late February.


Europe was declared the new epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) on 13 March, with confirmed cases rising rapidly in a number of European states, including France, Spain and, of course, Italy. And as the virus continued to spread, so too did existing and novel forms of organized-crime activity.

While cybercrime is not new, the scope for cybercriminal activity was significantly widened by a number of factors – which are explored in greater detail in the GI-TOC policy brief Cybercrime: Threats during the Covid-19 pandemic – including more people working from home and an increased vulnerability of populations living in a world of uncertainty. Several cyberattacks in Europe have targeted the healthcare sector, with two companies involved in the construction of emergency coronavirus hospitals in the UK being hit by cyber assaults in May, while just last week the Romanian police foiled a plot by hackers to launch ransomware attacks against hospitals.

As the coronavirus began to spread across the world, many people spoke out about the risk of prisons becoming hotbeds of contagion. There have been calls to release low-risk prisoners in a number of countries, including in the UK. Certain countries have already released thousands of prisoners, such as Iran and Turkey. In Italy, 376 mafiosi and other prisoners convicted of organized-crime offences have been released and placed under house arrest since March. The mass releases – which included prominent mafia bosses Francesco Bonura and Franco Cataldo – took place following the eruption of prison riots across the country as a result of new restrictions imposed on family visits. But the decision to release mafia bosses – who under the 41bis prison regime are detained in a high degree of isolation anyway – caused uproar in Italy, and in May Justice Minister Alfonso Bonafede announced plans for a new decree that would allow judges to reverse the flood of mafiosi leaving incarceration. The GI-TOC explores the issue of prisons in Italy, in addition to mafia infiltration of the healthcare system and criminal governance and welfare, in a forthcoming in-depth investigation.


On 26 March, the US overtook Italy in terms of total confirmed COVID-19 cases and became the new epicentre of the pandemic. Over the past eight weeks, the #CovidCrimeWatch initiative has featured numerous stories from the Americas, focusing largely on Latin America, where gangs have sought to present themselves as alternative to the state, enforcing curfews and providing basic necessities to vulnerable communities.

But it was the police in El Salvador who came into the spotlight in May after the body of Luis Iván Mejía Bonilla (an alleged gang member) was delivered to his family in a sealed casket by hospital workers, who said that Mejía had died of COVID-19. Unconvinced, the family opened the casket and later reported that Mejía was handcuffed and had been beaten. This incident raises serious questions over the extent to which law-enforcement agencies are exploiting the national emergency to provide cover for police abuse. El Salvador also hit the headlines a few weeks earlier when photos were released of hundreds of gang members packed together in prisons, under the orders of President Nayib Bukele, as punishment for an outbreak of violence. Packed prisons contravening social-distancing recommendations are not limited to El Salvador, however, as recently released photos of packed prison cells in Honduras testify.

Prisons have been a hot topic across the world in recent weeks, in particular the issue of prison releases. And it is not just in Italy – discussed above – that the potential release of mafiosi has proved divisive. Vincenzo ‘Jimmy’ DeMaria, allegedly a leading figure in one of the most powerful mafia groups in the world, the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta, is seeking release from prison in Canada. Canadian authorities fear that if released, DeMaria would be in a position to once again communicate with gang members and direct ‘Ndrangheta operations from the comfort of his own home.

In Argentina, the coronavirus outbreak and its associated lockdown restrictions on manufacturing has led to a cigarette shortage, which in turn has precipitated an increase in contraband cigarettes. Official data suggests that from 25 April to 5 May, authorities in the country had seized an amount equivalent to one-fifth of all contraband cigarettes seized in 2019.


Back across the Atlantic, the African continent appears on paper to have been spared the worst of the coronavirus pandemic, at least so far. Among the reasons posited for the comparatively low death figures across Africa are younger populations and lower rates of obesity than in Europe and the US, as well as (more cynically) accusations of low levels of transparency among many African governments (for example Tanzania). Or maybe African governments simply responded to the crisis much earlier and much more aggressively than their Western counterparts?

Whatever the truth, the continent has not escaped the rising tide of pandemic-related organized-crime activity that has swept the globe. The African continent is particularly vulnerable to counterfeit pharmaceuticals, as we discussed in episode two of the GI-TOC podcast series ‘The impact: Coronavirus and Organized Crime’. According to the WHO, 42% of all fake medicines reported to them between 2013 and 2017 were from Africa, and the coronavirus pandemic has only exacerbated the situation. Uganda’s drug regulator has warned healthcare workers and the public of falsified chloroquine (an antimalarial drug) after being alerted by the WHO that nine different falsified chloroquine products had been reported in Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo and Niger. This heightened interest in the drug became apparent after US President Donald Trump touted hydroxychloroquine (a similar antimalarial drug) as a potential treatment for COVID-19 at a 4 April press conference, saying, ‘what do you have to lose? Take it.’ In a press conference on 18 May, Trump revealed (and his physician confirmed) that he is taking hydroxychloroquine.

In North Africa and the Middle East, thieves are exploiting nationwide lockdowns in a number of countries to loot archaeological sites and sell their hauls through online black markets. The criminal actors in countries such as Morocco and Israel have taken advantage of the decrease in security infrastructure and personnel at important locations, such as museums, mosques and archaeological sites, while the Antiquities Trafficking and Heritage Anthropology Research Project has reported an increase in the number of posts on Facebook advertising stolen goods for sale. The issue of looting in Iraq was explored in the recent GI-TOC publication ‘Destruction or theft?’, as well as in our ‘Deep Dive’ podcast series.


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#CovidCrimeWatch is curated by Lyes Tagziria.


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