This July, the UN High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) on Sustainable Development is convening to undertake a thematic review of Sustainable Development Goal 16 (SDG 16), among other key goals. Within SDG 16 is Target 16.4, which aims to significantly reduce illicit financial and arms flows, strengthen the recovery and return of stolen assets and combat all forms of organized crime by 2030.

Last year’s HLPF took place only four months after the coronavirus outbreak was declared a pandemic. The world was still reeling from sudden national lockdowns and international border closures, and huge numbers of people faced economic hardship. But amid all the uncertainty, it was clear that illicit markets and organized crime were finding ways to adapt.

This year’s agenda is focused on the recovery from the pandemic, even while the virus itself continues to spread in many countries. As states consider the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development in the post-pandemic phase, they must also be aware that the criminal shifts seen during the pandemic will profoundly and negatively affect the recovery period. The strategies and techniques deployed in aid of Target 16.4 must reflect this new reality.

Throughout the pandemic, the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime has used its network of field observatories to monitor changes in the illicit economy, and to draw key conclusions for the implications of those shifts. In our recent book Criminal Contagion, we presented in depth some of the main trends that shaped the criminal ecosystem in 2020, from illegal wildlife trade to counterfeit goods. Here we highlight two landmark shifts that happened early in the pandemic and which will affect the post-pandemic recovery period and beyond.

Cybercrime explodes

The pandemic resulted in a meteoric rise in internet usage, as people went online for work, school, information gathering, shopping and socializing. Criminal activity online also boomed. Between May and July 2020, the purchase of coro­navirus-related domain names, such as ‘freecoronavac­’, exploded; around 115 000 virus-themed domains were registered. Online scams ranged from imitating governments providing information on COVID-19 to selling fake equipment, miracle remedies and cures. One ransomware attack – the Trickbot Trojan campaign – used fake emails that appeared to come from the US Department of Labor, sharing guidelines on how to apply for the family and medical leave policy during COVID-19.

Online sexual exploitation also proliferated. Europol members reported increased online activity by those seeking child abuse material, as well as parallel postings in dedicated forums and boards by offenders welcoming opportunities to engage with children, whom they expected to be more vulnerable because of isolation, less supervision and greater time spent online. In June 2020, Thailand reported a record high in online child sex abuse cases: the police task force recovered more than 150 000 files of sexual abuse mate­rial and investigated more than 280 cases of internet-facilitated child sexual exploitation. The recent ransomware attacks that shut down critical infrastructure in the United States and parts of the healthcare system in Ireland in May 2021 also highlighted how cybercrime poses a trenchant threat to national security. Such attacks can be matters of life and death: a patient died in September 2020 after she was redirected to another hospital an hour’s drive away, with the local A&E department closed due to a cyber-attack.

Criminal gangs grow their influence

During the pandemic, criminal groups expanded their authority both by handing out necessities, including food and sometimes cash, and by imposing their own lockdowns. In March 2020, when the first case of the coronavirus was recorded in a sprawling complex of slums called City of God, in Rio de Janeiro, it was the gangsters and not the Brazilian government that imposed a curfew. In El Salvador, President Nayib Bukele instituted one of Latin America’s most stringent lockdowns, but government regulation of social distancing would not have been possible without the cooperation of the gangs leaders of MS-13, who have long governed from the shadows (and who also imposed their own curfew). In Italy, the mafia was ready to make loans to struggling businesses at a moment’s notice, while in Cape Flats, in South Africa, gangs delivered food to desperate families and declared a ‘truce’ to stop inter-gang violence.

These efforts will produce payoffs for the gangs in the longer term. In places where the state response was slow or lacking, gangs have been able to portray the state as unresponsive or even uncaring, while painting themselves as community allies through their distribution of food parcels and cash – all of which expands gang control and legitimacy, and will increase their control over illicit markets. In parallel, gangs have expanded their criminal economies through violence or by taking over markets where the opportunity arose (particularly where police presence was reduced due to COVID-19).

Community members at the receiving end of such ‘benevolence’ know that criminal gifts are not free. Loyalty, money and favours will be demanded, with violent penalties applied. Mafias will collect their loans with exorbitant interest or force owners to sell businesses to them, providing yet more laundering avenues for dirty money. Investigations into murders will be met by silence from witnesses; gang members will ask residents to store guns or drugs for them at their homes. Few will be able to resist.

The way forward

As states at the HLPF assess how to get SDG 16 and the other SDGs back on track after the turmoil of the pandemic, they should be sure to consider what has transpired in the global illicit economy since March 2020. We have highlighted here just two of the many ways in which criminal control has expanded – there are manifold additional vulnerabilities that will need to be addressed. But even in these two areas, significant investment and a long-term focus on addressing state capacity, integrity and service delivery will be required to address these challenges.

With the pandemic deepening our dependence on the internet – and exposing the significant vulnerabilities baked into that dependence – a sustainable recovery must not only rapidly improve online security and citizen awareness of cybercrime, but also build trust in the national and multilateral bodies. Also critical is to strengthen the key national institutions in health and education that have proved so vulnerable to criminal threat. The challenges of internet governance remain paramount, but a wider lens is required, addressing not just tech companies providing communication platforms, but also looking at regulation of domain name provision for example.

The growing control of gangs over communities may thwart sustainable development from taking root in some of the most critical places, including impoverished urban and rural areas.  But it is also a phenomenon that is present in more established democracies. Key here will be ensuring that social safety nets and other protections continue to be extended even when high-visibility social-distancing measures have been withdrawn. Economic need and other vulnerabilities will have a long tail. Putting in place measures to encourage reporting of usury, extortion and other forms of criminal threat, and to provide both protection and recourse to those who are vulnerable will be critical. Our Resilience Coalition work in central and Latin America provides a number of practical, low-cost, community-based ways this can be done, even when state funds might be directed toward broader recovery efforts.

The illicit economy has been vastly strengthened during the pandemic, but this does not mean that there are not opportunities still to be seized. Recognizing our global vulnerabilities could be a catalyst for reinvigorating discussion on a more coherent, holistic response to organized crime, and to mobilize essential components of behaviour change in demand and supply markets that will be essential to achieving a sustainable reduction in criminal markets. We urge all member states, as they consider their progress under SDG 16, to recognize the critical spoiler that organized crime has become to sustainable development, and to keep this high on the agenda for future action.

UN Photo/Catianne Tijerina