In the first of our weekly #CovidCrimeWatch bulletins, we explored the implications of social distancing on illicit economies around the world. The impact of remote working on cybercrime vulnerabilities; links between school closures and criminal opportunism; and the mafia fugitive whose nicotine addiction cost him his freedom were just some of the stories we covered.

This week, we turn our attention to criminal governance and some of the most vulnerable people during this pandemic. Focusing on Latin America, where the coronavirus is spreading rapidly, we look at gang-imposed curfews, how the crisis is affecting extortion practices and why some groups are particularly vulnerable. 

Our accompanying blog this week highlights the need to build up state institutions and civil society – not only to improve their responses, but also to meet people’s needs in areas, such as service delivery, where criminal groups might try to fill the void. 

When governments refuse to take action, organized crime will

The Guardian, 25 March 2020

While many world leaders are taking strict measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 – closing schools, banning public gatherings and imposing lockdowns on their citizens – Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, downplayed the severity of the pandemic. In an address to the nation, Bolsonaro accused the media of fearmongering and called on the country’s mayors and governors to roll back restrictions.

But if the government refuses to take action, gangs in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas have proven more than willing to take on the responsibility. Leaders of the Red Command gang in the ‘City of God’ neighbourhood (Cidade de Deus) have imposed a curfew on residents, forcing them to remain indoors after 8 pm and using threats of violence to ensure compliance. The gangs appear to understand that assuming the role of the state also means they have to provide benefits to citizens, and have been handing out soap to community members. Nevertheless, as explored in our report on the confrontation between state and non-state actors in Rio, gang activity in the favelas is best described as ‘urban authoritarianism’ and residents show obedience primarily out of fear. 

Allowing criminal groups to lay down and enforce the law comes at a great cost, as it builds the gangs’ legitimacy at the expense of state actors. 

Extortionists show mercy, sometimes

El Periódico, 25 March 2020

In certain parts of Central America, extortion is so endemic that it has become a daily feature. In the Colonia John F Kennedy area of Guatemala City, businesses are obliged to pay an extortion fee of between 75 and 150 Guatemalan quetzales (roughly US$10–15) per week. However, following recent COVID-19 lockdown measures, gang members (called mareros) in the capital city have waived the weekly fee.

Not all criminal groups, however, seem to be quite so charitable. As reported in the first #CovidCrimeWatch newsletter, shopkeepers in Mexico had threatened to withhold extortion payments as their supply of illicitly sourced goods began to dry up. Yet members of the Unión de Tepito gang in Mexico City insist that they will continue to collect payments. One member issued a warning to ‘start saving because there won’t be a reprieve because of the virus’.

Given the importance of extortion payments in generating revenue for criminal gangs and ‘extending [their] economic stranglehold over the communities they target’, gangs will be hoping to keep the money coming in for as long as possible.

Death squads murder as coronavirus kills

The Guardian, 23 March 2020

As governments in Latin America are increasingly restricting movement to halt the spread of the virus and prevent as many deaths as possible, nationwide lockdowns may be putting the lives of some people in peril. In Colombia, death squads have been taking advantage of the lockdown to target activists. Three social leaders have been killed, and local NGOs have warned that more murders may follow.

Across Latin America, journalists are constantly in danger – not least in Mexico, where no fewer than 12 journalists were killed in 2019 and there are countless instances of threats, intimidation and kidnappings targeting journalists. Civil society is a significant thorn in the side of organized-crime groups. Journalists, activists and other community leaders are now forced to stay at home along with the rest of the population. As security protocols, including government protection, are abandoned, they become easy targets for criminal gangs. This development is discussed by Siria Gastelum on the first episode of The Impact: Coronavirus and Organized Crime – GI-TOC’s new podcast series.

Nevertheless, activists across the region do not underestimate the importance of resilience in the face of injustice and will undoubtedly continue speaking out.

Strengthened border control means strengthened smuggling networks

OCCRP, 18 March 2020

On 16 March, following an announcement by the Colombian president, Iván Duque, the country closed its border with Venezuela to stop the spread of the coronavirus. However, the 2 000 km-long boundary is plagued by illicit activity, with an estimated 28 criminal groups operating along its extent. There are hundreds of informal crossing trails (known as trochas), which are used to smuggle everything from migrants to drugs and gold. The fear is that with formal border crossings closed off, vulnerable Venezuelans fleeing their country will be forced into the hands of criminal actors.

The phenomenon of border displacement is an issue that the GI-TOC has explored before, most recently in a study on the smuggling of migrants through Bosnia and Herzegovina. The research found that strengthening borders between Hungary and Serbia simply caused a shift in migrant routes to Bosnia and Herzegovina. As more and more countries close their borders in response to the global pandemic, vulnerable people may increasingly turn to criminal groups for help.

Stay at home? Not an option for modern slaves

Thomson Reuters Foundation, 24 March 2020

The UK government has been emphatic over the last week that everyone must stay at home, with people told not go to work unless absolutely essential. But this isn’t an option for thousands of people ensnared in modern slavery in the UK. It is unlikely that these victims of human trafficking, who are exploited against their will, will be able to refrain from working if compelled to do so by their traffickers. Worse still, should these victims – who are often immigrant workers – show symptoms, they may be reluctant to seek treatment for fear of prosecution as a result of the post-Brexit ‘hostile environment’ policy.

There are at least three significant ways in which COVID-19 could have severe ramifications for modern slavery, as explored by Angharad Smith and GI-TOC Network member, James Cockayne. Firstly, those already in situations of exploitation are at an increased risk. They are more likely to become infected due to densely packed work environments and suffer exclusion from adequate healthcare. Secondly, huge numbers of people are becoming unemployed as a result of the economic impact of the pandemic. This, too, will mark a significant increase in the supply of workers who are vulnerable to exploitation. And, thirdly, the response to modern slavery – from both the government and civil-society organizations – is likely to be fragmented as a result of the social and economic disruptions caused by COVID-19. 

GI-TOC will explore human-trafficking risks and vulnerabilities created by the coronavirus in an upcoming policy brief later in our COVID-19 series.


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Lyes Tagziria

Lyes joined the Global Initiative in October 2017 and his primary focus is the Organised Crime Index. The Organised Crime Index for Africa was launched in September 2019 and Lyes is the Research Coordinator for the Global Organised Crime Index. He has also contributed to numerous other projects at the Global Initiative, including the launch of the Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing Index in January 2019.
Prior to joining the Global Initiative, Lyes was concluding his academic career, obtaining a BA Politics & Economics from Newcastle University and an MSc in Security Studies from University College London (UCL). His research interests include measuring organised crime using quantitative methods, Italian organised crime groups and the links between Brexit and organised crime.
Holding dual British-Algerian nationality and having grown up in Italy, Lyes is fluent in English, French and Italian.
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