The ongoing health crisis has resulted in a number of novel situations and issues that need to be addressed. Whether it is rethinking the commercial interdependence due to globalization or the underfunded health sector in most countries of the world, leaders are faced with a seemingly never-ending insurgence of new challenges. A sector that has seen an unexpectedly sharp rise is the one concerning activities by transnational organized crime (TOC) groups. Their thriving adaptability during the COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences are worth a closer look.
Criminal groups that act on an international scale have repeatedly shown that they are very well equipped and connected throughout their various far-reaching networks. This support network enables them to effectively pursue their businesses of drug trade, money laundering, human trafficking and high-scale fraud. History has shown that they are very innovative and quick to react once state limitations are implemented as was for example the case with the set-up by the American mafia of an illegal alcohol trade in the United States during the Prohibition era in the 1920s. During the current health crisis, organized crime groups in Europe have once again grasped for power by exploiting the severe situation.
The Italian Mafia as the Savior
During the first months of the pandemic, various clans of the mafia in Italy proceeded to act as “charity” organizations that feed the poor during lockdown, creating a very well cured modern “Robin Hood” image. In Sicily, the Cosa Nostra offered financial help to small businesses that are in dire economic difficulties after being forced to close because of the lockdown by the state. Nevertheless, this seemingly nice gesture is nothing but a ruse to effectively bind business owners to the mafia in order to later remind them who stood by them during their hardship. The mafia has succeeded in stepping in where the state was observably absent and it has done so in no time. Thus, it has created a serious alternative for business owners and people in need who have felt abandoned by the state and its incapacity to sufficiently support them and their life’s work. The Italian state’s failure is nonetheless not a new phenomenon in what concerns the mafia’s influence. It has been a decade-long struggle for the Italian state to regain the trust and control over large parts of the South of Italy that are hugely controlled politically, economically and socially by the different mafia groups. Although the 1980s saw some major anti-mafia initiatives, such as anti-mafia laws passed by the state and multiple high-profile convictions of various Mafiosi, the corruption in the affected regions remains an ongoing struggle.
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 crisis has not shown any improvement of the state’s support in the mafia-controlled regions and even its recent announcement of loan offers to businesses in need cannot persuade the small entrepreneurs of Sicily and Calabria, since they feel they would not be able to pay it back. The sell-out to the mafia seems like their only option.
TOCs in Latin America
Another region that has seen its organized crime rearrange its way of working is Latin America. Here as well, the state has been absent in most countries, especially when it comes to supporting and protecting the vulnerable groups of society. Criminal groups were quick to jump in in order to provide basic goods and in Mexico cartels even went so far as to provide “welfare schemes”. In Brazil, the current epicenter of the pandemic, where President Bolsonaro has vehemently refused to impose safety measures, the criminal groups mostly controlling the favelas have ultimately taken over and imposed their own lockdowns. This situation results in a serious problem related to how the state will be able to regain effective control over its population. Especially since organized criminal groups are seemingly better prepared and more efficient in distributing their funds with the purpose of ultimately replacing the non-existing state functions and establish loyal relations. This threat is now more imminent than ever and states will need to act fast and provide sufficient help to all societal groups, if they do not want to tumble into dysfunctionality or, even worse, a fragile state status.
Shift to the World Wide Web & Governments under Attack
With borders being repeatedly closed and travel being halted throughout the world, criminal activities such as drug trade or human trafficking have taken a serious hit since their supply chain has been disrupted. That is why, on the one hand, criminal groups have shifted their focus inwards in order to gain influence with the state-abandoned vulnerable societal groups. On the other hand, they have become more innovative and have shifted their illicit activities to an online environment, illustrating once again how adaptable they are to novel situations.
The darknet has witnessed an important expansion of illicit trade during the pandemic with firearms and explosives being offered for sale, but also alleged COVID-19 “cures” and supposed blood from recovered virus patients. In general, cybercrime has seen an important increase in its activities and even governments are not being spared by it. The most recent example being German health authorities who had ordered a large shipment of masks, paid a downpayment and then realized that the Dutch website they had ordered from had been cloned by criminals. The latter ones had already pocketed the 1.5 million EUR on a Nigerian account, without the intention of providing any products to the German government. While INTERPOL was able to coordinate a successful worldwide raid (PANGEA operation), where it seized thousands of counterfeit healthcare goods that were illicitly traded online, getting ahead of those highly elaborate criminal schemes poses a serious challenge for the law-enforcement authorities.
Healthcare as the new criminal epicenter
Indeed, the health sector has seen a sharp rise in illicit drug production and the sale of counterfeit goods. Criminal organizations have taken advantage of the important and worldwide shortages of essential healthcare products and personal medical gear and have proceeded to manufacture and sell such counterfeit products, making extensive economic profits. Throughout Europe, there have been repeated discoveries of counterfeit masks that had been ordered by officials of various countries. Due to their inefficiency, theses masks had to be replaced and valuable time was lost to effectively protect the medical workers, who had to come up with creative ideas of protecting themselves. Besides this kind of healthcare fraud other types of fraud have flourished as well. In its newest report, Europol also focused on the area of “Organised Property Crime”, where members of organized criminal groups impersonate health officials to get access to multiple private and commercial properties in order to rob them.
In more recent months, the UN has warned that TOCs all over the world have been able to infiltrate the legal economy, effectively taking advantage of increased government funds made available to counter the economic impact of the pandemic.
These criminal activities show a high level of premeditated criminal action, paired with elaborate organization and execution skills. Moreover, it shows once again, how adaptable organized criminal groups are. They are able to react very fast when new circumstances occur, making it very difficult for the state, especially law enforcement, to catch up with their innovative activities.
Thinking ahead: economic impact and TOCs
While it is important to note these criminal activities and the ways in which law enforcement can effectively combat them, it is also crucial to look at what might happen after borders are opened again and lockdowns are eased through the world. Economists have already warned, that the COVID-19 pandemic will result in the most severe global economic crisis of the last century. Millions of people will be on the verge of poverty and transnational organized criminal groups will especially take advantage of those vulnerable groups. It may be that human trafficking has been temporarily halted due to the closing of the borders, however the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC) has warned that once the economic impact of the crisis will be felt, the numbers of human trafficking will see a very important increase. Causes include increased number of people who were laid off in formal and informal sectors, as well as increased demand in labor and sexual exploitation. Therefore, the GI-TOC has pressed anti-human-trafficking actors to take action and prevent these high-risk outcomes.
Rethinking the International Framework
In order to fight transnational criminal activities more efficiently and with a faster detectability of illicit activities across countries, the international cooperation framework needs to be revised. The happening of this year’s pandemic especially emphasizes this need. The Congress of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) was supposed to take place in April in Kyoto, but due to the COVID-19 crisis it was postponed for the first time in its history. Since then, ideas on having the annual meeting on an online platform have circulated among professionals. It has been emphasized that this would be a unique opportunity to finally modernize international cooperation, especially UN-related responsibilities, and thus accommodate the current developments in society on a more effective scale. Moving to an online environment, where experts would not have to focus on burdening logistics, would create a more flexible way of cooperation between states and national experts. It would also allow them to establish an exchange of knowledge and best-practices that could perhaps be made available on a permanent virtual platform, therefore not depending on an annual event, and thus establishing a more close-knitted and stable cooperation. Moreover, the collaboration between IOs, NGOs, the private sector and academia have to be revised and reinforced in order to provide front-line actors with a better and an up-to-date instrumental cooperation framework.
Lastly, the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, is scheduled to undergo its first review. Thus, this is yet another opportunity of taking into account the new developments concerning the TOC groups’ activities. That way, this sole legally binding Convention on this issue, will be enhanced and more effective in the global fight against TOC groups.
In conclusion, the pandemic has shown that no matter the circumstances, organized criminal groups are well prepared and ready to adapt to changes happening around them. Their velocity concerning this adaptability immensely weakens the image of state actions and inactions in response to the ongoing health crisis. However, as is often the case with crises of this magnitude, they do offer opportunities for change and improvement – not only for criminals.
States and international organizations, that are already in place and well-established, need to take action in order to modernize and improve the cooperation between state actors, non-state actors from the public and private sector and international organizations. This crisis is a unique opportunity to strengthen the international community of state and independent actors and show that it is able to adapt and function in times of severe crises. Despite the thriving of illicit activities by transnational organized crime organizations, cooperation and support should be the main focus in order to limit the negative implications occurring due to these criminal activities. At least then, there will be hope for better suited responses when the next crisis will come around.
Iris completed a law degree at the Heinrich-Heine-University of Düsseldorf in Germany and she is currently studying International Relations at Leiden University in The Netherlands. Furthermore, she is also an editor for Leiden University undergraduate journal Medusa.