How to run a criminal network in a pandemic
08 Sep 2020

“Promo Offer!” flashed up the advertisement on a Scottish vendor’s WhatsApp story, offering a discount on your next purchase if you referred five more customers. The updated price list offered further discounts for bulk buys. There was also a reminder to get orders in early, as, because of lockdown restrictions, the delivery service ended at midnight rather than the usual 4 a.m. The language of the ad was indistinguishable from that of hundreds of other online retailers to send marketing emails and posts that day, but the products on sale raised an eyebrow: cocaine, ketamine, MDMA.

It made solid business sense for Glasgow’s drug dealers to adapt their marketing and sales strategy to meet the needs of consumers stuck at home during the pandemic. While face-to-face industries such as hospitality and tourism have suffered crippling economic damage, entertainment at home is thriving. Sales of drink-at-home alcohol have spiked. Netflix has gained over 10 million subscribers. Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, has profited so much during the crisis that some estimates predict he’ll be the world’s first trillionaire.

For transnational organized crime groups, the crisis has also been an enormous economic opportunity. As an industry, organized crime is worth between $3.6 trillion and $4.8 trillion a year and accounts for 7 percent of the world’s gross domestic product. Drug trafficking alone is worth between $426 billion and $652 billion a year, and while cartels and trafficking rings are as cautious as everyone else about interacting face to face during the pandemic, these organizations are hardly willing to let their commercial interests dwindle. From Mexico to South Africa, drug cartels are using COVID-19 to consolidate and grow their businesses, diversifying their activities and eliminating competition in the process.

That’s not to say that the black market is business as usual. With much of the world’s population isolating themselves indoors, visible manifestations of organized crime swiftly declined. London saw a sharp drop in knife crime. Violent offenses of all types went down in France. Chicago’s drug arrests decreased by 42 percent, and in Los Angeles prior to the eruption of violence following George’s Floyd’s death, key crimes had fallen by 30 percent. Meanwhile, drugs and money are being stockpiled on both sides of the United States’ southwest border, said a spokesperson for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and domestic field workers are reporting price hikes of meth, cocaine, and heroin at both the retail and wholesale level. This is a sign, the DEA spokesperson said, that supplies may be running low—although clearly also a sign that demand is undiminished.

Behind the scenes, drug trafficking groups are finding workarounds to logistical challenges and restrictions. Some experts believe the trade is actually far more resilient than the criminals themselves are letting on.

“[Charles] Baudelaire said the devil’s greatest trick was convincing you he didn’t exist,” said Jason Eligh of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime. “We’ve seen a lot of press, including interviews from alleged cartel members bemoaning, Oh, we’re weak, we can’t get our supplies. It’s a terrible time for us. We’re losing money. Well, what better time to portray yourself as weakened than when police and law enforcement are distracted, when border monitoring is compromised because the focus is more on COVID-19 protection than detection and intervention in illicit goods? What better time to increase traffic, to focus on increasing your production and infiltrating the marketplace than at a time of crisis like this?”

In other words, this show of weakness is smart public relations, continuing a long tradition of crime syndicates manipulating the public narrative for personal gain. By promoting his charity work through his own radio station, recruiting a prominent priest to defend him as a good Christian, and campaigning against the police’s human rights abuses to deflect from a career of murder, kidnapping, and terrorism, the Colombian cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar did such a great job of cultivating his Robin Hood public persona that one councilwoman in the city of Medellín described him as “a publicity genius, like [Joseph] Goebbels.” Or take the yakuza in Japan, which embarrassed the struggling Japanese government in 1995 by coordinating a huge disaster relief effort in response to the Kobe earthquake. Yakuza gangsters were also the first to arrive on the scene with more than 70 trucks of aid supplies when another devastating earthquake hit Japan’s northeast coast in 2011.

Eligh suggested that the PR gains for organized crime groups downplaying their resilience go well beyond throwing police off the scent. It’s also a useful excuse to manipulate the market by feigning scarcity and inflating prices. The same thing is happening in Russia, said Mark Galeotti, a lecturer and writer on transnational crime and Russian security. “Heroin is just so plentiful, and to be honest, there are stocks inside Russia or just over the border in Central Asia which gangs have held on to precisely because they don’t want to flood the market and lower the price.”

The truth of the matter, said Eligh, is that production (especially of opium in Afghanistan and Myanmar) is unaffected, borders remain permeable, and anywhere legitimate goods can move, illicit ones can too. Indeed, some traffickers have been caught piggybacking on the movement of essential goods; in April, a Polish man transporting two consignments of face masks was arrested near Calais, a port town in France, when officers found 31 pounds of cocaine stashed inside one of the parcels.

“I would be extremely surprised if the supply of drugs into the country is interrupted at all,” said Neil Woods, a former undercover police officer who spent more than 14 years infiltrating drug gangs in the United Kingdom and is now an advocate for drug policy reform. “Even if every single ferry ship, container ship, absolutely everything was stopped [under COVID-19 restrictions],’We still have an endless amount of coastline that we can’t monitor at the best of times and besides that, we can’t stop the corruption that gets the drugs in.”

As home deliveries of all products surge around the world, monitoring and intercepting illicit goods becomes an unmanageable challenge. Felia Allum, a senior lecturer at the University of Bath, says that some of the Camorra clans in southern Italy—the local equivalent of the Sicilian Mafia—have begun delivering drugs to the homes of users who previously purchased their product in the local piazzas. Home delivery is a low-risk distribution model used by more resourceful dealers for decades, but COVID-19 could be the push that more traditional users and dealers need to move away from street corner deals altogether.

This applies to long-distance and international deliveries, too. With delivery networks from DHL to the post office to FedEx operating at maximum capacity, it’s safer than ever to distribute narcotics through these channels without attracting attention, explained Misha Glenny, author of McMafia. There’s “no question” that the significant increase in activity on the darknet since the start of lockdown will strengthen Internet-based criminal markets, he said.

The huge amounts of capital available to organized crime groups means they also have “unfair liquidity to invest in innovation,” said Vanda Felbab-Brown of the Brookings Institution. The risk of detection means drug dealers have more incentive than even fellow innovators Amazon or Uber Eats to develop drones and other no-contact delivery technologies for small packages. While the pandemic has created more urgency, this trend is already well underway: Criminal groups have used drones to drop drugs into prisons for years, while Latin American cartels use them to smuggle drugs across borders. Mexico’s Jalisco New Generation Cartel, which controls around one-third of drugs supplied to the United States, has even begun weaponizing drones with C4 explosives, with Mexico’s Jalisco New Generation Cartel to carry out drone strikes against its enemies.

By Lindsey Kennedy and Nathan Paul Southern, Foreign Policy, 5 September 2020

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