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Homeland Security

As Crime Dips Worldwide, Agile Syndicates Adapt to Pandemic

By Jamie Dettmer May 25, 2020

El Salvador, one of the world's homicide hot spots, reported something highly unusual early in the coronavirus pandemic – four murder-free days.

Neighboring countries Guatemala and Honduras also have seen homicides plunge. For nations that have often led the world in per capita killings, the development has been welcome.

Major cities across the United States have also reported dips in burglary, assault, murder, robbery and grand larceny – all due to stay-at-home orders and fewer opportunities for crime.

Countries across the globe have reported reduced crime, an apparent silver lining in a contagion cloud that is reshaping the world.

At first glance, global lockdowns and quarantines seem to have suppressed crime and reduced the spread of the coronavirus. But law enforcement officials and analysts say a second look reveals a more complicated and disturbing picture. Cybercrime has exploded, with mounting reports of an increase in ransomware attacks.

Headline crime may have dropped, and the statistics may have improved, but analysts say as the pandemic reorders geopolitics and economics, it is doing the same in the world of crime.

Gangs, mafia and small businesses

Organized crime groups have been taking advantage of fresh opportunities presented by the pandemic, from acting surreptitiously as suppliers to governments, to serving as "partners of the state in maintaining order," warns a recent report by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, a network of independent global and regional experts headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland.

In El Salvador, street gangs behind most of the murders that have plagued the country have been enforcing a lockdown ordered by the government, which has been prolonged until next month. Wielding baseball bats and issuing blood-curdling threats, the gangs have been keeping their barrios in line. Altruism doesn't come into it, local observers say. The enforcement itself strengthens their authority.

In Italy, mafia groups have taken advantage of rising poverty and economic desperation in the south to present themselves as an alternative to the state.

Giuseppe Provenzano is the Cabinet minister responsible for Mezzogiorno, the underdeveloped southern part of Italy that has long trailed the country's wealthier north. Last month, he warned of the danger of gangs seeking to supplant the state by offering cash handouts and "loans" to struggling small businesses desperate for money to stay afloat. That gives the crime groups greater chances of buying a bigger share of the legitimate economy.

Investigative journalist Roberto Saviano, author of Gomorra, a bestseller on the Naples-based Camorra mafia, told la Repubblica newspaper, "The pandemic is the ideal place for mafias, and the reason is simple – if you are hungry, you are looking for bread; it does not matter which oven it is baked from and who it is distributing it."

Recruitment is easier, also, for the mafiosi, who have traditionally exploited the poverty and despair of the people of Mezzogiorno and presented themselves as their true guardians.

With huge numbers of government subsidies, grants and hastily arranged public sector contracts, mafia syndicates are well poised to enrich themselves and defraud the state. Enmeshed in business and banking, as well as politics, gangs like the Camorra have long fed off the public sector, directing fraudulent contracts to themselves, especially in construction, to reap massive profits.

Health care has also been a target. Last week, Italian police arrested Sicily's coronavirus coordinator and nine other health care officials on charges of taking bribes to direct medical equipment and service contracts to companies connected to the mafia.

Valued at around $660 million, the contracts date to 2016. Sicily's financial police have no doubts that as they dig deeper, they will find more recent pandemic-era contracts.

According to court papers, the mafia was skimming off about 5%. Gianluca Angelini of the financial police told reporters they had discovered "a true center of power … in which dishonest public officials, unscrupulous businessmen and entrepreneurs are willing to do anything to obtain contracts worth millions."

Drug dealing

For transnational narcotic gangs sitting on massive cash reserves and warehouses stashed with drugs, such as the Mexican and Colombian cartels, the pandemic has disrupted their trade by undermining their smuggling and distribution networks. But they have been able to adapt, analysts say.

"Closed trafficking routes have been replaced with new ones, and street deals have been substituted with door-to-door deliveries," according to a report by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), a network of independent media centers and journalists.

The group found in a recent investigation that street prices for narcotics had jumped by about 30%.

"In Colombia, the world's largest producer of cocaine, lockdowns and government eradication efforts have curbed some production, while travel restrictions have shut down some significant export routes, such as speedboats."

However, the OCCRP said, "In destination markets in Europe and the United States, authorities are still seizing large hauls with remarkable frequency – a sign that drug smugglers are still doing a brisk trade."

For other crime syndicates, the pandemic has handed them new scams, from trading in substandard and potentially dangerous drugs, to fleecing governments and consumers with faulty counterfeit personal protective equipment, including face masks.

One organized gang tricked the regional German government of North Rhine-Westphalia into parting with $2.6 million for nonexistent PPE. The payments were blocked just in time by alert law enforcement officials.

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