The Pandemic is Disrupting Organized Crime, But Not Necessarily for the Better

Crews from the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Waesche offload nearly 660 kilograms of narcotics Chief Petty Officer Luke Pinneo / US Coast Guard

The Covid-19 pandemic is disrupting globalization and temporarily disorienting the criminal underworld. Following the imposition of curfews and quarantines affecting more than two-thirds of the global population, many countries experienced a temporary lull in violent crime. Yet there are signs that criminal actors are adjusting to the new normal, and making an opportunity out of this crisis. Meanwhile, crime groups are migrating online like the rest of us to where the action is. If left to their own devices, they could make the world a more dangerous place.

One of the few positive outcomes of Covid-19 was the decline in most types of crime shortly after the imposition of measures to slow and contain the virus. In much of North America and Western Europe, for example, murder and violent assault plummeted as people stayed at home. The lack of physical and social contact simply reduced the opportunity for public misconduct. On the other hand, reported domestic abuse and sexual violence exploded. Predictably, the confinement of people to their homes increased exposure to abusive family members.

Some of the world’s most violent cities and countries recorded stunning declines in violent crime. Chicago’s notoriously high crime rate dropped by 10 percent and drug-related arrests fell by over 40 percent shortly after lockdowns went into effect. San Salvador, routinely considered among the most dangerous cities on the planet, reported a staggering decline in March. From North America to most of Central and South America, the trend lines all pointed downward. Although welcome, these improvements in public security were fleeting. Physical distancing and shelter-in-place orders did not deter drug cartels, gangs, and militia. To the contrary. The combination of police shortages and supply-and-demand shocks in the drug market triggered fresh waves of violence, especially in Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico. The deterioration in security was likely compounded by the early release of inmates from some of Latin America's most violent prisons.  

For instance, Brazil’s comparatively recent decline in murder has come to a screeching halt. In São Paulo, home to South America’s most powerful drug trafficking faction, murders are up 10 percent over the past three months compared to the same period in 2019. Levels of reported domestic violence have also surged in most states, including by more than 50 percent in Rio de Janeiro alone. Police killings are also dramatically on the rise, though some states have stopped reporting them. 

Mexico also registered a dramatic escalation in lethal violence in recent months, especially in states dominated by drug cartels like Chihuahua, Michoacan, and especially Guanajuato. Homicide rates reached an all-time high in the first four months of 2020, including 3,000 murders in March alone. With the armed forces and police distracted with pandemic control measures, Mexico's principal cartels and hundreds of criminal groups are fighting over control of drug routes and the siphoning of petrol.

Even El Salvador’s astonishing crime decline was ended by a sharp increase in gang violence in recent months. After dozens of people were slaughtered during a gang dispute over a single weekend, the president ramped up arrests and authorized lethal force to stem the bloodshed. These iron-fisted measures could make a bad situation worse: Gangs already control the country's jails, and the mixing of rival factions is dangerous.

In many of these countries, it is crime groups, and not the police, that are enforcing lock-down orders in informal settlements and slums. In the process, they are reinforcing their soft power and extending their influence. Operating in full view of the local authorities, they are providing basic services and delivering toilet paper, canned goods, and perishable food items to the poor, elderly, and infirm. Others are posting warnings online and off about abiding by curfews and social isolation. Their appeal may be growing at a time when government leadership is lacking.

The surge in drug-related violence partly comes down to changes underway in global markets. The slow-down in international trade means that cartels and gangs have fewer opportunities to push their product through global supply chains because there are simply fewer ways to move illegal merchandise by land, air, or sea. Meanwhile, drug producers in BoliviaColombiaPeru, and Mexico are struggling to source precursor chemicals to make methamphetamines, fentanyl, and even cocaine.

The global economic crunch is triggering supply and demand shocks for the narcotics business as a whole. On the one hand, the Covid-19 crisis tamped-down production, including in Peru which produces 20 percent of the world's supply of cocaine. In Colombia, where 70 percent of global cocaine is manufactured, anti-narcotics police have taken advantage of the lockdowns to ramp-up eradication efforts. Even before the imposition of lockdowns, cocaine and heroin prices surged on the assumption that there would be disruption in supply chains. 

Notwithstanding these challenges, the drug business is an agile one. Anticipating a slow-down in global trade due to the pandemic, some Latin American traffickers ramped up shipments beforehand and warehoused cocaine before the pandemic hit. Cartels are also adapting to the challenges presented by COVID-19 and government efforts to target them, and using new routes to sell their wares. Street prices in Europe may have risen by more than 30 percent this year, but cocaine and other drugs continue to flow from Mexico and South America to Europe and North America. 

There are signs that many users are also substituting in alternatives once their drug of choice becomes harder to source. Growing numbers of Europeans are reportedly shifting from foreign-manufactured cocaine to home-grown marijuana. Meanwhile, some heroin users are shifting to more potent and dangerous opiates such as fentanyl. Across the region, Covid-19 is also accelerating the purchase of drugs online, including via the so-called Dark Web.

The disruptions to global drug markets may be temporary, but they could have longer-term effects on crime. Faced with declining profits, they will diversify by targeting banks, businesses, and high-net-worth individuals to fill the gap. In Latin America, crime groups are likely to resort to old fashioned kidnapping, extortion, and protection rackets to keep the cash flowing. People smuggling will suffer a downturn due to the tightening of borders. And crime syndicates will branch into more lucrative businesses—especially cybercrime, which has seen a sharp rise as the world goes digital.

Covid-19 is transforming organized crime. In addition to heightening the risk of violence, the pandemic is also indirectly strengthening the social, economic, and political clout of several criminal organizations in the same way that the Italian mafia and Japanese Yakuza emerged stronger after the great dislocations of the Second World War. Crime kingpins know full well that law enforcement and criminal justice systems are overstretched, and that prisons are bursting at the seams. They also know that an economic depression is coming, which may increase the risk of violence. It is not entirely clear if governments are similarly alert. 



In 2019 the Dialogue published Unfulfilled Promises: Latin America Today, a collection of six essays analyzing six of the region’s most salient challenges: rule of law and democratic institutions; citizen security; poverty and inequality; economic growth; regional integration; and global insertion. The volume was edited by Dialogue president Michael Shifter and fellow Bruno Binetti, with an introduction by Laura Chinchilla, former president of Costa Rica and current Dialogue co-chair. It was published in English, Spanish and Portuguese, with launching events in Washington DC, Mexico and Rio de Janeiro, respectively.

The book is available in English, Spanish, and Portuguese.  

Robert Muggah in his chapter "Fighting Organized Crime in Latin America: Between Mano Dura and Citizen Security" argued that anti-crime policies in the region are torn between hardline approaches (mano dura) and citizen security initiatives.

More than one year after the publication of the book, the Covid-19 pandemic has upended the world. How does the new environment affect Latin America, and what are its impacts on the six issues explored in the volume? To answer this fundamental question, we asked each author to reflect on the implications of the public health and economic crises for Latin America’s future.



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