By Kotie Geldenhuys
COVID-19 does not only impact on society and the economy, but it also impacts and shapes organised crime and illicit markets. The initial response to the pandemic affected the operation of criminal networks across the globe. While the pandemic has reduced some organised criminal activities, it has simultaneously provided opportunities for new ones.
The COVID-19 lockdown has affected public movement and also closed borders which had an immediate impact on some criminal activities, which have either slowed down or stopped. However, the disruption caused by COVID-19 was quickly exploited, with some criminal groups expanding their portfolio, particularly in relation to cybercrime and opportunistic criminal activities in the health sector (UNODC, 2020). There are reports of criminal groups who have exploited confusion and uncertainty to take advantage of a new demand for illicit goods and services.
According to the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime (GI TOC) (2020), there are four major ways in which the pandemic will have implications for organised crime, namely:
- Some organised crime activities have been constrained by social distancing measures and travel restrictions and will take time to reconstitute themselves;
- as the attention of police agencies and policymakers is diverted elsewhere, some criminal groups have grabbed this opportunity to scale up their activities;
- organised criminal groups, some long embedded in the health sector, have quickly identified opportunities to exploit the sector; and
- cybercrime has emerged rapidly as a risk area that could have long-term implications for the growth of criminal markets.
The impact of travel restrictions on organised criminal groups
Although lockdowns, travel restrictions and border restrictions have hampered organised criminal groups' ability to organise prostitution, infiltrate security forces and traffic drugs, humans, wildlife and firearms, illicit activities rapidly reconstitute themselves to meet both old and new market demand (GI TOC, 2020). Despite the fact that borders have been closed, hundreds of underground border crossings, which were already used to smuggle migrants, drugs, illegal gold and other illicit commodities prior to the pandemic and which are controlled by criminal groups, are continued to be used to subvert the quarantine measures (Gagné Acoulon, 2020). Organised crime groups have also found creative ways to transport drugs such as crystal methamphetamine which have been found in shipments of medical supplies and food parcels (OECD, 2020).
A reduction in Chinese exports to the rest of the world has taken its toll on the revenue of criminal groups. As China is the leading source of counterfeit and illicit trade goods globally and with these factories on lockdown, criminal enterprises have found themselves without alternative sources of supply (GI TOC, 2020). The production of methamphetamines and fentanyl by Mexican cartels is also impaired by difficulties in procuring imports of the precursor chemicals from China. This has resulted in a shortage and led to increased prices. One drug trafficker said that the production is still happening, but at lower rates than usual (Bonello, 2020).