How organised crime has taken advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic

27th April 2020

The closing of borders, lockdowns and social distancing measures restricting domestic and foreign travel has presented many opportunities for organised crime. During this coronavirus pandemic, criminals have adapted from their business-as-usual practices to take advantage of the pandemic situation, in some cases even providing social welfare to desperate residents.

Italy has been one of the hardest hit by COVID-19 with 197,675 cases and 26,644 deaths.1  After the first indigenous case on 21st February 2020 in Lodi, several cases began to emerge in the south and south-west territory of Lombardy.2  A red zone encompassing 11 areas, where the virus was endemic, was placed on lockdown to contain the emerging threat with a national lockdown implemented on the 9th March. The effect in Italy has been severe, with numerous reports in both the mainstream and social media of inhabitants unable to buy food due to a lack of income.3 

Around 5% of Italy’s population work ‘off-the-books’ jobs in construction or the farming sectors, mostly in the south of the country.4 It is those that work within these sectors who have become targets for organised crime, finding themselves with no income and ineligible for government bailouts. Reported, the Mafia have sought to capitalise on these circumstances by buying food for the poor in order to gain favour. This has been a strategy used by the mafia in past crises, such as the 2008 recession, leaving the populace indebted to the Mafia who will ask for favours such as to buy struggling businesses and to recruit individuals into their organisations.5 Furthermore, the Mafia’s capacity to move money quickly outside the banking system allows them to lend money easily to distressed companies and then gradually take control – a well-known tactic.6 7 8

Posing as food delivery workers has given the criminal fraternity the excuse to move out on the streets and provide the perfect cover for other more unlawful activities. In Mexico, the cartels are employing similar methods in order to keep their gang members on the streets by donating food packages as a way to get around lockdown restrictions.10 Between mid-March and early April, 346,000 formal jobs were lost but, with even more employed in the informal sector, the problem of unemployment is likely to be much worse than publicised, potentially forcing people to criminal gangs for help. 11 Known members of gangs are openly giving away food and toilet paper and are seen by locals who are desperate for supplies as ‘the least bad solution’. 12

The closure of borders for non-essential travel has presented setbacks for gangs in Central and South America who are unable to cross the US border. Although evidently gangs will always find inventive ways to bypass these measures, with the Colombian navy recently seizing a narcosub carrying a tonne of cocaine to the US.14 The criminals have had similar problems of supply and demand as that of lawful businesses during this pandemic. Demand has fallen sharply in the US, Mexico’s largest market, while supply chains have also become affected. Chemicals used to make drugs have stopped arriving from China and as a result, violence between rival groups has increased, over the few remaining criminal opportunities. In March this year, Mexico had seen the highest level of organised crime-related homicide for 13 years.13 Police forces are stretched with officers abiding by quarantine measures, whereas the cartels, often ignore social distancing measures.

In Brazil, the recently ousted health minister has even told local officials to talk with drug lords and gang leaders, in an effort to stop this coronavirus pandemic. Mr Mandetta said that “authorities had to be realistic about who was in power in poor neighbourhoods”.15  He was recently sacked by his president Mr Bolsonaro because he was in support of social distancing, and so in response to their own President’s lack of awareness, the criminal gangs have now started imposing their own curfews on their local populations.16 Warning people to stay home, drug traffickers in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas have put up posters, sent messages on social apps and made announcements on megaphones mounted on cars.17 18

Organised crime in Romania has seen a niche in the market and taken over the provision of PPE to the health sector.19  Reports suggest inadequate equipment is being sourced from Turkey and sold to the health department for twice the price. Recently, French police seized 140,000 black market masks but were able to requisition them for health workers.20  A minister in Estonia has said publicly that countries are using emergency measures to bypass the tendering processes for PPE, with anyone able to go directly to suppliers.21 This has created a bidding war, with poorer countries struggling to get hold of quality medical supplies, with claims that the US “will pay double the price for PPE”. The Slovenian government has issued multi-million euro PPE contracts to firms that have no history of providing health-care equipment by bypassing the normal tendering process using the country’s emergency powers as justification.22

In Japan, medical supplies have become the new currency for the ‘Hangure’, a new criminal gang to rival the ‘Yakuza’, as their staple business interests of drugs and sex trade are disrupted by the lockdown. The ‘Yakuza’ have been handing out free supplies to desperate shoppers, pharmacies and kindergartens in order to regain some standing with the public and have reportedly offered to clean up the quarantined cruise liner, Diamond Princess.23 Similarly to Italy’s Mafia, many of the high ranking Yakuza members are in their 70s and 80s and are more susceptible to COVID-19 forcing them to self-isolate, and as a result allowing the younger members of the new ‘hangure’ gangs to gain prominence.

American distributors of PPE are saying that the only country able to provide the levels of bulk ordering required is China. However, they are facing problems with suppliers as factories are popping up overnight, with fake government approvals, trying to profit from the current necessity of PPE.24  The potential for being ripped off is high, with States in the US buying their own PPE and handing over millions of dollars upfront without knowing if their shipment will arrive since competition is so fierce. Reports of hijackings of PPE are coming from all over the world where shipments destined for Europe or the US go missing, though it is unclear whether this is down to organised crime or government intervention. Germany and France have claimed the US government are taking shipments of PPE from planes destined for their countries.25

Europol has reported an increase in cybercrime due to the increase in people working from home, Phishing scams and fake websites target people with COVID-19 solutions. Hospitals are also being targeted as they become too stretched. Reportedly child exploitation has also increased due to the number of children online. 26

In response, Home Secretary Priti Patel during the daily COVID-19 briefing on Saturday 25th April, warned criminals trying to take advantage of the current crisis that they were being monitored.27 Police, however, are adapting, with The National Crime Agency seizing cocaine in boxes of face masks, shutting down websites offering fake PPE, as well as fake shops, malware distribution sites and phishing sites all related to making money off of COVID-19.28 A further impact of this pandemic in the UK has been that low priority crime cases are being put on hold to avoid clogging up courts. The criminal justice system has been unable to function properly while social distancing measures are in place, as witnesses, jurors, defendants and lawyers cannot attend court. Cases of low-level crimes and ‘other cases’, of which serious organised crime has been classed, will be delayed due to them requiring lengthy investigation. 29

Crime has been impacted by a number of factors due to COVID-19, all of which have been successfully taken advantage of by criminals to varying degrees. As the pandemic continues, cyber-attacks and fraud are expected to increase as malware is tailored to the COVID-19 pandemic. Commercial premises are expected to become targets as they remain empty of staff. Property crime is set to be targeted with new methods of entry, due to the increased presence of residents with vulnerable individuals at increased risk.  Criminals will look to capitalise on the fear surrounding this pandemic and may continue to be effective even after the crisis. The sale of counterfeit substandard healthcare products looks to increase, taking advantage of the shortage in supply. Drug-related violence is likely to increase due to the severing of the supply chain. While governments are stretched dealing with this pandemic the allocation of resources will be critical in preventing any current and future criminal activity.