Foreign Policy

Learn how to run a prison community in a pandemic

A staff member of the Alejandrina Guzmán Foundation wears a face mask with the image of the Mexican drug lord Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán – Alejandrina's father – while she arranges boxes of basic food for the needy in Guadalajara, Mexico Gaining the sympathy of the local population. ULISES RUIZ / AFP via Getty Images

"Promo Offer!" The ad on a Scottish vendor's WhatsApp story has been updated to offer a discount on your next purchase if you've referred five more customers. The updated price list offered additional discounts for bulk purchases. There was also a reminder to get orders early as delivery service ended earlier at midnight than 4am due to lock restrictions. The language of the ad was indistinguishable from that of hundreds of other online retailers to send out marketing emails and posts that day, but the products on offer raised an eyebrow: cocaine, ketamine, MDMA.

It made business sense for Glasgow's drug dealers to tailor their marketing and sales strategy to meet the needs of consumers stuck at home during the pandemic. While personal industries like hospitality and tourism have suffered crippling economic damage, home entertainment is thriving. Home alcohol sales have increased. Netflix has gained over 10 million subscribers. Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, has benefited so much during the crisis that it is estimated that he will be the world's first billionaire.

For transnational organized crime groups, the crisis was also an enormous economic opportunity. As an industry, organized crime is valued at between $ 3.6 and $ 4.8 trillion a year and accounts for 7 percent of the world's gross domestic product. Drug trafficking alone is valued at between $ 426 billion and $ 652 billion a year, and while cartels and trading rings are just as careful as anyone when it comes to dealing face-to-face during the pandemic, these organizations are hardly willing to to let their commercial interests wane. From Mexico to South Africa, drug cartels are using COVID-19 to consolidate and expand their businesses, diversify their operations, while eliminating competition.

That doesn't mean that the black market works as usual. With much of the world's population isolating themselves indoors, visible manifestations of organized crime rapidly declined. There has been a sharp decline in knife crime in London. Violence of all kinds has decreased in France. Chicago drug arrests fell 42 percent, and Los Angeles's major crimes were down 30 percent prior to the outbreak of violence following the death of George Floyd. Meanwhile, drugs and money are being stored on both sides of the United States' southwestern border, a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) spokesman said, and local salespeople have reported increases in meth, cocaine and heroin prices at both retail and wholesale levels. This is a sign, the DEA spokesman said, that supply may be running out – although it is clearly also a sign that demand is undiminished.

Behind the scenes, drug trafficking groups find workarounds for logistical challenges and constraints. Some experts believe that the trade is actually far more resilient than the criminals themselves.

"(Charles) Baudelaire said the devil's greatest trick was to convince you he didn't exist," said Jason Eligh of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime. "" We saw a lot of press, including interviews with suspected cartel members complaining: Oh, we are weak, we cannot get our supplies. It is a terrible time for us. We're losing money. What better time to present yourself weakened than when the police and law enforcement are distracted when border surveillance is compromised because the focus is more on protecting COVID-19 than on detecting and intervening in illegal goods? What better time to get traffic, focus on growing your production and infiltrating the market than at a time like this crisis? "

In other words, this weakness is shrewd public relations that continues a long tradition of criminal syndicates that manipulate 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 fighting police human rights abuses to deviate from a career of murder, kidnapping and terrorism, Colombian cocaine king Pablo has Escobar has cultivated his public role as Robin Hood so well that a councilwoman in the city of Medellín described him as "a publicity genius like (Joseph) Goebbels". Or take the yakuza in Japan, which embarrassed the warring Japanese government in 1995 by coordinating major disaster relief in response to the Kobe earthquake. Yakuza gangsters were also the first to be on the scene with more than 70 trucks carrying relief supplies when another devastating earthquake hit the northeast coast of Japan in 2011.

Colombian police escort an arrested man during an operation against criminal gangs and drug traffickers on July 29 in Cali, Colombia. LUIS ROBAYO / AFP via Getty Images

Eligh suggested that the PR gains for organized crime groups that downplay their resilience go well beyond dropping the police. It is also a useful excuse to manipulate the market by faking scarcity and raising prices. The same thing is happening in Russia, said Mark Galeotti, lecturer and writer on cross-border crime and Russian security. "Heroin is just so abundant, and to be honest, there are stocks inside Russia or just across the border in Central Asia that gangs have been holding onto precisely because they don't want to flood the market and bring the price down."

The truth, Eligh said, is that production (especially opium in Afghanistan and Myanmar) is unaffected, borders remain porous, and illegal goods remain where legitimate goods can move. Indeed, some traffickers have been caught piggybacking on essential goods. In April, a Polish man carrying two consignments of face masks was arrested near Calais, a port city in France, when officials found 31 pounds of cocaine in one of the packages.

"I would be extremely surprised if the country's drug supply were cut at all," said Neil Woods, a former undercover police officer who infiltrated drug gangs in the UK for more than 14 years and is now committed to drug policy reform. "Even if every single ferry, 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, we can & # 39 ; Don't stop the corruption that drugs bring in. "

As home delivery of all products increases worldwide, monitoring and intercepting illegal goods becomes a daunting challenge. Felia Allum, a lecturer at the University of Bath, says some of the Camorra clans in southern Italy – the local equivalent of the Sicilian Mafia – have started delivering drugs to the homes of users who previously bought their product in local squares had. Home delivery is a low risk sales model that has been used by more resourceful retailers for decades. However, COVID-19 could be the push more traditional users and traders need to move away from street corner stores altogether.

This also applies to long-distance and international deliveries. With DHL's delivery networks working at full capacity via the post to FedEx, it is safer than ever to distribute narcotics through these channels without attracting attention, explained Misha Glenny, author of McMafia. There is "no question" that the significant increase in activity on the darknet since the lockdown began will strengthen internet-based criminal markets, he said.

The vast amounts of capital available to organized crime groups mean they also have "unfair liquidity to invest in innovation," said Vanda Felbab-Brown of the Brookings Institution. The risk of discovery means that drug dealers have more incentives than other innovators like Amazon or Uber Eats to develop drones and other contactless delivery technologies for small packages. While the pandemic has made it more urgent, that trend is well advanced: criminal groups have been using drones to dump drugs into prisons for years, while Latin American cartels have been using them to smuggle drugs across borders. Mexico's Jalisco New Generation Cartel, which controls around a third of the drugs shipped to the United States, has even started arming drones with C4 explosives. The Mexican Jalisco New Generation Cartel carries out drone strikes against its enemies.

A drone loaded with methamphetamine packets lies on the ground after it crashed into a supermarket parking lot in Tijuana City, Mexico, on January 20, 2015. Tijuana City Police via The Associated Press

"Criminals have been moving in this direction with all kinds of experiments and innovations long before COVID," said Felbab-Brown, who predicted a shift to unmanned drones and submarines within the next 10 to 15 years. "Drug trafficking is likely the pioneering domain," she adds.

Organized crime syndicates are also innovative in ways that shorten supply chains and limit risk along the way. One example is the manufacture of synthetic versions of drugs in a consumer country, such as fentanyl as an alternative to heroin. This eliminates the need to transport freight across national borders, but there are also economic reasons. "These drugs are addicting," said Felbab-Brown. "This is also beneficial for criminal groups – as long as they fail to kill too many users as a result of an overdose." It's a simple business equation: a payoff between quality and cost savings that you can pass on to customers. A DEA spokesperson confirmed that fentanyl prices were the most stable of all drugs during the pandemic.

Without prejudice to the inconvenience of workers' rights, union demands, and voters wanting answers, criminal companies do not face the same dilemmas as governments or even legitimate companies when deciding whether to support their workforce during COVID-19. Some Russian gangs, who, Galeotti explained, have more gangsters than they really need on the payroll, are "essentially on leave" ("They don't want to recruit new trigger fingers" in the potential post-pandemic boom, he said) – but those lower in the pecking order are increasingly vulnerable.

In particular, the question arises of what to do with victims of human trafficking and modern slavery who have previously not been visible – including the handling of their debt bondage in companies that serve as fronts for money laundering. Nail bars, car washes and construction sites have been closed. Personal sex work also decreased significantly, said Neil Giles, director of intelligence prevention at Stop the Traffik. "There was kind of a puzzle to doing webcamming, but it's a pretty saturated market already," he explained.

13-year-old child worker Nazmul Hossain makes 200 taka – about $ 2 – a day pushing a rickshaw. The COVID-19 crisis has increased the vulnerability of children at risk of child labor and child trafficking. Md Manik / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images

Giles believes many people who were brought to the UK from other parts of Europe quickly returned when the pandemic started. Those that are left have likely been moved to clandestine cannabis farms (notorious in the UK for their reliance on Vietnamese debt servants) or as contract workers in legal industries such as food production and delivery services. As Giles pointed out, both sectors have lowered their barriers to entry to keep up with the surge in demand. In the midst of the chaos, criminal groups or human traffickers are less likely to have a new hire's income claimed.

The portfolio diversification strategies pursued by organized crime groups during the pandemic also provide some clues as to where this workforce may have gone. Lucia Bird Ruiz-Benitez de Lugo, senior analyst at the Global Initiative Against Cross-Border Organized Crime, said demand for medical face masks is driving a surge in forced labor as criminal networks and informal producers seek to join the action. In the UK, small-scale coronavirus-related frauds, such as the sale of counterfeit hand sanitizer and counterfeit test kits, totaled around $ 1 million in March alone. Cybercrime and fraud, especially phishing attacks, have increased since the crisis began, a UK National Crime Agency (NCA) spokesman said. The NCA also expects an increase in the sexual abuse and exploitation of children for commercial purposes on the Internet.

Figures released by the UK Home Office in June show that the first quarter of 2020 saw a sharp decline in the number of people the UK authorities identified as possible victims of slavery. In the final months of 2019, 3,347 recommendations were made. Based on the exponential growth compared to the previous quarter in recent years, you can expect around 4,000 recommendations from January to March of this year. Instead, it was only 2,871: 28 percent less than that estimate. As Kate Roberts of Anti-Slavery International explained, the reduction in front-line services made it difficult to spot victims, while legal lockdown restrictions and threats of arrest or fines made it easy for traffickers and criminal gangs to stay away from them View.

Walmart and Amazon may have stopped hazard payments for front-line workers in May, but Amazon's Twitter account continued to be full of heartwarming videos extolling the bravery of its employees (some warehouse workers actually died of COVID-19) while Walmart & # 39; s boasted bonuses that are paid to loyal "employees". Organized crime groups are following suit here too. In Rio de Janeiro and Cape Town, South Africa, drug gangs have made their mark as community protectors, enforcing lockdown rules and distributing food packages to families. In Mexico, a daughter of notorious former cartel leader Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán posted social media videos of "Chapo packages" – important items that were distributed to the community – and repeated Walmart's "Fight Hunger" relief campaign. Spark exchange. "

Boxes of toilet paper, antibacterial gel and face masks are distributed among others by the foundation of Alejandrina Guzmán, daughter of Mexican drug lord Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, amid the coronavirus pandemic in Guadalajara, Mexico, April 17.ULISES RUIZ / AFP via Getty Images

"The issue of drug gangs enforcing curfew has received a lot of press, but I don't necessarily think it's warranted," said Edmund Ruge, editor of RioOnWatch, who organizes community-based reporting in the city's favelas. The lack of government governance in these slum areas has gangs stepping in, but "it is really civil society groups that are really taking the lead in promoting awareness campaigns and handing out food and hygiene baskets," he said.

Felia Allum was equally skeptical. “You are not Robin Hood. They're not charity cases, ”she says. "I have received no confirmation that this has happened. They are interested in territorial control, they are interested in making money; power and profit are their main goals. And every little bit helps."

Why bother? Glenny suggested that these groups, predatory as they are, also "depend on some level of community support". After all, a public relations disaster is bad for business even if your business is already breaking the law.

From an operational standpoint, the only real difference between a legitimate business empire and a large organized crime syndicate is that one tries to maximize his interests as much as possible within the boundaries and loopholes of the law while the other does his best to be legal Problems avoiding supervision altogether. This means that illegal industries are essentially experiments in pure, unregulated, truly free-market capitalism. The past six months have shown how resilient and adaptable they are to the pressures of emerging economies. This model has also been shown to be detrimental to both an exploitable, unprotected workforce and consumers who cling to higher prices and poorer quality products to make up for any losses. These groups dominate the communities, the rich get richer and the poor get squeezed. Everything else is just PR.

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