In the Middle of Difficulty Lies a Sinister Opportunity: Organised Crime During COVID-19

Today more than three million COVID-19 cases are confirmed worldwide while the national governments continue their efforts to slow down the spread. Although the pandemic is bringing leaders of all countries to collaborate and ultimately join forces to find a vaccine, the national government seems to stand alone by taking the heavy burden. The outbreak demanded nations to restrict the movement of people and goods by closing borders and keeping physical distance. This global shock has imposed tremendous pressures on each country in the social, economic, and health sectors. In this chaotic scene lies a sinister opportunity for the most unexpected groups. Cartels, gangs, mafia groups, and rebels around the globe attempt to fill the role of the government by establishing deeper control-based relations in local communities during this pandemic.

As national governments react by adjusting their domestic and international policies to the crisis, other actors stand out in the scene: organised crime groups. If appropriate, this may illustrate the seriousness of the gang’s involvement in the management of the crisis and the post-corona economy. Before COVID-19 took over lives, local scenes in different parts of the globe experienced the power and influence of gangs, mobsters, drug dealers, or the mafia. We are not facing a new phenomenon! Local criminal networks associated with global networks, who are ultimately in charge of the distribution chain, have existed for a very long time.

What is striking these days? Well, in the middle of difficulty lies a sinister opportunity. Organized crime groups spot opportunities during quarantines and governments working on full capacity to act. To exemplify, this article reviews the cases of the drug traffickers in the Brazilian favelas, the Mexican cartels, the Italian mafia, and the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan. An article published by The Guardian explains how drug traffickers in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro have imposed a coronavirus curfew to prevent transmission in the poorest areas of the city. “The traffickers are doing this because the government is absent. The authorities are blind to us,” the source told The Guardian.

The main entrances of the Complexo do Alemão (Rio de Janeiro), one of the largest favela complexes in Brazil, have banners warning the neighbours.


Instead of being stopped by police officers and consequently being fined for breaking the quarantine, residents in the favelas might be penalized by drug cartels or traffickers. Control of these territories is also materialized by illegality in, at first glance, noble causes. At the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio, traffickers set a soap and water station and have placed signs at the community’s entrance that say: “Please wash your hands before entering the favela.”

The daughter of Joaquín Guzmán “El Chapo,” king of the Sinaloa cartel in Mexico, is distributing coronavirus aid packages. Chapo’s provisions, dubbed by Alejandrina Guzmán, might include food, masks labelled with El Chapo’s image, hand soaps, and other supplies. These are being distributed around Guadalajara among citizens and elderly people who depend on daily cash flows. An article published by Reuters argues that El Chapo’s daughter is just one single representation of several Mexican cartels’ actions during COVID-19. Reuters also mentions the videos posted on social media by Jalisco New Generation cartel (CJNG) and the Gulf cartel that showed them giving away branded food boxes as a national phenomenon.

Aid packages with the convicted drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman image during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Guadalajara, Mexico April 16, 2020.

Source: Reuters

The lockdown affects millions of people, especially those who are in the informal economy. Self-employed professionals and small-business owners are struggling to get government aid and social benefits. Under these circumstances, Mafia groups might appear more appealing at first sight. In desperate times people might seek ways out of poverty and hardship by resorting to mafia groups. VOA News quotes Giuseppe Provenzano, a cabinet minister in Italy, “There is a high risk of organized crime gangs seeking to supplant the state by offering cash handouts and “loans” to small businesses on the brink of bankruptcy.” Mafia groups in Italy are certainly profiting during the pandemic from the cash-strapped entrepreneurs who are in great need. The groups control and monitor every aspect of life such as finances and social interactions, and this is seen in both Italy and Brazil.

Other groups are leveraging the absence of national government aid and this is also seen in Afghanistan and the Taliban. The Taliban insurgency dispatches health supplies and enforces quarantine measures in eastern Afghanistan. Esmatullah Asim, a provincial council member from Wardak province in Afghanistan, shares with The Washington Post, “The Taliban quarantine is much better than the government. They stop the vehicles, telling the passengers how to prevent the spread of the virus.”

Taliban forces have made public a string of videos and announcements of the restrictions that have been undertaken in response to the unfolding global crisis. Several weeks prior, the Taliban announced that returnees from Iran, where the virus was then rapidly spreading, would be forced to quarantine in their homes for two weeks. The Afghan government, by contrast, was facing growing criticism for having taken little action to screen the 15,000 people entering its borders each day.

Taliban militants and villagers attend a gathering as they celebrate the U.S.-Afghan peace deal in Laghman province, Afghanistan, on March 2.


Neoliberal policies cutting back on social spending for decades spawned favourable conditions for organised crime groups to rise above in a crisis of any type. COVID-19 and illegality are both viruses that strengthen each other by aggressively adapting and morphing to infect societies. This phenomenon could potentially grow into something worse as we approach the post-COVID-19 economy. As experts are currently discussing the possibility of controlling the disease while keeping the economy open, few questions open the discussion to continue this debate. What is the risk of illegality penetrating the local and global economy during the crisis? How will the state regain control at the local level after the crisis? What is an ethical plan to re-establish the economy?

*This article was written for the Lockdown 2020 – Essay/Blog competition.

Author: Silvana A. Navarrete R.

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