With COVID-19 sweeping across the world and business shattered, the United Nations has warned of Organized Criminal Groups (OCG) tightening their grip over businesses and furtherer expanding their control and power over illicit economy.
In its research brief “the Impact of Covid 19 on Organised Crimes”, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime said that struggling private businesses in several countries, where OCGs are prevalent, are more likely to seek out loans on the illicit market than they would be at other times. These business houses may have no access to enough public funds to keep them afloat.
The UNODC said that businesses in the hospitality, transport, arts, beauty and retail sectors are mainly vulnerable to infiltration by OCGs. “As these businesses begin to reopen, some will find themselves either in the debt of OCGs, or directly controlled by them. The OCGs can seize control either through exchange of money for buying shares or by directly taking over operations. This generates more opportunities for criminal activity, including money laundering and trafficking activities, enabling OCGs to further expand their control and power over the licit economy,” the World Body said.
High demand coupled with low supply opens way for OCGs
In the brief, the UNODC said that the Covid 19 pandemic has brought dramatic spikes in demand in sectors such as medical devices, pharmaceutical products, food retail, e-commerce, cleaning and even funeral services. The UNODC said there were reports that the Organised Crime Groups have already moved into these sectors. This happened where traditional means of making illicit profits, such as illicit drugs and firearms trafficking and smuggling of migrants are being tightly constricted by movement restrictions, the UN body said. They also pointed out the seizure of falsified medical masks in Spain and Italy and also, attempts to smuggle vital equipment in Ukraine, Iran, and Azerbaijan. They also reported of a Mexican cartel that were promoting the production of falsified COVID-19 medical products and forcing pharmacies to sell them.
In the brief, the UNODC pointed out that an international operation coordinated by INTERPOL recently led to the seizure of more than four million potentially dangerous pharmaceuticals worth more than 14 million dollars and interrupted the activities of 37 OCGs. It also came across 34,000 unlicensed or fake products being sold across some 2,000 websites. These included corona spray, falsified masks, substandard hand sanitizers, coronavirus packages, and unauthorized antivirals.
Flows of public money will be at risk
The UNODC said that it was too soon to have evidence on the appropriation of public funds by these groups. However, they said that previous crises have shown that these groups will target such funds. They noted that Aid destined for distressed companies, medical and pharmaceutical goods, public works such as improvements to hospitals, and waste disposal services will be particularly at risk. The UNODC pointed out that such things were seen after tropical cyclone disasters in Latin America, earthquake in Italy and 2011 tsunami in Japan. It said that the OCGs benefitted from public procurement processes.
Criminals use propaganda and aid distribution to tighten grip on territory
The UNODC said that criminal groups have stepped in to deliver aid packages and other necessities to those most in need taking advantage of the weaknesses in governing structures. And this allowed the groups to exert further control over the territories where they operate. “In Italy, mafia affiliates used fake charities to deliver packages to the needy. Mexican cartels supplied bundles containing food and sanitizers to the states and cities under their influence. Yakuza groups in Japan handed out free masks, toilet paper, and tissues to pharmacies and kindergartens. The Taliban posted health teams to remote areas of Afghanistan to help tackle the virus and militant group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham distributed health information to the public in the Syrian province of Idlib,” they said.
Moreover, reports from South Africa said that gangs in Cape Town called a temporary truce to hand out food parcels. “In carrying out these activities, many of these groups staged publicity stunts to make sure the communities – and the wider population – knew who was supplying the aid. One of the Mexican cartels posted videos of armed individuals handing out bags of groceries from the back of a pickup truck, and other cartels stamped their logos on the packages they delivered,” it said.
“Yakuza groups made grand offers of help, making them appear powerful and benign even when they ultimately did not deliver the aid. As well as solidifying the position and status of organized criminal groups in the community, these activities serve to highlight the failures of governments and diminish the legitimacy of official agencies. As a result, organized criminal groups are likely to find it easier to continue their activities in the future in those territories and to expand their ranks with new recruits,” the UNODC said. .
Enforcing lockdowns helps bolster credentials of criminal groups
With many countries struggling to enforce precautionary measures against the pandemic, the OCGs came to play a role by enforcing lockdowns and curfews. “In Afghanistan, the Taliban enforced quarantine measures on those arriving from Iran. Gangs throughout Latin America imposed curfews on the population. Former rebel fighters in Colombia and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in Syria helped to restrict public gatherings and enforce lockdowns. Brazilian OCGs and militias operating in the favelas became deeply involved in the process, imposing price controls on in-demand products such as disinfectants and masks,” the UN Body said.
They said all these showed that these crime groups were moving firmly into traditional areas of government regulation, with the aim of making profit while burnishing their reputation at the expense of politicians and officials.
Criminal groups forced to innovate to protect their income
With restriction in force in many countries, the OCG’s also saw a fall in many of their illicit activities. Lockdowns and border restrictions have hampered their ability to organize prostitution, infiltrate security forces, and traffic drugs, humans, and firearms, the UNODC said.
The UN Body said that the OCGs would find it difficult to reorganise some of their illicit activities. Though some of the bigger structured OCGs have used the crisis to strengthen their control of illegal markets and territories, several OCGs are yet to face the truth.
Apart from this, the UNODC said “the present crisis has also created an opportunity for criminals to engage in cybercrime. During the pandemic, there has been an increase in phishing, credit card fraud, pirated websites asking for fake donations, and cyber-attacks.”