Report

How to Run a Criminal Network in a Pandemic

Drug dealers and human traffickers are upgrading their marketing and delivery services.

El Chapo boxes of aid for the needy
An employee of the Alejandrina Guzmán Foundation wears a face mask with the image of Mexican drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán—Alejandrina’s father—as she arranges boxes with basic goods to be donated to people in need amid the coronavirus pandemic in Guadalajara, Mexico, on April 17. In the past, drug cartels have tried to gain the sympathy of local populations with handouts. ULISES RUIZ/AFP via Getty Images

An employee of the Alejandrina Guzmán Foundation wears a face mask with the image of Mexican drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán—Alejandrina’s father—as she arranges boxes with basic goods to be donated to people in need amid the coronavirus pandemic in Guadalajara, Mexico, on April 17. In the past, drug cartels have tried to gain the sympathy of local populations with handouts. ULISES RUIZ/AFP via Getty Images

“Promo Offer!” flashed up the advertisement on a Scottish vendor’s WhatsApp story, offering a discount on your next purchase if you referred five more customers. The updated price list offered further discounts for bulk buys. There was also a reminder to get orders in early, as, because of lockdown restrictions, the delivery service ended at midnight rather than the usual 4 a.m. The language of the ad was indistinguishable from that of hundreds of other online retailers to send marketing emails and posts that day, but the products on sale raised an eyebrow: cocaine, ketamine, MDMA.

It made solid business sense for Glasgow’s drug dealers to adapt their marketing and sales strategy to meet the needs of consumers stuck at home during the pandemic. While face-to-face industries such as hospitality and tourism have suffered crippling economic damage, entertainment at home is thriving. Sales of drink-at-home alcohol have spiked. Netflix has gained over 10 million subscribers. Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, has profited so much during the crisis that some estimates predict he’ll be the world’s first trillionaire.

For transnational organized crime groups, the crisis has also been an enormous economic opportunity. As an industry, organized crime is worth between $3.6 trillion and $4.8 trillion a year and accounts for 7 percent of the world’s gross domestic product. Drug trafficking alone is worth between $426 billion and $652 billion a year, and while cartels and trafficking rings are as cautious as everyone else about interacting face to face during the pandemic, these organizations are hardly willing to let their commercial interests dwindle. From Mexico to South Africa, drug cartels are using COVID-19 to consolidate and grow their businesses, diversifying their activities and eliminating competition in the process.

While cartels and trafficking rings are as cautious as everyone else about interacting face to face during the pandemic, they are hardly willing to let their commercial interests dwindle.

That’s not to say that the black market is business as usual. With much of the world’s population isolating themselves indoors, visible manifestations of organized crime swiftly declined. London saw a sharp drop in knife crime. Violent offenses of all types went down in France. Chicago’s drug arrests decreased by 42 percent, and in Los Angeles prior to the eruption of violence following George’s Floyd’s death, key crimes had fallen by 30 percent. Meanwhile, drugs and money are being stockpiled on both sides of the United States’ southwest border, said a spokesperson for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and domestic field workers are reporting price hikes of meth, cocaine, and heroin at both the retail and wholesale level. This is a sign, the DEA spokesperson said, that supplies may be running low—although clearly also a sign that demand is undiminished.

Behind the scenes, drug trafficking groups are finding workarounds to logistical challenges and restrictions. Some experts believe the trade is actually far more resilient than the criminals themselves are letting on.

“[Charles] Baudelaire said the devil’s greatest trick was convincing you he didn’t exist,” said Jason Eligh of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime. We’ve seen a lot of press, including interviews from alleged cartel members bemoaning, Oh, we’re weak, we can’t get our supplies. It’s a terrible time for us. We’re losing moneyWell, what better time to portray yourself as weakened than when police and law enforcement are distracted, when border monitoring is compromised because the focus is more on COVID-19 protection than detection and intervention in illicit goods? What better time to increase traffic, to focus on increasing your production and infiltrating the marketplace than at a time of crisis like this?”

In other words, this show of weakness is smart public relations, continuing a long tradition of crime syndicates manipulating the 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 campaigning against the police’s human rights abuses to deflect from a career of murder, kidnapping, and terrorism, the Colombian cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar did such a great job of cultivating his Robin Hood public persona that one councilwoman in the city of Medellín described him as “a publicity genius, like [Joseph] Goebbels.” Or take the yakuza in Japan, which embarrassed the struggling Japanese government in 1995 by coordinating a huge disaster relief effort in response to the Kobe earthquake. Yakuza gangsters were also the first to arrive on the scene with more than 70 trucks of aid supplies when another devastating earthquake hit Japan’s northeast coast in 2011.

Colombian police escort an arrested man.

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

Eligh suggested that the PR gains for organized crime groups downplaying their resilience go well beyond throwing police off the scent. It’s also a useful excuse to manipulate the market by feigning scarcity and inflating prices. The same thing is happening in Russia, said Mark Galeotti, a lecturer and writer on transnational crime and Russian security. Heroin is just so plentiful, and to be honest, there are stocks inside Russia or just over the border in Central Asia which gangs have held on to precisely because they don’t want to flood the market and lower the price.”

The truth of the matter, said Eligh, is that production (especially of opium in Afghanistan and Myanmar) is unaffected, borders remain permeable, and anywhere legitimate goods can move, illicit ones can too. Indeed, some traffickers have been caught piggybacking on the movement of essential goods; in April, a Polish man transporting two consignments of face masks was arrested near Calais, a port town in France, when officers found 31 pounds of cocaine stashed inside one of the parcels.

“I would be extremely surprised if the supply of drugs into the country is interrupted at all,” said Neil Woods, a former undercover police officer who spent more than 14 years infiltrating drug gangs in the United Kingdom and is now an advocate for drug policy reform. “Even if every single ferry ship, 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 that, we can’t stop the corruption that gets the drugs in.

As home deliveries of all products surge around the world, monitoring and intercepting illicit goods becomes an unmanageable challenge. Felia Allum, a senior lecturer at the University of Bath, says that some of the Camorra clans in southern Italy—the local equivalent of the Sicilian Mafia—have begun delivering drugs to the homes of users who previously purchased their product in the local piazzas. Home delivery is a low-risk distribution model used by more resourceful dealers for decades, but COVID-19 could be the push that more traditional users and dealers need to move away from street corner deals altogether.

This applies to long-distance and international deliveries, too. With delivery networks from DHL to the post office to FedEx operating at maximum capacity, it’s safer than ever to distribute narcotics through these channels without attracting attention, explained Misha Glenny, author of McMafia. There’s “no question” that the significant increase in activity on the darknet since the start of lockdown will strengthen Internet-based criminal markets, he said.

The huge amounts of capital available to organized crime groups means they also have “unfair liquidity to invest in innovation,” said Vanda Felbab-Brown of the Brookings Institution. The risk of detection means drug dealers have more incentive than even fellow innovators Amazon or Uber Eats to develop drones and other no-contact delivery technologies for small packages. While the pandemic has created more urgency, this trend is already well underway: Criminal groups have used drones to drop drugs into prisons for years, while Latin American cartels use them to smuggle drugs across borders. Mexico’s Jalisco New Generation Cartel, which controls around one-third of drugs supplied to the United States, has even begun weaponizing drones with C4 explosives, with Mexico’s Jalisco New Generation Cartel to carry out drone strikes against its enemies.

A drone loaded with packages of methamphetamine lies on the ground.

A drone loaded with packages of methamphetamine lies on the ground after it crashed into a supermarket parking lot in the city of Tijuana, Mexico, on Jan. 20, 2015. Tijuana Municipal Police via The Associated Press

“Criminals have been moving in this direction long before COVID, with all kinds of experimentation and innovation,” said Felbab-Brown, who predicted a shift to unmanned drones and submarines within the next 10 to 15 years. “The drug trade is likely to be the pioneering domain,” she adds.

Organized crime syndicates are innovating in ways that shorten supply chains and limit risk exposure along the way.

Organized crime syndicates are also innovating in ways that shorten supply chains and limit risk exposure along the way. One example is creating synthetic versions of drugs within a consumer country, such as fentanyl as an alternative to heroin. This removes the need to transport cargo across national borders, but there’s an economic rationale, too. “These drugs are highly addictive,” said Felbab-Brown. “Which is also favourable to criminal groups – as long as they manage not to kill off too many of the users as a result of overdose.” It’s a simple business equation: a payoff between quality and cost savings you can trickle down to customers. A DEA spokesperson confirmed that fentanyl prices have been the most stable of any drug during the pandemic.

Unfettered by inconveniences such as workers’ rights, union demands, and voters who want answers, criminal enterprises don’t face the same dilemmas that governments or even legitimate businesses do when deciding whether to support their workforce during COVID-19. Some Russian gangs that, as Galeotti explained, have more mobsters than they really need on the payroll, are “essentially furloughing” staff (“you don’t want to be recruiting new trigger fingers” in the potential post-pandemic crime boom, he said)—but those lower down the pecking order are increasingly vulnerable.

In particular, there’s the issue of what to do with victims of trafficking and modern slavery who have, until now, been hidden in plain sight—including working off their debt bondage in businesses used as fronts for money laundering. Nail bars, car washes, and construction sites all closed under lockdown. In-person sex work also diminished significantly, said Neil Giles, director for intelligence-led prevention at Stop the Traffik. “There’s been a kind of a scramble to try and go to webcamming, but that’s already a fairly saturated market,” he explained.

Child laborer Nazmul Hossain, 13, pushes a rickshaw.

Child laborer Nazmul Hossain, 13, earns 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 trafficking. Md Manik/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Giles believes that many people trafficked to the U.K. from other parts of Europe were swiftly returned at the start of the pandemic. Those that remain, though, are likely to have been moved to clandestine cannabis farms (notorious in the U.K. for their reliance on Vietnamese bonded labor) or redeployed as contract laborers in legal industries such as food production and delivery services. Both of these sectors have, Giles pointed out, lowered their barriers to entry in order to meet surges in demand. Amid the chaos, they’re less likely to notice a new hire’s income being requisitioned by criminal groups or traffickers.

The portfolio-diversification strategies taken 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, a senior analyst at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, said demand for medical face masks is driving an upsurge in forced labor, as criminal networks and informal producers scramble to get in on the action. In the U.K., small-scale coronavirus-related scams, such as sales of counterfeit hand sanitizer and fake testing kits, totaled around $1 million in March alone. Cybercrime and fraud, especially phishing attacks, have increased since the start of the crisis, said a spokesperson for the U.K.’s National Crime Agency (NCA). The NCA also expects to see a rise in child sexual abuse and exploitation for commercial gain online.

In the first quarter of 2020, there was a sharp drop in the number of people referred to the U.K. authorities as possible victims of slavery; the reduction in front-line services made it hard to spot victims.

Figures released by the U.K. Home Office in June show that, in the first quarter of 2020, there was a sharp drop in number of people referred to the U.K. authorities as possible victims of slavery. The final months of 2019 saw 3,347 referrals; based on the exponential quarter-on-quarter increases of the past few years, you might expect to see around 4,000 referrals from January to March this year. Instead, there were just 2,871: 28 percent less than this estimate. As Kate Roberts of Anti-Slavery International explained, the reduction in front-line services made it hard to spot victims, while legal lockdown restrictions and the threat of arrests or fines made it easy for traffickers and criminal gangs to frighten them into staying out of sight.

Walmart and Amazon may have phased out hazard pay for front-line workers in May, but Amazon’s Twitter account remained awash with heartwarming videos extolling the bravery of its workers (some warehouse staff have actually died of COVID-19), while Walmart’s has boasted of bonuses paid to loyal “associates.” Here, again, organized crime groups are following suit. In Rio de Janeiro and Cape Town, South Africa, drug gangs have styled themselves as protectors of the community, enforcing lockdown rules and distributing food parcels to families. In Mexico, a daughter of notorious former cartel boss Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán posted social media videos of “Chapo packages”—cupboard essentials distributed to the community, echoing Walmart’s aid campaign, “Fight Hunger. Spark Change.”

El Chapo boxes of aid for the needy.

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

“The question of drug gangs enforcing curfews has gotten a lot of press, but I don’t necessarily feel that this is warranted,” said Edmund Ruge, editor of RioOnWatch, which organizes community-based reporting in the city’s favelas. The lack of state governance in these slum areas allows gangs to encroach, but “it’s really the civil society groups who are really taking the lead in spreading awareness campaigns and getting food and hygiene baskets out,” he said.

Felia Allum was equally skeptical. “They are not Robin Hood. They are not charity cases,” she says. “I haven’t had any confirmation that’s been happening. They are interested in territorial control, they are interested in making money; power and profit are their main objectives. And, every little helps.”

So why bother? Glenny suggested that, predatory as these groups are, they also “depend on a degree of support from the community.” A PR disaster is bad for business, after all, even if your business is already against the law.

From an operational standpoint, the only real difference between a legitimate business empire and a major organized crime syndicate is that one looks to maximize its interests as far as feasible within the confines and loopholes of the law, while the other does its utmost to avoid legal oversight altogether. This means that illicit industries are essentially experiments in pure, unregulated, genuinely free-market capitalism. The past six months have demonstrated how resilient and adaptive this makes them to emerging market pressures. It’s also shown how damaging this model is, both to an exploitable, unprotected workforce and to consumers, stuck with higher prices and poorer-quality products to offset any losses. In the communities these groups dominate, the rich get richer and the poor get squeezed. Everything else is just PR.

Lindsey Kennedy is a journalist and documentary filmmaker covering stories related to development, global security, and abuses of civil and human rights. She is the director of TePonui Media. Twitter: @LindsAKennedy

Nathan Paul Southern is an investigative reporter and security specialist. He covers non-traditional security threats, Chinese expansionism, organized crime, and terrorism. Twitter: @NathanPSouthern