The Pandemic Is Putting Gangsters in Power

As states struggle, organized crime is rising to new prominence.

Participants pose to show their traditional Japanese tattoos (Irezumi), associated with the yakuza, during the annual Sanja Matsuri festival in the Asakusa district of Tokyo on May 20, 2018.
Participants pose to show their traditional Japanese tattoos (Irezumi), associated with the yakuza, during the annual Sanja Matsuri festival in the Asakusa district of Tokyo on May 20, 2018. Behrouz Mehri/AFP via Getty Images

On Dec. 25, 1991, the hammer and sickle flew over Moscow’s Kremlin for the last time. By January, the Soviet Union had dissolved into a series of free market economies. Over decades, a black market for goods in short supply had developed, meeting consumer needs and propping up a floundering economy. The relationships necessary to make sure a factory had the rubber it needed, or that a senior Communist Party official could get a color TV, were known as blat, and they would form the basis of the new post-Soviet economies. Virtually everybody participated, and some prospered, transforming the gaps of the planned economy into criminal power.

For this sprawling underworld, the new normal presented a spectacular chance to expand and to consolidate real power. The fall of the Communist government meant these groups could corner not only the market but also the dismantling functions of the state. First and foremost was security: As state assets were privatized en masse—often into the hands of those same criminals—individual business owners needed protection. As government-run industries, institutions, and services melted away, citizens left out in the cold needed income they could rely on. By the end of the 1990s, the mafia had infiltrated not only big business but just about every mechanism of the state.

Russia is far from the only country to experience this phenomenon. Organized crime from Italy to Japan shares similar backstories, emerging to exploit a particular, localized need and then successfully exploiting the far bigger one when the countries succumbed to a major economic or political crisis. As the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic forces the global economy to its knees, preventing people from working and supporting themselves in places where governments are ill-equipped to pick up the slack, some of these emerging organized crime groups are already positioning themselves to swoop in and seize not only commercial but political control.

“When we come out of this, with thousands and thousands of businesses gone bust, we’re going to have a very fluid and desperate economic situation, which the state can only manage to a degree,” said Misha Glenny, the author of McMafia. “Where the state can’t manage, you’ll see organizations come in to do the managing for them.”

In parts of Mexico, cartels have already exploited the crisis to consolidate power and advertise their social welfare efforts, said Glenny—but he also was “deeply, deeply worried” about countries like South Africa, Brazil, and India, all of which have “large, distressed populations, in some cases, well-armed.” As Rikard Jalkebro, a Philippines specialist at the University of St. Andrews, pointed out, organized crime groups tend to operate in the vacuums of public services that governments can’t provide—and profit from them.

A widespread fear is that the crisis will pave the way for new groups that, like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) or militants in Northern Ireland, blur the line between organized crime and militancy and can leverage funds from highly profitable illicit industries to support their political ambitions.

“We’re keeping our eyes out around the world for any signs of political or civil unrest. Because if it does break out, then it will undoubtedly lead to the emergence of new criminal organizations or see existing criminal organizations try to exploit that,” said Glenny, interviewed prior to the tsunami of violent clashes between citizens and security forces that swept through the United States, Europe, Guinea, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Kazakhstan, Chile, and elsewhere in the fall of 2020. “It’s not just a problem because of criminality. It’s a problem with the overall political stability. The primary blame falls on the shoulders of the state for not being able to devote sufficient resources to offering proper services, including police services to those communities.”

This is visible throughout West Africa, where many people have reached breaking point, disillusioned with their governments’ ability, or in some cases willingness, to protect them from harm. In August 2020, after months of protests in Mali alleging that corruption had left the military defunded and weak, President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta was kidnapped by his own soldiers and forced to step down in a bloodless coup.

Months earlier, in April, Nigerians living between Lagos and Ogun were infuriated as police dismissed the evidence they shared on social media of violent raids by gangs (and subsequent police crackdowns) as an elaborate hoax. By October, anger at police brutality had exploded into mass protests against the Special Anti-Robbery Squad—ultimately forcing President Muhammadu Buhari to disband the unit.

But loss of faith in official security services is also stark in the United States, where heavily armed civilians in military get-up stormed government buildings to defy lockdown rules, the Minneapolis City Council responded to widespread police brutality during the George Floyd protests by vowing to dismantle the local police department, protesters in Seattle declared a police-free “autonomous zone,” and the U.S. Capitol in Washington was briefly seized by an angry mob, horrifying Democrats and Republicans alike.

The danger is who or what will replace this security function—and to whom, if anyone, they will be accountable.

The danger is who or what will replace this security function—and to whom, if anyone, they will be accountable. “The defining economic activity of organized crime is the provision of protection or its more respectable variation, security,” the political economist Stergios Skaperdas wrote in 2001. “But what if the guns that are supposed to be aimed at potential transgressors are turned against those they are supposed to protect?” This, Skaperdas said, is what makes gangs and mafias so much like “the traditional provider of protection, the state.”

In some parts of West Africa, this nightmare scenario of organized crime groups assuming the role of the state began long before the pandemic. Overrun by international cocaine trafficking networks seeking transit routes from South America to Europe, the fragile state of Guinea-Bissau was named Africa’s first narco-state by the United Nations in 2008. The country’s longest-serving president, João Bernardo “Nino” Vieira, was shot the following year by supporters of a political rival with his own cartel connections.

With two-thirds of South American cocaine destined for Europe still routed through Africa, other weakly governed, economically unstable countries in the Western Sahel region risk succumbing to the control of violent groups with money and connections. Jason Eligh of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime warns that a combination of geography and easily compromised government structures could make some African states even more vulnerable to infiltration by organized crime groups amid the economic fallout of COVID-19.

“In some of these areas, it’s really nonstate actors, criminal and militant, that are the principal providers,” said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “The principal source of income comes from an illicit economy.”

Right now, governments across the Sahel are struggling to protect their citizens from COVID-19 without pushing them so far into poverty that they starve. At the same time, security threats are escalating from what Mauritanian Foreign Minister Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed described as a “diabolical alliance of terrorist and drug trafficking groups.” May 30, 2020, saw two deadly attacks in Burkina Faso, as gunmen opened fire on a market and, later that day, on a humanitarian convoy, killing at least 35 people in total. On June 5, a village in Mali’s volatile Mopti region was torched and 26 people killed. The U.N. warned that 24 million Sahelians, half of them children, now need “life-saving assistance and protection.”

With many people terrified by their leaders’ inadequate responses to a trio of threats—the coronavirus, starvation, and political violence—smaller groups have begun presenting themselves as a comparatively capable pair of hands.

“Al-Shabab went big on the virus before the government. They are real pioneers in that,” said Mary Harper, the BBC’s Africa editor, describing the Somali militants’ sophisticated communications strategy. Al-Shabab tried something similar after the 2011 famine, she said, distributing supplies and helping hard-hit communities in a bid to increase their influence and social capital. The mistake the group made back then, though, was blocking aid from humanitarian groups, losing the support of the community in the process.

This time round, there’s hardly anyone to compete with. Donor countries are busy trying to control the crisis within their own borders. Britain has slashed its foreign aid budget. The United States pulled the last of its troops from Somalia in January. Al-Shabab is free to step in and win hearts and minds with charitable work, on-the-ground protection, and much-needed sources of employment. “In the Sahel, there is much more of an overlap between organized crime and militant groups,” Harper said. “Those groups say that they are going to take advantage of the coronavirus to become more successful.”

One of the most profitable industries for organized crime has been human trafficking, especially between the Middle East and North Africa and Europe. But as borders remain closed and transportation networks are at a standstill, this has been one of the few major illegal industries to see a slowdown. Right now, migration for forced labor purposes is at a low ebb and will probably take longer to recover than the economy, said Neil Giles, the director for intelligence-led prevention at Stop the Traffik.

Inevitably, though, the economic damage will mean more desperate people looking to escape hardship and seek work farther afield even as borders remain frozen, making them even more vulnerable to traffickers. For those desperate enough to make the journey now, avoiding detection means risking increasingly dangerous conditions. In March 2020, 64 Ethiopian nationals were discovered to have suffocated in a freight container on the Mozambique border.

“Governments will be even more motivated than before to crack down on smuggling of humans because they are afraid of the disease, their health care systems are strained, their countries are under lockdown,” Felbab-Brown said. “You can imagine that governments in Europe and the United States are going to be even more brutal about allowing any migrants in.” That pattern has already emerged in Singapore, one of the biggest importers of outside labor, where mass lockdowns on migrants have been widely criticized by rights groups. In the Middle East, labor camps have also become COVID-19 hotbeds.

Again, observers are especially worried about the Sahel. “The feeling is that trafficking in the immediate post-pandemic context is going to spike,” said Lucia Bird Ruiz-Benitez de Lugo of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime. “The really troubling context happens when vulnerabilities overlap. We’ve already got high levels of poverty and marginalization. We’ve already got poor state control. Layered on top of that, we know it’s going to suffer from food scarcity due to COVID food supply chain disruptions.” This, she said, will drive both emigration and forced displacement.

Many lower-income countries in Africa and Asia have done a remarkable job of containing the spread of COVID-19, even as richer neighbors with better health care resources have struggled. Swift, decisive actions such as travel restrictions and lockdowns made early on in the crisis helped countries such as Cambodia, Vietnam, Timor-Leste, Liberia, Eritrea, and Benin keep the total number of reported cases to the hundreds or low thousands, with few or even no deaths attributed to the virus. Despite these domestic successes, though, the economic fallout is global—unemployment, homelessness, and food scarcity have soared throughout Africa and Southeast Asia, fermenting the conditions for unrest.

It only takes the state to be dysfunctional in one area—or to underserve one vulnerable segment of the population.

It doesn’t take a state to be on the brink of collapse for a predatory organized crime group to seize control of a piece of it, either. It only takes the state to be dysfunctional in one area—or to underserve one vulnerable segment of the population. Felia Allum, a senior lecturer at the University of Bath whose research focuses on the Mafia in Naples, Italy, pointed out that as governments and banks tighten their belts in the inevitable recession, mafias will be one of the few groups with money to lend. Unless the state gets on top of it, she said, loan sharking could become a major problem.

“By speaking about mafias stepping up in weak states, we mask failings in other countries like the U.K.,” Allum said. “County lines, forced labor, exploitation, modern slavery—it’s all the same thing. We give it all these fancy names. But it’s about poverty, ultimately. It’s about limited structural opportunities and bad socioeconomic conditions.”

At the other end of the scale, where governments offer sufficient political and financial stability, organized crime groups have become largely redundant—and may be retired, rather than invigorated, by the pandemic. The clearest example is the yakuza, the collective name for Japan’s traditional organized crime syndicates. Modern-day Japan doesn’t have a security deficit for the yakuza to fill. Quite the opposite, in fact; there’s so little crime that police are running out of things to do.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic began, the yakuza had become, in part, a useful resource for jobs no one else wanted to do—for example, supplying workers for the nuclear power industry. With the country now in lockdown, more and more gang members are trying to get jobs as delivery drivers, said Jake Adelstein, a journalist and leading expert on Japanese organized crime.

“Some yakuza are leaving. They are going to the police and saying, ‘I want to rejoin society,’” Adelstein said. “It’s a tough time for them. You can’t extort money over the phone. Right now, I think the organization is debating whether or not to suspend association fees due to hardship.”

Ultimately, nature abhors a vacuum. When citizens can’t get what they want or need themselves or from their government, alternative suppliers will fill the gap. Usually, the first point of call is the private market. But the market can’t or doesn’t always step in—and even if it does, individuals may find themselves, for financial or other reasons, locked out of it. If they want or need the absent thing enough, organized crime groups crowd into the gap to do the job instead.

In a stable, well-functioning country, only deeply illegal commodities like drugs tend to be kicked right down the chain. But when a state can’t cover the essentials—when it fails to provide protection, security, jobs, basic services, or opportunities—predatory organized crime groups are able to enter the arena as competitors, posing a truly serious threat. As the Sicilian judge Giovanni Falcone, murdered in 1992, said a year before his death, “The Mafia is, essentially, nothing but the expression of a need for order, for the control of a state.”

Three decades later, COVID-19 is pushing state protection to its limits, all over the world—and as Glenny put it, the first thing criminal organizations do is assume the role of the state where the state is absent. But it’s not only fragile states that need to watch their backs. On Capitol Hill, the only thing that distinguished this armed takeover of a key government building from any other attempted coup was the disorganization of a mob that hadn’t figured out what to do once it had seized control. Violent, criminal groups are poised and ready to take advantage of the crisis all over the globe. As the Irish Republican Army once said, they only have to get lucky once.

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