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From drug dealers to loan sharks: how coronavirus empowers organised crime

Disruption to supplies, diversion of police resources and collapsing businesses all create opportunities

By Misha Glenny

At the outset, Covid-19 and the lockdown disoriented organised crime and its activities as much as the rest of us. But organised crime is not only adapting to the present, it is preparing to carve a lucrative future out of the crisis.

A week before lockdown in the UK, many drug dealers noticed a massive surge in panic buying of cocaine, heroin and marijuana. Drugs were the toilet rolls of Britain’s criminal world. With good reason: a “county lines” operator in west London who normally supplied cocaine and heroin to towns in Hampshire explained that, as soon as the government ordered people to stay at home, these drug networks closed down because it was too risky for the dealers to move around.

Cocaine and heroin prices registered the sharpest increase in the pre-lockdown period on the reasonable assumption that there would be a massive disruption to the supply chain from overseas. “The prices for heroin and coke have definitely gone up in my city,” said a darknet vendor, CocaineBrain. “Everyone I know has had a harder time getting the supply they need but they are paying more.” Sales of marijuana, by contrast, have been largely unaffected. “Business is booming for me. People mainly buying weed and benzos,” said DWtripadvisor. “My weed is grown in the UK so the price has stayed the same for now.” Drugs sold online over the darknet have seen a significant uptick in activity. Vendors on these markets, which are mainly based in the UK and the Netherlands, are doing a brisk business. Their top sellers are synthetic drugs such as MDMA, ecstasy, which can be produced in local laboratories.

The National Crime Agency has scoredsignificant successes in slowing down the traffic in class-A drugs (chiefly cocaine). Since lockdown, it has seized 25 tonnes and £15m in cash,which is notably more than during the first three months of the year. “Covid-19 restrictions have made criminal groups take additional risks in moving cash around,” according to an NCA statement. “The closure of many cash-based businesses in recent weeks has robbed OCGs [organised crime groups] of an opportunity to stash or launder their cash, making it harder for criminals to conceal the proceeds of their crimes.”

When it became clear how serious Covid-19 was, there was an immediate drop in the level of organised criminal activity in the UK, Germany and France of around 20%. “Criminals are humans too,” said Graeme Biggar, economic crimes lead at the NCA, “and they are abiding by the rules.” He added that a disproportionately high percentage of the agency’s organised crime targets suffer from underlying medical conditions and are taking self-isolation seriously.

Not surprisingly, the first sign that organised crime was adjusting to the new circumstances was to be found on the internet. Online crime has been rising steadily for some years now but Covid-19 is accelerating the trend. Just two weeks into lockdown the NCA reported a huge increase in Covid-19-related scamming sites: 70,000 sprang up, selling everything from personal protective equipment and hand gel to snake-oil remedies. These goods were either stolen, counterfeit or non-existent, ie simple scams to lure cash from people desperate to protect themselves from the virus.

The shift to working from home has placed a strain on IT security teams. A company office will have a well-defined network perimeter that security engineers can monitor easily. At home, employees may be sharing sensitive data with their main system across routers through which their teenagers are downloading dodgy content. This drastically multiplies the vulnerabilities that hackers can exploit to enter a company’s system. This in turn increases the threat from ransomware, malware that can lock computer files and open them only on payment of a ransom.

In Italy, where the lockdown was much more rigorously enforced than here, Covid-19 contributed to an unexpected success in the fight against organised crime. On 12 March, police noticed a car driving to an abandoned house near Locri on the Calabrian coast. That evening they spotted the light from a cigarette and raided the property to discover 42-year-old Cesare Antonio Cordì, a senior boss of Calabria’s notorious crime group, the ‘Ndrangheta, and one of Europe’s most wanted men.

Law enforcement officers around the world need no reminding that the initial hiatus in activity was always going to be temporary: major political or economic crises represent a huge opportunity for organised crime. A pandemic with a cataclysmic impact on the global economy is the jackpot. There is massive disruption to supplies of all manner of goods and services both licit and illicit, which leads to dizzying growth in the black market. This in turn generates secondary markets in counterfeit and fake products.

This combines with a second catalyst: the resources of the state, including the police, are being diverted to cope with the consequences of the disease. While officers are busy stopping members of the public from congregating in parks, they have less time to track down criminals. Meanwhile, in countries where the state is weak and unable to provide essential goods and services to distressed communities, organised crime will step into the vacuum. There is already plenty of evidence that this is taking place across southern Italy, the favelas of Brazil and the extensive territories controlled by the Mexican drugs cartels.

The other major activity the major Italian mafias have been engaging in from the start is money-lending. Nicola Gratteri investigates the ‘Ndrangheta in Calabria. Talking to the Global Initiative against Organised Crime last month, he explained that “the usurers from the ‘Ndrangheta initially come in with offers of low interest rates, because their end goal is to take over the business, via usury, and use it to launder their illicit proceeds.” It’s a watertight business model because, as Gratteri added: “Their collateral is the borrower’s life.”

The weakness of state structures is critical for criminals involved in one of the most damaging trades of all, the trafficking in endangered wildlife species. An early theory about the virus was that it originated with pangolins whose meat is illegally sold in Chinese wet markets. A critically endangered species, these weirdly beautiful creatures’ protective scales, made from keratin, are used in traditional Chinese medicine, despite having no pharmaceutical properties. Along with rhino horn (also keratin, just like our finger nails), ivory and tiger bones, hundreds of tons of pangolin scales have been seized by authorities in China, Laos and Vietnam in the past three years.

The Wildlife Justice Commission in The Hague, which maintains a remarkable intelligence network tracking the trade, has warned that criminals are stockpiling material and that lockdown is allowing poachers in sub-Saharan Africa a free rein. There is an overwhelming moral and environmental case for a multilateral effort to stifle this business. It is also worth remembering that Ebola, HIV, Sars, H1N1, Mers and Sars-CoV-2 are all reportedly zoonotic diseases, which jumped species because of intense proximity between humans and the original carriers. We must now recognise a hitherto relatively unimportant branch of organised criminal activity has the capacity to bring the entire world to a standstill.

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