One of the major issues with the reaction to the coronavirus pandemic is the effect it has on job security, general income, and the sheer ability to work. Many people are feeling the burn of lost income, and the frustration of not having options. So true is the case with criminal organizations dealing with corona. And just like everyone else, they have adjusted themselves, and their businesses, to adapt to this new corona world.
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What happens to criminal organizations in light of the corona pandemic is not of great importance to most people. At least they don’t think it is. In fact, most people wouldn’t bat an eye at the idea of a cartel leader or mafia boss losing some pocket change, or having obstructions in their way of business. At least they don’t think they would.
Truth is, for anyone into buying products like cannabis, either in a legal location or an illegal location, the functioning of criminal organizations during something like the corona pandemic, is actually rather important. And maybe more important than the ability of us black market buyers getting our supply, is the idea of just how these organizations are making it through the pandemic, and what that means to above board businesses.
Covid-19 isn’t quite as novel as the word ‘novel’ would have you believe. Not unless you want to use that word for every new flu and cold strain out there. In fact, we know plenty about coronaviruses, and the diseases they cause in both mammals and birds. This is because evidence of the most recent ancestor to today’s version of the virus, goes back as much as 8,000 years. Some models say that this antecedent to today’s coronaviruses could be as old as 55 million years.
It’s said that many coronavirus strains originate in bats, like strain NL63 which shared a common ancestor going back to between 1190 – 1449 CE. The illnesses themselves are a group of viruses, related through RNA. In humans and birds the viruses are known to cause respiratory issues, and cases can be anywhere from mild (or no symptoms at all) to death. Many common colds are coronaviruses, although rhinoviruses make up a larger percentage of this class. SARS is an example of a more extreme version of a coronavirus.
In short, Covid-19 is a contagious coronavirus. Many people will show no symptoms. Those currently at risk are the elderly and anyone with a compromised immune system. Like most wintertime viruses that come and go yearly, it causes basic flu symptoms, and follows all other basics of viral transmission rules for its specific class.
Mexican drug cartels and corona
Let’s remember that criminal organizations are synonymous with trafficking, whether it be cannabis, cocaine, fake Gucci products, or people. And this means, they too, need to get across borders. At a time when borders are closed, and air traffic is limited – and watched carefully – this is very difficult. And this accounts for illegal products going in all directions. Take Mexico City’s Tepito market at the start of the pandemic, for example. This market is a hotspot for counterfeit and illegal products. At the start of lockdowns last year, the pressure could be felt in such a marketplace, where the already rock-bottom prices were cut by as much as 50% more.
The Tepito market is run by criminal organization Union Tepito, which started to feel the burn when the flow of Chinese products slowed to a dribble as supply chains everywhere essentially stopped. Business being down doesn’t stop an organization running the show from expecting what they always expect, and in this case, vendors in the market are required to pay protection money to the organization in order to use the space to sell. This didn’t change because of business slowing, which led to abductions and killings since many vendors weren’t able to make payments.
The synthetic drug market was also badly hit in the beginning, much of which depends on chemicals from China and India, and the ability to ship containers and use ports. Fentanyl is one of the big trafficking drugs for which raw materials generally come from China. This stoppage in the supply chain meant a temporary increase in prices for synthetic drugs like fentanyl and methamphetamine. At one point, prices went from 2,500 pesos for just under a half kilogram of methamphetamine, to 15,000 pesos.
Getting products across borders at all was difficult in the beginning. A Mexicali drug smuggler made this statement to publication Riodoce right after lockdown started: “Five days ago was the last time we brought something across the border. Just three kilos… We have arrangements with border police and our smugglers know which borders posts to use. But now, many crossing have surprisingly been shut. That makes our business much more risky.”
In terms of using the air, though criminal organizations aren’t known for stocking commercial flights anymore, they are known for using the sky to get products from one country to another, and at a time when flights are greatly reduced, any criminal organization actions are that much more noticeable.
How are criminal organizations dealing with corona?
As should be expected, they’re evolving, or even going back to old standards. The initial kink in supply chains, and border and flying restrictions, made for a decrease in general action. But this changed, and led to secondary markets for raw materials, production, and the selling of new counterfeit and fake products like masks and antibacterial gel, which hadn’t garnered an income for these organizations before.
According to the DEA, in New York it was found that many small packages were being sent through the mail containing high-potency drugs like fentanyl. In fact, Mexican cartels took on more of the processing work as a result of supply issues, pressing fentanyl into pills for better transport. Older methods are still being employed as well, and perhaps increased. Like hiding drugs in regular products like baby wipes when using parcel delivery services, in hidden compartments of vehicles, and included in shipments of produce. Some cartels have even employed the use of backpackers to get drugs across borders.
In an effort to move products during lockdown mode, its expected by many officials that criminal organizations have turned to other avenues like submersible crafts, drones, tunnels, and ultralights, while the use of cryptocurrencies has also skyrocketed as a result of the corona situation.
The DEA added that, after the initial upset in supply, Mexican cartels have quickly found new providers of raw materials, possibly increased their production, and are actually sending more fentanyl and methamphetamine into the US than prior to the pandemic. It also appears that operations like cultivating poppies and producing heroine, have not been obstructed. This would include cannabis cultivation and production as well.
In Mexico, while business is still good, there have been some changes within the cartel landscape. Smaller cartels have taken on new business enterprises, some larger cartels have fractured a bit, and overall the competition has increased. While some crimes have decreased during Mexico’s lockdowns, homicides have remained high for this reason.
Criminal organizations are even using the corona situation to step in for the government. In Southern Italy, Brazil, and Mexico these organizations are supplying badly needed products, sometimes enforcing lockdown measures, and emphasizing that the government can’t handle the situation, while gaining new support in local communities.
Some criminal organizations are benefitting from the sheer lack of observers around because of corona lockdowns. This goes for the trafficking of endangered species, in which poachers have been able to do as they wish in places like Sub-Saharan Africa, with very little currently to stop them.
The Italian mafia
The Italian mafia has been particularly good at taking advantage of the situation by targeting failing businesses in Italy and the rest of Europe for money-lending. The goal isn’t to lend money, but to take over these businesses for their own uses like money laundering, and getting in on a new industry. Many believe that when things improve, the Italian mafia might be dominating many different industries in Europe, including industries and companies not infiltrated before.
Of course, business owners are not expected to pay back the money lent, but to eventually operate as front men for the illegal operations, which, because of their situations, and the threat of violence for not paying, they have no choice about. Failing businesses are not just an issue with Italy, and the Italian mafia has been worming its way all throughout Europe.
Italy, it should be remembered, has been one of the hardest hit countries, with more than 390,000 businesses being closed, approximately 200,000 independent workers going bankrupt, and such a dramatic increase in poverty that the government has had to give out €400 million in shopping vouchers, and charity organizations have given out 30% more in food aid.
By March of 2020, mafia organizations were already giving out much-needed food baskets to the hardest hit places and families. As banks began lending far less money, the mafia stepped in to take care of temporary monetary needs with dirty money, which they use the businesses to clean. In an effort to combat this, the Italian government issued 1,600 mafia bans in 2020 to attempt to keep operatives from making bids for public contracts, this is a 25% increase from the year before.
Expansion into new markets
Another aspect of making it harder for criminals to operate in their own field, is the expansion into other fields. One example is using the increase in online business, as most people are working from home. This has meant an increase in credit card fraud, phishing scams, cyberattacks, and fake donation requests via pirated sites. A lot of the time, the coronavirus is specifically used in the selling of high-demand products, like face masks and disinfectants, which have actually become highly trafficked products in the corona age.
It fact, whether it was warranted or not, Interpol has warned about mafia groups possibly trying to infiltrate and disrupt supply chains to get ahold of corona vaccines for their own distribution. This may, or may not, also apply to covid-19 tests. The group established that “of 3,000 websites associated with online pharmacies suspected of selling illicit medicines and medical devices, around 1,700 contained cyber threats, especially phishing and spamming malware.”
According to the Guardian, just a couple weeks into the lockdown last year, as many as 70,000 scam sites popped up selling products like hand gel and masks, as well as other remedies that were either nonexistent to begin with, stolen, or fake. The shift from the majority working in offices to the majority working from home so suddenly, has left IT security teams in a bind, and has opened up more vulnerabilities, which has increased issues with malware, and even ransomeware, a type of malware that can lock a computer’s files until a ransom is paid.
In the end, except for initial supply chain issues that led to a decrease in available products, and an increase in product prices, most criminal organizations seem to have rebounded just fine. Not only have they found ways around the trafficking obstacle courses set in front of them, but they’ve figured out ways to expand into new venues. So, for anyone worried that they won’t be able to get their standard marijuana fix, or the next line of cocaine, no worries, some people are still hard at work for you.
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