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COVID-19 and organized crime: Latin American governments are in a state-making competition with crime

An employee of the clothing brand "El Chapo 701", owned by Alejandrina Gisselle Guzman, daughter of the convicted drug kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, hands out a box with food, face masks and hand sanitizer to an elderly woman as part of a campaign to help cash-strapped elderly people during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Guadalajara, Mexico April 16, 2020. The number 701 refers to the 2009 World's Billionaires ranking given by Forbes magazine to Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman. REUTERS/Fernando Carranza
Editor's note:

Vanda Felbab-Brown and Ariel Fernando Ávila Martínez discuss what challenges Latin American states face when fighting the dual adversaries of organized crime and the COVID-19 virus. This piece originally appeared on Friedrich Ebert Stiftung.

How has the worldwide pandemic transformed the criminal landscapes? Did Covid 19 change the game?

The FES Inclusive Security Network in Latin America has asked two internationally renowned experts, Vanda Felbab-Brown and Ariel Ávila, what challenges do Latin American states face when fighting the dual adversaries of organized crime and the COVID19 virus?  Both are sure there are already lessons learned and some problems that need immediate attention.

Is it possible to identify effects of the COVID 19 pandemic on organized crime in Latin America?

Vanda Felbab-Brown: In the immediate situation, some drug markets have struggled to deliver drugs across closed borders – in particular, the supply of precursor agents for meth and fentanyl and other synthetic opioids from China have been affected. Border closures will drive and reinforce innovations, such as the use of drones for delivery. Street predatory crime is down, but this effect will be ephemeral.

Ariel Ávila: It’s not yet clear. There are three possible effects in the short term: 1. One of the most affected economic sectors is tourism: the bankruptcy of many small and medium size hotels and tourism companies will allow organized crime groups to launder significant amounts of money by buying these businesses at a very low cost. 2. Public security forces have been concentrated in urban centers to deal with the emergency, which facilitates organized crime activities in neglected rural areas. In Colombia, for example, this is evident at the border with Venezuela and on the Pacific coast. 3. Selective murder of social leaders and former FARC combatants in Colombia has increased in the last month, but since the coronavirus has taken over the public agenda there is even less chance that these homicides will be solved.

Several media outlets have talked about the role that some organized criminal groups are playing in the context of the pandemic like enforcement of quarantines and the distribution of goods and services to vulnerable communities. How do you analyze these activities?

VFB: Many criminal groups seek to rule not only through brutality, but also by having political capital and legitimacy with local populations – in Latin America and around the world this has been the case for decades. COVID19 will help them build up political capital – but how much depends on whether the state performs better than them and how the criminal groups balance brutality (such as extortion) with service provision.

AA: In some rural areas of Colombia ELN and other illegal armed groups have forced the local population to comply with the quarantine, enforcing regulations for public behavior. In some urban areas these groups have acted in a similar but less visible way. Unlike Mexico or Brazil, there have been no reports of delivery of basic goods to local populations.

Taking into account organized crime´s capacity and ability to adapt to political, normative and even economic changes, is it possible to identify new ways in which they are operating during the current situation?

VFB: Around the world, there has been a big rise in online crime, such as fraudulent webpages that pretend to sell medical supplies, credit card and ID thefts, replacing some street predatory crime with online predatory crime. A great deal of online fraud already originates from Brazil´s favelas, and their prominence in this space can only be reinforced, a potentially lasting effect.

AA: There are three trends: 1. Cyber crime, like online financial fraud, has increased, which was foreseeable given the rise of online transactions. 2. Home delivery of illegal goods and services has developed, e.g. drugs and prostitution services. 3. Use of services like online sex and sexcams, many controlled by organized networks, has increased sharply.

Could the levels of violence associated with organized crime drop during this time? If that happens, will there be more political space to formulate public policies focused on the reduction of violence rather than the elimination of illegal markets?

VFB: There has been no uniform response: Central America where violence is driven by maras and pandillas has experienced big drops. In contrast, record-breaking violence continues in Mexico. In Colombia, only the ELN declared a temporary ceasefire whilst FARC dissident groups continue to fight over smuggling routes. And as restrictions come down, predatory street crime will return, particularly as impoverishment rises. But if violence has reduced as a result of a criminal group’s choices, government should reinforce truces and ceasefires, and focus on targeting individuals and groups that are the first to return to violence, trying to arrest them before violence restarts and law enforcement becomes overwhelmed.

AA: It depends on the context: In rural areas in Colombia conflict dynamics have continued and violence against leaders and former FARC combatants has increased, so violence dynamics continue as usual. In urban areas there has been a substantial reduction of violence, especially of petty crimes, and violence among gangs also has decreased. But this is a trend across all types of crime, not only organized crime. And in terms of public policies, there’s always space for innovation, but this is not a priority for the governments at the moment and the resources available are limited since they all have been committed to the COVID-19 emergency.

How should Latin American states prepare to face organized crime during the pandemic?

VFB: Two lessons: 1) Latin American governments need to realize that they are in a state-making competition with organized crime and a battle for the support of local populations. To win, they need to become better providers of security, order, dispute resolution, employment and services than criminal groups. 2) The pandemic was triggered by wildlife trade or trafficking. Along with deforestation, both are large sources of other zoogenic pandemics. Latin American governments – the most egregious being Bolsonaro’s – have been complicit in deforestation and they have completely ignored poaching and wildlife trafficking in Latin America which has intensified greatly. Governments need to finally realize that better conservation is right at the heart of public safety.

AA: It is not yet clear if there’s going to be a new context or a new type of crime. However, some problems have exploded and they require immediate attention, like the prison system situation or human trafficking linked to migration from Venezuela.