28 Sep, 2021
Covid and Organized Crime
It is perhaps too early for definitive answers on how organized crime fared during the COVID-19 pandemic, but it is time to ask ourselves some urgent questions and reexamine our policies. Predictably, organized crime networks were able to adapt quickly following the initial illicit market disruptions and even found new criminal opportunities. Law enforcement and justice systems were slow to recognize the full impact of the public health crisis and to adapt their strategies.
A very interesting and timely new book by two colleagues from the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, Tuesday Reitano and Mark Shaw, presents some troubling evidence about how mafias, gangsters and scammers profit from the current pandemic. Organized crime groups turn out to be major beneficiaries of the pandemic.
Rather than diminishing the strength of organized crime, the pandemic may in fact have increased it by forcing organizations to become even more adaptable and innovative (p. 81). Criminal networks were extremely resilient during the pandemic, in part by weeding out lesser actors. Criminal organizations that survived the crisis are emerging even stronger than before. In many instances, they managed to consolidate or improve their position within criminal networks.
Illicit drug markets invariably prove themselves resilient and flexible, and they either promptly adapt to change and reconfigure or displace themselves. The pandemic seems to have had very little lasting impact on the drug trade, past its initial temporary shock to illicit drug markets. The production remained steady and the overall volumes of drugs moving across borders did not change significantly. The facts that the traffic in opioids thrived and that the related opioid public health crisis became even more serious during the pandemic are not just a coincidence.
Because of the dynamic nature of drug markets and the flexibility of the criminal organizations engaged in them, law enforcement agencies must constantly vary, refine and, if they can, perfect their strategies. In a sense, however, the pandemic distracted law enforcement from its usual, albeit limited, activities to disrupt and control transnational illicit markets. There were many other emergencies to attend to and transnational organized crime understandably received less attention. Reitano and Shaw refer to pared-down policing against organized crime during the pandemic, with the net result that “the overall effectiveness of policing efforts against organized crime weakened during the pandemic” (p. 156).
There is a lot of speculation about what a “new normal” may be like, post-pandemic. It is already clear that the new normal for transnational organized crime groups is full of promises, opportunities and profits. However, the new normal for law enforcement’s fight against transnational organized crime and illicit markets may not be as promising. Law enforcement efforts, particularly with respect to the control of illicit markets, have been seriously undermined by the pandemic.
The lessons drawn by Reitano and Shaw obviously have broader implications for understanding the dynamics of illicit markets and criminal networks. Indeed the authors suggest that “the pandemic may provide a long overdue opportunity to rethink how several illicit markets are regulated, to build more effective institutions to fight organized crime, and to improve the life and livelihood of people often caught in the web of criminal governance” (p. 8). Let’s not waste that opportunity.
 Tuesday Reitano & Mark Shaw (2021). Criminal Contagion: How Mafias, Gangsters and Scammers Profit from a Pandemic. London: Hurst.
Photo by Trey Gibson on Unsplash.