Welcome to InSight Crime’s Criminal GameChangers 2020, where we highlight the most important trends in organized crime in the Americas over the course of the year.
The criminal underworld, like the rest of the planet, was turned upside down by the arrival of the deadly COVID-19 virus. But it adapted and reacted far quicker than the overworld.
Coronavirus hit Latin America and the Caribbean harder than most. The region has about nine percent of the world’s population but registered about one-third of the world’s deaths from the virus. Thirty years of economic progress that had reduced poverty were stalled and is now going into reverse, while the region’s economy was expected to contract nearly 10 percent. By year’s end, the ability of governments to enforce restrictions, and their citizens' ability to live by them, had all but evaporated.
Criminals often filled the economic and political voids left by the virus. From the beginning, criminal groups in Brazil, gangs in El Salvador and insurgents in Colombia were spotted enforcing curfews and quarantines. In Venezuela, paramilitary groups assisted security forces in keeping residents indoors, and in Brazil, some criminals warned shopkeepers that price gouging of prized goods would spark their fury.
Criminal groups also handed out hand sanitizer in Rio de Janeiro shantytowns and administered government-provided assistance packages in El Salvador. In Mexico, the Gulf Cartel gave aid packages with their own logos emblazoned on them and the leader of the Jalisco Cartel – New Generation (Cartel de Jalisco – Nueva Generación -- CJNG) reportedly built a hospital. Gangs in Honduras set up raffles and used the proceeds to buy food for those most in need.
“The gangs played the role we know they've always played: They were, in effect, the government,” anthropologist and gang investigator Juan José Martínez d’Aubuisson told InSight Crime.
While many criminal groups stepped up, most governments were unable to rise to the challenge, many mired in corruption and intent on personal profit rather than public good. Democracy, transparency and efficient government, already fragile in many parts of the region, were further battered by the COVID-19 storm, opening up yet more room to maneuver for organized crime.
Protests in Peru lead to more changes in the presidency amid growing contempt for congress and the fact that all living former presidents face corruption investigations. Demonstrators set fire to the Guatemalan congress, where the politicians gutted health and education budgets while raising their lunch allowances. Bolivians protested at the unelected government of Jeanine Añez delaying a new vote, and then promptly handed power back to the party of former president Evo Morales, who was removed from power after protests and amid accusations of vote-rigging last year.
President Jair Bolsonaro told Brazilians not to be “sissies” about the virus amid six million infections, threatening to punch a reporter who dared to ask about the corruption scandals surrounding one of his sons. Mexico, like Brazil, decided to largely ignore the virus as evidence of high-level corruption surfaced once again. Venezuela continued its economic freefall amid growing criminal activity. The national resilience to organized crime in the region, not strong pre-COVID-19, weakened further over the course of the year.
Criminal governance is not new to Latin America, but for some authorities, it was becoming clear that it may be one of the only ways to keep the virus and the economic calamity that accompanied it at bay.
“We have to understand that these are areas where the state is often absent and the ones in charge are drug traffickers and militia groups,” Brazil’s health minister said at a news conference, after suggesting the government negotiate with the criminal groups.
However, the criminals’ response was not uniform and hardly benevolent. While Barrio 18 gangs reportedly gave shopkeepers and other extortion victims a temporary reprieve from payments after the onset of the pandemic, criminals in Mexico City’s Tepito area allegedly warned that any slowdown in payments would lead to grave consequences.
Like the general population, criminal groups went through downturns and suffered because of quarantines. In addition to lost revenue from the extortion markets, Mexico lost its relatively easy access to precursor chemicals and counterfeit goods from Asia. Drug prices rose and human smuggling slowed throughout the region. Proceeds piled up in places like Los Angeles and Argentina, where authorities made a series of record seizures of cash. Prison gangs, from Brazil to Mexico, were isolated from their loved ones as well as the contraband they ferry into the penitentiaries during visiting days.
In keeping with the supreme agility of organized crime to adapt to changing conditions, new and old groups sought to recoup their losses by entering new illicit businesses or expanding traditional ones. Marijuana production boomed in Paraguay, leading to increased seizures along the Paraguay-Argentina border. Incidences of oil theft rose as well. Human smugglers in Central America began charging people for trips back to their homelands.
Wildlife trafficking, particularly that of birds, soared in Brazil, as well as that of various maritime species throughout the region, as the increasingly high numbers of unemployed sought to make up for lost income. Mexican smugglers appeared to be finding new routes and workarounds to get their hands on the synthetic drugs coming from Asia and precursor chemicals to produce them.
Theft of contraband cigarettes rose in markets such as Chile and Peru, and predatory gangs upped their extortion of money changers in Argentina. For their part, drug peddlers adapted, shifting to take-away and home delivery, disguising themselves as essential workers, driving ambulances and using the plethora of encrypted social media apps to keep their businesses afloat. In Argentina, one criminal gang, whose leadership is in jail, expanded its illegal casino operations with the help of local police and with revenue from extortion.
Some criminal organizations, especially those connected to the governments or government-related aid projects, went after one of the few booming markets in COVID-19 times: the sale of medicines, medical equipment and face masks.
In Venezuela, an antiviral drug used to treat coronavirus appeared on the black market along with contraband food purchased in Brazil. A series of robberies of sought-after medicines stoked fear in Mexico that theft and resale gangs were becoming more sophisticated and violent. Early in the pandemic, Colombian authorities seized large quantities of drug treatments for coronavirus. And in Brazil, the robbery of 15,000 testing kits illustrated just how lucrative the coronavirus medical market had become.
There was one criminal activity that did see growth. Cybercrime rose throughout the region and will undoubtedly persist beyond a vaccine, given the wholesale shift towards online transactions and banking.
“Cybercriminals are developing and boosting their attacks at an alarming pace, exploiting the dear and uncertainty caused by the unstable social and economic situation created by COVID-19,” said Jurgen Stock, INTERPOL Secretary General.
Identify theft, fraud and the use of phishing websites saw an increase over the year. Also, the use of encrypted communications, as well as the dark web, were all believed to have seen increased activity as face-to-face meetings to close criminal deals become harder.
The possibilities of these markets were embraced by corrupt officials as well. El Salvador’s Attorney General’s Office is investigating at least six officials, including the country’s health minister, for improper purchases and work orders related to the pandemic. Rio de Janeiro’s governor allegedly overcharged for the construction of field hospitals.
Peru medical service providers were busted exploiting grief, charging people to see and identify their recently deceased relatives, as well as an extra charge to arrange for illegal, private funeral services. And Honduran authorities are looking into graft related to a series of coronavirus-related purchases of things such as mobile hospitals and testing kits.
Amidst it all, international cooperation, a critical part of beating back organized crime, was largely swallowed by the health and economic crises. The US government, which had already lost influence due to the Trump administration’s bald-faced transactional approach to foreign affairs, was particularly absent, consumed by its own coronavirus woes and a contentious presidential election.
For criminal groups, 2020 was about staying afloat amid contracting economic activity and seizing whatever opportunities presented themselves. From new routes to new markets, criminal groups, like most, were scrambling for ways to survive.
(Top Photo: AP)