Multiple raids carried out in Argentina have revealed a criminal network capitalizing on the emergence of new COVID-19 variants by producing and selling knock-off face masks lacking the appropriate anti-viral properties.
On August 10, eight people were arrested in Buenos Aires for allegedly manufacturing fake face masks that mimicked those produced by leading commercial brands as well as those made by Argentina's National Scientific and Technical Research Council (Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas - CONICET).
Five illegal textile workshops and one home were raided by authorities, which discovered hundreds of partially made masks at each location, along with machinery that stamped logos onto the masks for authenticity. The gang also had packing material that had been altered to look identical to packaging used by the government and international companies.
For high-quality face masks, each layer of fabric is chemically treated to have antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal properties. None of the masks made by the criminals had received such treatment.
Furthermore, the workshops were operating without licenses and failed to register with the government. Basic security and safety measures that are required to authenticate high-quality face masks were not in place. Equipment being used had not been sterilized and the resources being used were not up to standard.
Police were tipped off about this criminal network after multiple raids carried out in June revealed thousands of knock-off masks that were awaiting sale. All participants are being charged with fraud, fraud against the public administration, violation of COVID-19 measures implemented by authorities and concealment.
InSight Crime Analysis
The production and sale of ineffective face masks is yet another opportunity for criminals to cash in on the despair of a country seeing over 10,000 new cases and 200 deaths each day.
The Buenos Aires criminal network is not the first group looking to capitalize on the world's desperate need for masks. Both the United States and Spain have made alarming seizures of fake masks that were about to enter the market. US border authorities seized 14 million fake masks in 2020, rising to another 20 million between January and April 2021.
While reports of fake masks have popped up in Latin America before, this appears to be one of the first examples of masks being produced in the region by a criminal gang.
The production of these masks in Argentina is not the first time criminals attempted to use the product to their advantage. In Honduras, an elaborate corruption scandal revealed that officials awarded highly overpriced contracts to medical companies for N-95 masks. In Peru, criminals used the mass transit of masks all across the globe to conceal cocaine in shipments that were expedited for public health.