Coronavirus Profiteers: The Pandemic And Organised Crime

Earlier in April, it was reported that the Mafia in Italy and cartels in Mexico have been distributing food and aid packages to impoverished locals suffering at the hands of the pandemic. Given their violent reputation, this benevolence may appear surprising: however, across the world, criminal organisations are set to profit from the current crisis. 

Anti-Mafia investigator Nicola Gratteri remarked that “Mafia bosses consider their cities as their own fiefdom,” and “know very well that in order to govern, they need to take care of the people in their territory. And they do it by exploiting the situation to their advantage.”

Whilst attention is deflected elsewhere, criminal organisations have been able to operate under the radar. Although distributing drugs has become more difficult under social distancing, controls at borders have loosened as law enforcement agencies have been focused on internal policing, giving drug cartels an easy passage to export and import narcotics. Moreover, as the media is preoccupied with the pandemic, criminal activity is going unreported. In Mexico, for example, there were 98 cartel-related deaths per day throughout February; this number rose to 99 in March, but media coverage of these murders was drastically reduced. 

These organisations are, however, reaching local people through delivering essential goods to homes in deprived areas during lockdown. In the hard-hit Italian regions of Campania, Calabria, Sicily and Puglia, the Mafia has reportedly distributed food to locals. The group is stepping in to fill the void left by government aid which neglects the 3.3 million Italians working off the books in the ‘grey economy’. The same is happening in Mexican cities, where aid packages are stamped with the image of El Chapo – a stark reminder that whilst nominally ‘free’, this aid comes at a cost. Federico Varese, professor of criminology at the University of Oxford, has warned that locals will likely have to pay cartels back by “aiding and abetting a fugitive, holding a gun, dealing drugs and the like.” In Italy, it’s also expected that locals will be under pressure to vote for Mafia-backed politicians in the next elections. 

Criminal organisations are also poised to benefit from the reopening of economies. As the crisis has forced many small and medium size businesses to shut, many have relied on loans to tide them over, and will require further injections of cash to resume operations. In Naples, it is reported that the Camorra is offering loans at competitive rates – often faster and with fewer required guarantees than banks. According to Franco Gabrielli, head of the Italian police, this is a tried-and-tested Mafia tactic to gain control over businesses outside of their influence, and tighten their grip on the economy. SOS Impresa calculates that in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis the Mafia became Italy’s largest bank, having lent 65 billion euros in liquidity to struggling firms and exchanging cash for shares. 

Moreover, the Mafia already has stakes in key industries, having invested heavily in food, healthcare and pharmaceuticals in the decade prior to the pandemic. The Mafia have long relied on infiltrating traditional businesses as a cover for money laundering and an additional source of cash. Typically, they invest in strategic goods or services which are generally stable, and help promote a respectable image among the locals whilst making the population reliant upon them. According to the Observatory of Crime in Agriculture and the Food Chain, the organisation has penetrated the entire food chain through buying cheap farmland, markets and restaurants after the last financial crash. Likewise, in 2016 the ’Ndrangheta were found to have established themselves in the healthcare industry in Lombardy, going so far as to qualify cartel members and their families in pharmaceuticals, nursing and medicine. Whilst the majority of businesses worldwide have suffered at the hands of the pandemic, food and pharmaceuticals are set to profit. Perhaps it is no surprise that the Mafia were quick to produce and distribute ‘epidemic kits’ containing gloves, masks and hand sanitiser across Italy’s hardest hit regions. 

Fearful of funding the Mafia, other European countries have been hesitant to offer Italy monetary aid. German newspaper Die Welt recently published an article urging Angela Merkel to reject proposed ‘coronabonds’ on the grounds that “the mafia is just waiting for a new shower of money from Brussels.” However, as past crises have shown, organised crime thrives in times of desperation. If the Italian government cannot offer people the help they need, the Mafia will step in instead and consolidate their social and economic footholds. Journalist and author Roberto Saviano commented: “European funds today help the Italian economy that is on its knees. And an Italian economy on its knees means Italy is at the mercy of organised crime.” The same is true for vulnerable communities, and the criminal organisations that live in parallel, worldwide.