Latin American Gangs Are Using COVID-19 To Increase Their Power

March 2020 was the most violent month in Mexican history since 1997. Despite the global COVID-19 pandemic, criminal groups throughout Latin America have learned to adapt to the new social and economic environment and use the crisis to their advantage. The introduction of the coronavirus has shifted security priorities in many countries towards health care stability. In Colombia, where some 60,000 troops were relocated to enforce the national quarantine, several human rights and social advocates were killed in their wake. 

Initially, regional analysts had predicted a weakening of criminal groups as their supply lines and markets closed. According to the Institute of Latin Studies, “trends suggested that lethal criminal violence linked to organized crime would decline under the pandemic”. However, due to COVID-19, criminal organizations have changed their behavioural patterns to uphold their regional footholds. UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic told a reporter that criminal groups altered their means of profiteering through the “stepping up of extortion, drug trafficking, and sexual and gender-based violence, and using forced disappearances, murders, and death threats against those that do not comply”. 

The weak economic environment facilitated by the pandemic has exacerbated the influence of illicit groups on their communities. The economic downfall caused by the virus has resulted in increased unemployment in Latin America. The loss of a stable household income can force individuals to seek financial support through illegal means when no other options are present. UN News reported civilians “resorting to negative coping mechanisms, including sex work, that put them at further risk in terms of health and gang exploitation”. 

Gangs have capitalized on the vulnerability of their communities and weak national welfare systems to increase their legitimacy. In Brazil, criminal groups have created informal welfare structures in the slums of Rio de Janeiro that enforce social distancing measures that Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro refuses to adopt. While beneficial in terms of health security, such measures act to undermine the rule of the state and decrease public outcry as civilians become increasingly reliant on local gangs for their basic needs. 

If local authority continues to shift toward illicit groups, it can be expected for such groups to exit the pandemic with increased legitimacy. Breaking community loyalty to a criminal group is challenging and could debilitate Latin America’s future security. In response, South American governments need to implement preemptive measures to combat gang activity. COVID-19 has created a unique scenario where the closing of borders and decreased public presence of civilians can be used to the advantage of the state. 

Gangs make their profit mainly through the smuggling of illegal materials. However, borders currently remain locked down in response to the pandemic, including the lucrative U.S. border. Increasing surveillance of these borders through vehicle inspections could be highly favourable in limiting the number of materials traded in the black market. As a result, gang profits could suffer during the pandemic, which could deal a final financial blow to them. 

Nonetheless, targeting gangs’ trade routes is not enough to ensure the safety of civilians. Without an increased local presence, illicit groups’ authority will only continue to increase. There is a high risk of gangs using this authority to exploit locals to compensate for a loss of profits. Latin American forces focused on quarantine enforcement should take their duty of curfew implementation to increase community trust with police and gather intelligence on illicit group behaviour. 

Furthermore, South American states must develop a firm coronavirus outreach policy that invites their citizens to trust in the government. An efficient response to the pandemic would support public health and disenfranchise civilians from turning to gangs. Increasing general reliance on the state would decrease gangs’ local authority, weakening their power. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has altered society in a manner that may be irreversible. However, while coronavirus has taken the lives of over a million people worldwide, it could potentially help Latin America weaken its gangs. If governments take pre-emptive measures to use the crisis to their advantage, it could prove to be the beginning of the end for the prolific criminal activity present in many South American countries today. 

Catherine Kreider