by Leah Grace
The COVID-19 pandemic not only represents a global public health crisis but has also created serious political and security challenges. In Latin America, legal and illicit economies alike have been hit hard by a massive slowdown in global production and consumption, leaving most organised crime groups unusually vulnerable and exposed. These conditions offer opportunities for governments to deal a considerable blow to these criminal networks that wield enormous amounts of power in their territories. Examples include the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) in Mexico, the Columbian guerilla group the National Liberation Army (ELN), and the Barrio 18 street gang, which operates throughout Central America. However, evidence from the region shows that criminal are rapidly adapting to the challenges of the pandemic and are in fact taking advantage of the overwhelmed state authorities to consolidate their power.
As the lockdown of several national economies brings businesses to a halt and threatens the livelihoods of billions of employees, it also has significant repercussions for transnational drug trade and other illicit flows. Drug cartels across Latin America have seen their access to major markets and supply chains curbed by border closures and the shutdown of transatlantic travel. A reliance on imported chemicals from China has negatively impacted the production of fentanyl and methamphetamine in Mexico. In Colombia, narcotraffickers are struggling to transport their cocaine supply to European markets due to a grounding of air traffic. In countries such as Nicaragua, where many people live from day to day, selling drugs locally has also become a challenge as local populations can no longer afford to buy the commodity.
In Europe and the United States, drug shortages at street level caused by both the disruption of supply and transportation chains and the imposition of national lockdown measures, which forced sellers and consumers to remain indoors, has led to a sharp increase in prices. As drug-dealers demonstrate their adaptability by adopting unorthodox strategies, such as delivering drugs in takeaway orders, they reap the rewards of these price inflations. In the long-term, however, restrictions on mobility and the continued closure of entertainment and hospitality venues are likely to deal a significant blow to drug markets.
As local businesses close, criminal groups face challenges in collecting their routine extortion payments. Some Central American gangs, such as the Barrio 18 Revolucionarios in San Salvador, have announced that they will waive extortion payments from informal vendors due to the massive decrease in earnings caused by lockdown measures. Others, however, have been less understanding. Mexican and Guatemalan cartels continue to harass and intimidate local businesses despite the pandemic. Since extortion constitutes the main important source of income for many criminal groups and street gangs, it is likely that even the more lenient ones will resort to increasingly violent measures to collect their fees.
Lockdowns and border closures have also created new illicit business opportunities. The closing of borders on key migration routes has increased the demand for human smuggling services – and their profitability. Before the most recent border closure on March 14 due to Covid-19, over 50,000 Venezuelans legally crossed into Colombia each day. Now, people rely solely on illegal border crossings (trochas), controlled by criminal groups such as Los Rastrojos, who charge fees for use of the route. In Central America, the sealing of borders has forced migrants to depend even more heavily on smugglers, who have seized the opportunity to charge $200 dollars per person for “safe” passage from El Salvador and Honduras to Guatemala.
Violence and insecurity
Lockdown measures have led to a general reduction in street crime and robbery as criminals become more conspicuous and their targets more scarce. El Salvador, the country with the highest homicide rate in the world, reported two days without murders immediately following the imposition of obligatory quarantine measures.
However, violence has intensified in many other countries due to the diversion of armed security forces to pandemic-related issues. Data from Brazil suggests an increase in lethal crime and homicide during the lockdown as gangs and other criminal groups continue to engage in turf wars and violent confrontations. In Colombia, both departments on the Pacific coast and frontier regions with Venezuela, an area with a long history of state absence and illegal activity by armed groups, have witnessed violent clashes between criminal gangs and the guerilla group ELN. Targeted civilian murders have also increased in the country. In the week that cities introduced quarantine measures, three community leaders were killed. Fellow activists cited the disruption to normal security protocols as putting social leaders, often targeted due to their work against lucrative illegal businesses, in positions of heightened vulnerability.
The pandemic’s dominance in minds and media across the world has also provided cover for crime groups to act with impunity, consolidating their power as they do so. Militia groups in Rio de Janeiro, who count former police officers as members and enjoy the support of some local politicians, have seized upon this distraction to increase their political influence in the city.
The current pandemic is exacerbating socioeconomic stresses. As frustrations and fear grow, ineffective government responses are likely to erode trust in state institutions. Non-state actors are already stepping up to fill the gaps of state presence and provision. As Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, continues to play down the severity of the pandemic, drug-dealing gangs in some of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas have imposed their own curfews and hygiene measures to help combat the spread of the virus in the overcrowded and unsanitary conditions of the slums. Such forms of informal criminal governance are likely to benefit the gangs by securing their power and legitimacy in local communities.
In El Salvador, cells of the Barrio 18 gang wielded their influence over local populations first to defy and then to enforce government lockdown orders. Initially, they ensured that markets in the capital city continued to operate, as these are a vital source of livelihood for many Salvadorans and provide a constant flow of extortion payments. They later changed tactics and began enforcing lockdown measures at gunpoint.
In San Luis Potosí and Tamaulipas, Mexico, the CJNG and Golfo cartels handed out food parcels to communities in boxes emblazoned with their groups’ insignia. Such deliveries are both a means to gain support from local populations and a challenge to local gangs, especially when made in disputed territories or in areas outside normal zones of operation.
A golden opportunity?
Criminal non-state armed groups across Latin America have demonstrated their influence, adaptability, and resilience in the face of COVID-19. However, even they are not immune to the impact of the pandemic, which will continue to hinder their business opportunities and restrict their ability to work undetected. Now is the time for governments to strike in a regionally coordinated effort to take out organised crime networks whilst they are at their most vulnerable. Missing such an opportunity could further bolster the power of these groups and limited the capacity of the state to deal with the region’s already severe problem of organised crime in the future.
However, the exploitation of security gaps by Latin American criminal organisation due to the diversion of resources and attention to the global health crisis may prove too much for overwhelmed states. Criminal networks are likely to bounce back from the current crisis, possibly with strengthened support bases and additional areas under their control.
Leah is an MA student in Conflict, Security and Development at the King’s War Studies Department. Her main research interests include war-to-peace transitions, organised crime, and urban violence. She primarily works on conflict-affected countries in Latin America and Central Africa.