The COVID-19 pandemic is a global tragedy. In addition to causing an extreme level of sickness and death, it has a broad destabilizing effect on the international economy and politics. Profound changes in how we live, exercise political rights, and interact with the illicit (criminal) economy are already underway. The COVID-19 pandemic has created opportunities and challenges for states (governments) and organized criminal groups (OCGs) worldwide, including criminal armed groups (CAGs) such as gangs, militias, and mafias. The future of state governance and political capacity in the pandemic’s disruptive path is challenged by inflamed political passions on all sides, leading to extremism, potential conflict, and the consolidation of criminal economic and political power.
Anti-government groups on the extreme right and left contest the imposition of public health measures including curfews, lockdowns, quarantines, and stay-at-home orders as an affront to their individual liberties. Armed groups challenge state authority as propaganda asserts that the highly lethal SARS-CoV-2 disease is fake news and a hoax. Deaths mount, hospitals are overwhelmed, and humanitarian aid flows are disrupted; political turmoil is on the horizon. The net result is an opportunity space for radicalization, corruption, and criminal exploitation. Criminal enterprises (OCGs and CAGs) exploit the situation for power and profit. These gangs, mafias, and cartels can exploit the chaos and conflict to consolidate their latent ‘statemaking’ potentials (criminal governance) in fragile states and communities. Pandemics historically are a disruptive force. This pandemic is no different.
Criminal exploitation of social instability and state fragility in the COVID-19 pandemic has been documented in:
- Brazil’s favelas (slums) where gangs have imposed curfews;
- El Salvador where maras (like MS-13 and Barrio 18) enforced quarantines, curfews, and social distancing;
- Mexico where cartels have engaged in the provision of humanitarian aid;
- South Africa where gangs enacted a truce and collaborated in the provision of humanitarian aid;
- Colombia where revolutionary guerillas (the FARC – Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, ELN – Ejército de Liberación Nacional) and BACRIM – bandas criminales – have leveraged the pandemic to consolidate their authority by imposing lockdowns and controlling the pricing and flow of food and medicines;
- Italy where traditional Italian mafias, including the Sicilian mafia, camorra, and ‘ndragheta have exploited a growing vacuum in state governance and financial collapse to usurp the provision of public goods and services, including banking and healthcare.
Issues of social control, the utilitarian provision of social goods, and humanitarian aid in the guise of ‘social banditry’ are evident in numerous situations. These events are then leveraged to reinforce the perceived legitimacy of the CAGs in the communities where they operate (and which they exploit). While these situations are particularly acute in fragile communities, they also have broader implications for nation security dimensions over the long-term, including destabilization, stimulating and exacerbating conflicts (including non-international armed conflict – NIACs), and the rise of ‘hybrid’ threats including convergence with ‘cyber-threats’ and the rise of terrorism – especially bioterrorism involving future bioweapons and infectious diseases.
While these long-term potentials are just that – potentials – they are very real concerns demanding awareness, assessment, and contingency planning by military, intelligence, homeland security, public health, and police authorities worldwide. These potentials and the capacity needed to address the concurrent converging threats require co-ordination, joint/combined actions, meta-leadership – that is, leadership across disciplinary and jurisdictional boundaries – and detailed scenario assessment through wargames and exercises.
As we noted in the conclusion to our recent book COVID-19, Gangs, and Conflict, the pandemic “appears to be expanding the power and reach of organized crime (OCGs), including mafias, gangs, and militias (CAGs) through the combination of an absence of effective state action (presence and capacity) which expand the capacity of these challengers to the state and utilitarian provision of humanitarian goods to communities ravaged by the pandemic (p.65).” These humanitarian gestures in no way remove the potential for predatory action and continued criminal exploitation by these and other deviant groups. They do, however, highlight the disruptive potential of the COVID-19 pandemic (and future outbreaks) and the confluence of ‘biosecurity,’ criminal enterprises, illicit markets, and competition for power and profit.
COVID-19, Gangs, and Conflict: A Small Wars Journal-El Centro Reader (200 pages, $44.99) examines the exploitation of the COVID-19 pandemic by gangs, cartels, and mafias. The reader contains previously published strategic notes as well as a prologue by Steven Dudley, a foreword by Nils Gilman, and an introduction by John P. Sullivan and Robert J. Bunker. These are followed by a series of previously published SWJ-El Centro research notes on the topic, a curated section of essays, a conclusion by Robert J. Bunker and John P. Sullivan, an afterword by Colon P. Clarke, and a postscript by Tuesday Reitano.