Crimen transnacional organizado y COVID 19
Europa y America Latina / Cooperación internacional / Organized crime

Transnational organised crime and COVID 19

23 February 2022
  1. Criminal organisations are using the crisis to infiltrate society

Between February and May 2020, the media in Europe and beyond took up a news story. Police investigations revealed that in some regions or neighbourhoods controlled by the drug traffickers, crime rings were an alternative to state aid[1]. For example:

  1. a) the idea was to help out families and communities affected by the pandemic;
  2. b) basic products were delivered door to door in the poor city neighbourhoods;
  3. c) they were giving loans at low of interest rates to help people experiencing difficulties.

In short, criminal organisations are taking advantage of the crisis to pretend to act like Robin Hood. However, their real aim is to gain social acceptability and recruit new followers by exploiting the suffering of entire neighbourhoods and communities.

The need to help these neighbourhoods and communities is urgent, because like the Mafia, the drug phenomenon tends to take root in places with environmental and urban decay, systematic violation of the most basic rules of coexistence, and a lack of social and employment programmes transforms them into ideal “ecosystems” a Mafia culture to emerge and for criminals to prosper[2].

  1. Drug production did not stop during the pandemic

To keep their operations going, the drug traffickers found alternative means of transportation and delivery. Traffic in the drug traffickers’ most valuable merchandise has basically continued unhindered.

The UNODC World Drug Report 2021[3] shows that drug trafficking suffered a setback in the first phase of the pandemic, due to the shut-down of air traffic, but that it quickly recovered thanks to ingenious modes of transport: larger ships, increased use of land and sea routes for trafficking, use of private and cargo planes, use of postal parcels and home delivery methods through riders and freight and goods transport companies.

The economic crisis caused by COVID-19 has had a significant impact on the drug market, with illegal cultivation, production and consumption on the rise.

  1. The pandemic has had an enormous impact on society

The economic crisis has also made people in countries where organised crime is rife and where these drugs are grown, even more vulnerable because the pandemic crisis has caused greater inequality and poverty.

The crisis is also affecting the countries that consume the drugs by having a detrimental effect on mental health, especially among the vulnerable, thus creating a vicious circle.

People in drug-producing countries are the most seriously affected by the economic crisis, with criminal organisations taking advantage of the situation to exploit the vulnerable workforce and increase production.

Analysis suggest that the pandemic has led to increased economic hardship, which is likely to make illegal drug production more attractive to fragile rural communities.

The repercussions of COVID-19 on mental health is encouraging more and more people to turn to drugs. Changes in illegal drug consumption habits were observed during the lockdown[4].

  1. A new independent, spontaneous balance is appearing between drug production and consumption

Simultaneous increases in both drug consumption and production has the independent consequence of a new shift from supply to demand, resulting in an exponential increase in income for criminal organisations, which now have greater liquidity with which to invest in the legal market. Generally speaking, drug market resilience during the pandemic has again highlighted the ability of traffickers to adapt quickly to changes in context and circumstances. The new UNODC Report[5] shows that drug markets got back on track quickly after the initial disruption at the start of the pandemic – a rebound that has triggered and accelerated certain trafficking dynamics that already existed in the world drug market.

According to the latest report from the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the criminal response to the pandemic consisted of finding innovative techniques for drug transportation and tighter control over the supply and distribution chains run by the drug cartels[6].

  1. Criminal organisations have acquired companies, shops, restaurants and bars that were subjected to many months of financial insecurity during the pandemic

Thanks to their enormous cash liquidity in times of crisis, organised crime in Europe and beyond has several ways in which to take over businesses in financial trouble. This basic but violent form of money laundering allows criminal organisations to infiltrate the so-called legal economy and to integrate themselves within the local and global economic system. According to a national survey conducted by LIBERA on the perception of organised crime and corruption during COVID-19, sectors that have become vulnerable due to the pandemic are popular targets for criminal investment, taking over their operations or buying businesses from entrepreneurs in need of cash[7].

  1. There has been a disproportional increase in computer fraud during the pandemic, which has allowed criminal organisations to access large amounts of financial and personal data, passwords and the results of scientific research

This is the result of a massive increase in cybercrime, which has allowed organised crime to obtain an incredible amount of financial and personal data, passwords and the results of scientific research[8]. They have hacked many millions of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts and stolen data regarding our tastes in music, literature, clothing and TV series. All this data can be sold to the highest bidder, such as unscrupulous companies that engage in aggressive marketing activities and campaigns. Notably, the drug industry infiltrated the popular social network Tik Tok[9].

  1. Organised crime, managing countless construction companies and leaders in the cement industry, are taking advantage of the reconstruction trend, also using copious supplies of cash to enter the financial markets.

Criminal organisations are not only infiltrating the legal economy, taking over companies, factories, businesses, and shops, but also our private lives, using the crisis as an opportunity.

They are also keen to get their hands on the aid that governments are distributing to people and companies. They want to get hold of post-Covid contracts in areas such as construction, with its close links with public administration and politics, creating a network and camouflaging their activities to control the territory, create consensus and recycle[10].

Eventually, large scale participation of organised crime is expected in financial speculation of different kinds and types because criminal organisations are the only companies, the only multinationals that do not experience liquidity crises.

To conclude, what are the possible answers?

The European Union’s EL PAcCTO Programme is one response in the fight against transnational organised crime, taking a comprehensive approach that covers the entire criminal chain, an essential feature to address this phenomenon. More effective international judicial and police cooperation is also essential, with a holistic vision that focuses on the laundering of narcodollars and narcoeuros.


Giovanni Tartaglia Polcini, coordinator of the prison systems component of EL PAcCTO


[1] For example, in April 2020 the digital newspaper Infobae published information about how criminal organisations were acting like benefactors, distributing food packages and providing social services. For more information, read: Infobae (20 abril 2020), Narcos aprovechan coronavirus en México para repartir despensas y pelear territorio

[2] On this point, the 2021 Global Organized Crime Index produced by the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime is of interest:“La ubicuidad y la adaptabilidad del Crimen Organizado han tenido un impacto profundo en las sociedades de todo el mundo. El crimen organizado desvía fondos que podrían usarse para proporcionar bienes y servicios, explota los recursos naturales, amenaza ecosistemas frágiles, se aprovecha de las vulnerabilidades de las poblaciones locales y alimenta la violencia y los conflictos”.

[3] The report is available at :

[4] The implications of COVID-19 for drug users in Europe are explained by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA):

[5] The report is available at

[6] The latest DEA report is available at :

[7] The survey is available at

[8] According to the 2021 Evaluation of the Threat of Transnational Organised Crime in Latin America produced by the Instrument for Threat Documentation and Assessment in Latin America-IDEAL, there has been a consolidation of the “Crime as a Service” (CaaS) model, as a service to criminal organisations and through specialised forums on the dark web:Documento-web-2.MB_.pdf (

[9] On this subject, I recommend reading the article in the digital newspaper Infobae available at

[10] In 2019, an Il Sole 24 Ore article reported that organised crime in Italy manages countless construction companies and dominates the cement industry. More information at

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