Conflict & Resilience Monitor

Organised crime: a growing sector during the COVID-19 pandemic

5 Aug 2020

Photo: Vfutscher/Massimo Sestini/Polaris
Photo: Vfutscher/Massimo Sestini/Polaris

Some of the measures put in place by governments to contain COVID-19 appear to be linked to an increase in organised crime that profits from, among others, smuggling people and goods such as alcohol and cigarettes (that have been banned as part of the COVID-19 measures).

Globally, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a severe negative impact on the lives of ordinary people. In the case of Africa, the increase in civil and political protests is indicative of decreasing levels of trust between citizens and institutions, and shows increasing levels of frustration with government decisions that have had a direct negative impact, especially on the livelihoods and income of millions of families.

One negative side-effect of COVID-19 measures is an increase in organised crime due to black market and smuggling incentives.

In some areas, measures to contain the virus have also contributed to tensions between governments and the private sector – for example, the ban on the sale of alcohol and cigarettes, which has led to significant losses in these sectors. These bans have also created opportunities for organised crime syndicates. In this article, we highlight three areas of concern in this regard: the illicit trade in tobacco and alcohol, human trafficking and illegal migration, and drug trafficking.

South Africa was one of the first – and, at the time, the only – country to suspend the sale of cigarettes and alcohol for a period of time during the COVID-19 lockdown. According to the government, both alcohol and tobacco consumption contribute to the spread of the disease when shared among a group of people, as is the custom in some communities. In addition, most crimes and accidents are linked to the abuse of alcohol – and by banning alcohol, the government’s aim is to reduce pressure on the police and hospitals, enabling them to focus on containing COVID-19.

However, as a side-effect to the ban, an already significant trade in illicit cigarettes surged. This is not new to southern Africa, as the trade has been booming since 2018. The lockdown measures have unwittingly made this an even more profitable venture. It is estimated that ZAR4.5 billion has been lost in revenue as a result of the ban and the subsequent illicit trade in cigarettes. The demand for cigarettes has also increased the smuggling of cigarettes across borders. On 18 June, it was reported that ZAR1.3 million worth of cigarettes was confiscated at the Farazella border post between South Africa and Mozambique. And on 2 July, it was reported that ZAR1.4 million worth of cigarettes was confiscated at the Beit Bridge port of entry between South Africa and Zimbabwe. People continue to smoke, but they are now buying their cigarettes from organised crime syndicates. This means that an everyday habit has now become a criminal act, the cigarette industry and the people it employs are losing income and their markets, and the government is losing tax revenue. The only ones gaining seem to be the organised crime syndicates.

The ban on alcohol resulted in an estimated loss of ZAR18 billion in revenue in South Africa in the first nine weeks of the lockdown, but it continues to be sold on the black market at exorbitant prices. In South Africa, wine and beer manufacturers and retailers raised their concerns about the effect of the ban on their industries and employees, and have since either continued to engage government or launch court processes. The ban has resulted in a thriving black market in alcohol, which implies a loss of tax revenue for the government, loss of income and employment for the related industries, and the strengthening of the organised crime sector.

As a result of borders being closed to contain and control the spread of the virus, illegal migration and human smuggling, together with drug trafficking, have also become lucrative businesses since the start of the pandemic. On 18 May, it was reported that there were 2 800 arrivals in Europe from the central Mediterranean route (from North Africa to Europe) between 1 January and 5 April. This was five times more than the same period in 2019. These were largely Libyan migrants attempting to make their way to Europe to escape the humanitarian and conflict situations taking place in their country. “People smuggling through the country has generated annual revenues of as much as US$1.5 billion, according to an estimate by the International Crisis Group.” On 24 March, authorities in Mozambique apprehended a container at its border with Malawi. The container, making its way to South Africa, held 78 illegal Ethiopian migrants, 64 of whom had died. “Overall, while border closures and lockdowns may have temporarily stalled or stranded migrants en route, these same restrictive measures have also opened opportunities for smugglers and traffickers willing to take on the increased risks for increased premiums.” Operations in drug trafficking have also increased since the lockdowns began. In South Africa, police seized a consignment of cocaine worth more than US$1.8 million. And with a high demand for chloroquine in Senegal, criminal networks have “developed a parallel economy by trafficking and selling a substandard version of chloroquine”.

In spite of air and land borders being closed, criminal networks have found ways to continue smuggling and feeding the black market with drugs, alcohol, cigarettes and people. As governments across the continent take measures to curb the spread of COVID-19, they also have had to pay attention to the side-effects of some of these measures. Negative unintended consequences include the weakening of local manufacturing and retail sectors, loss of employment and tax revenue, and the change in behavioural patterns of ordinary people by normalising the purchasing of illicit goods. The strengthening of organised crime networks is of particular concern, as their gains will continue to negatively affect the continent long after COVID-19 has been brought under control.

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