Underworld criminal organizations take advantage of lockdowns in the age of COVID-19


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Abstract: The purpose of this article is to examine the increasing role of non-state actors in security and social issues during the COVID-19 pandemic. This essay sheds light on the relocation of power from the government to the drug cartels (Mexico), street gangs (el Salvador), mafia (Sicilia, Italy), and the terrorist organization Hezbollah (Lebanon). It seeks to explain the behavior mechanisms of these security players to gain complete control over the states and their people. 

Non-state actors as the new guarantors of security and order.

After the terrorist attack of 9/11, non-state actors began to design a new vision of world order where the demarcation lines of national boundaries blurred. New, asymmetric threats reshaped the security concept and vision on world order and called for non-conventional security solutions.

Despite the governments try to assure security on the streets, a lack of technology and highly qualified police and/or security guards is still the same unresolved insecurity problem. In almost every case, a lack of trust in the abilities and competency of the legally armed forces’ (the police and military) has galvanized a formulation of a new role of non-state armed actors as the commonwealth providers in their territories. Indeed, this underworld’s behavior pattern activates when the states leave a power vacuum that it fulfills. They reach society through social work to gain the trust and retake control from the government. They turn to alternative benefactors assuring the basic needs, mostly in times of threat.

The last pandemic showed how criminal organizations solicited the most vulnerable residents of their operational territories. Alejandrina Guzman, El Chapo’s daughter, runs the “El Chapo 701” brand of clothing and alcohol associated with her father’s image. During the pandemic, her company distributed food boxes with letters “from your friends.”

Similar patterns were used among the Mara Salvatrucha or Barrio 18 street gangs in El Salvador. They dropped their old criminal activity and assumed the role of public health providers. El Salvadorian gangs keep order by surveilling residents to not break the lookdown rule, oftentimes using fear. According to John Doe of the Los Angeles Times, gangs confirmed their control of the streets by enforcing neighborhood quarantine using baseball bats.

In Sicilia, Italy, where COVID-19 took thousands of lives, the mafia was seeking to supplant the state by offering the cash and loans to small businesses facing bankruptcy. The pandemic is an ideal chance for mafias skilled in providing basic needs to take control over residents.

In Lebanon, a powerful Shia militia, Hezbollah, was very popular in providing social services to people from its foundation in 1985. But, COVID-19 extended its opportunity to position itself as medical personnel and equipment providers, including ventilators and beds. The organization introduced itself as an aid of the Lebanese government in tackling the pandemic.

The underworld demonstrated its skills in launching an asymmetric threat when the government was not only unable and inefficient in its role but also neglected the situation. Unfortunately, it frequently happens that when the government is weak and organized crime sufficiently strong, the underworld can take advantage of this situation and take control of society. Pandemic or insecurity problems are the most important factors when the underworld is activated and succeeds. The aforementioned criminal organizations were only ones that knew how to assume the role of the state in challenging this invisible-enemy problem. They know how to thrive in a threatening situation. This is why the governments must wake up, serve their proper function, and never again leave the guarantor role to organized criminals.    

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