COVID-19: Gangs, Statemaking, Threats and Opportunities

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It was March 2020, not long after fear of the coronavirus began spreading across the Americas, when several major criminal groups started employing their own form of a lockdown.

In Brazil, the Comando Vermelho (Red Command – CV), the vaunted prison gang, began issuing stay-at-home orders via social media.

“Stay home,” one tweet said. “This thing is getting serious.”

In El Salvador, street gangs were enforcing a curfew issued by the government in the poor neighborhoods they controlled. In Colombia, current and former guerrillas threatened citizens who defied the strict government lockdown in rural areas. And in Venezuela, paramilitaries in Caracas shantytowns worked with government shock troops to keep people indoors.

*This article originally appeared as the prologue for COVID-19, Gangs, and Conflict, edited by John P. Sullivan and Robert J. Bunker and published in August 2020. The book is available for purchase here

Charles Tilly once famously described “war risking and state making” as “our largest examples of organized crime,” and proffered the idea that criminal groups helped create the modern-day nation state. Now, with the onset of coronavirus, we can add a corollary: Criminal groups may help maintain the modern-day nation state.

Mitigating the spread of coronavirus is only the beginning. Over time, the virus is sure to wipe out thousands of businesses, leave millions unemployed and destroy 30 years of progress against poverty in the region. Governments, bereft of tax revenue and other forms of traditional financial sources, will be hard-pressed to keep police and military on the streets for long periods of time, much less regulate the booming informal economies that will surface.

With coronavirus, there will not be one Tri-Border Area (TBA)—the infamous region encompassing parts of Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina that bustles with sales of illegal medicine, knock-off clothing and electronics, contraband cigarettes and high-powered assault rifles—but a dozen TBAs. What’s more, the neoliberal model, dependent on open borders and free-wheeling travel, will be hobbled for years. Whatever temporary or permanent system replaces it will take some time to emerge.

SEE ALSO: What Does Coronavirus Mean for Criminal Governance in Latin America?

In the interim, there will be criminal governance. At the bare minimum, these criminals will provide handouts. Early during the pandemic in Mexico, splinter groups from the Gulf Cartel illustrated how this will work when they handed out boxes of rice and beans, while the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG) provided people with cooking oil, bread, jam and toilet paper. In Rio de Janeiro, the gangs were passing out soap.

But mostly, criminal groups will become de facto regulators of commercial, political and social transactions that govern the day-to-day lives of people. In some instances, that may be benign. In Brazil, prison gangs threatened potential price gougers. In Guatemala, the 18th Street gang temporarily suspended the practice of collecting extortion in at least one neighborhood. However, in other instances, they will be predatory, such as the case of the La Unión Tepito criminal group in Mexico City, which threatened merchants who did not pay their weekly quota to the group.

This dichotomy is not new, of course. The state, as Tilly noted, needed these criminals to instill peace where it had no presence and enforce social order where it had little or no legitimacy, even when it meant leaving these areas to the whims of predatory criminal groups. “Banditry, piracy, gangland rivalry, policing and war making all belong on the same continuum,” he wrote.

Such is the situation with COVID-19 where the social contract will be enforced by a lethal stew of state and non-state actors who may not only determine whether people can purchase food on any given day but also where their children go to school, whether they will get health care, and if they can attend church. As the Brookings Institute’s Vanda Felbab-Brown once wrote, “It is thus important to stop thinking about crime solely as aberrant social activity to be suppressed, but instead think of crime as a competition in state-making.”

What’s more, life during and immediately following the pandemic promises to be hyper-local, as does this criminal governance. And the most powerful groups will have both a physical and metaphysical presence.

They will control physical territory where semi-independent cells exert control with a never-ending supply of recruits, all the more so with the destruction of the economy and the temporary halt of schools.

But they will also control a metaphysical space. In this regard, prison gangs appear especially well-positioned to take advantage of the virus. Prison gangs have flourished throughout the Americas in the last 20 years, especially where governments have packed penitentiaries far above capacity then abdicated their power to them. And as one of the most likely vectors for illness, prisons are even more ripe for alternative governance—as well as violent backlash—in the face of the State’s incompetence or a misguided ideological approach to the pandemic.

What’s more, with the pandemic, criminal economies—many of which already flow through prisons—will now mirror them. As the formal economy collapses and supply chains falter, improvisation amidst shortages will become a way of life, informal markets will surge along with the informal forms of securing loans and other capital. In this environment, prison gangs—who already thrive in these quarantine conditions moving contraband in tight spaces under strict guard—will flourish. The state crackdowns that are sure to follow the emergence of new, informal markets and the loansharking that accompanies them will only fortify this system and the ethos they have built up around it.

SEE ALSO: Criminal Governance Under Coronavirus: How Colombian Groups Seized the Day

States and political parties will face little choice but to forge formal and informal alliances with groups that help them keep their shaky social contract afloat. As Juan Belikow, who has worked on citizen security issues with the World Bank and the Organization of American States, noted in an essay published after the pandemic began, these alliances are part a “perverse symbiosis of great mutual benefit between delinquency and politics.”

This had already happened to a great extent inside the prisons prior to the pandemic. With coronavirus, it promises to extend to both urban and rural areas, especially where traditional economic activity collapses and the virus exposes just how dysfunctional, corrupt or absent these states and political proxies are.

Not coincidentally, governments under the most strain were the first to seek what can be called a criminal equilibrium. This included Brazil, where there was immediate talk of releasing prisoners early. Almost waving a white flag, the health later minister later suggested the government hold talks with criminal groups in the favelas.

“We have to understand that these are areas where the state is often absent and the ones in charge are drug traffickers and militia groups,” the minister said at a news conference.

The words echoed Tilly’s own: “The analogy between war-making and state-making, on the one hand, and organized crime, on the other, is becoming tragically apt.”

*This article originally appeared as the prologue for COVID-19, Gangs, and Conflict, edited by John P. Sullivan and Robert J. Bunker and published in August 2020. The book is available for purchase here

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