As many legal enterprises trying to find ways to get their products to customers despite the pandemic, microtraffickers in Latin America have also had to adjust the way they do business.
With strict lockdowns restricting foot and vehicle movement across the region, transporting illicit substances is riskier than ever, demonstrated by incidents of street dealers being arrested for violating quarantine and then being charged with drug trafficking.
But microtraffickers are nevertheless finding creative ways to continue doing business under unusual circumstances. Below, InSight Crime takes a look at how.
Instead of facing the dangers of moving drugs themselves, drug dealers are letting their customers take the risk of coming to them. In Mexico and Argentina, among others, microtraffickers have followed the model of restaurants, allowing people to come and pick up drug orders in a “take-away” manner, a method that resembles how many restaurants are dealing with social distancing measures. On May 28, Télam reported that three people were arrested in San Isidro, Argentina, for selling marijuana, cocaine, ecstasy and LSD in this fashion.
The investigation into this group had begun in late January when they delivered drugs to people’s houses, but they switched to the take-away model when quarantine restrictions hit in March.
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Ironically, this appears to have led police right to their door. Video footage emerged of high-end vehicles driving up to their home to buy drugs and was used as evidence against them, sources close to the case told Télam.
2. Masquerading as Essential Services
While some groups have turned to take-away service, deliveries are still happening elsewhere. Jorge Vargas, director of citizen security for the Colombian Police, told El Tiempo that microtrafficking groups have diversified the ways they are moving drugs in order to get around police controls.
Across the region in Guatemala, Argentina, Ecuador and Colombia, dealers riding motorcycle taxis and bicycles have masqueraded as food or medicine delivery personnel. To avoid suspicion, these dealers pretend to be carrying out essential services, such as food or medicine delivery. To avoid detection, some even plastered the logos of popular delivery apps, such as Rappi or Glovo, on their vehicles.
And real delivery workers have also sought to cash in on this trend. In Guatemala, two deliverymen who were exempt from the quarantine were delivering narcotics alongside food and medical supplies.
While officials recognize this is not a new dynamic, the special status of delivery workers as “essential” makes it an obvious way for dealers to continue distribution.
Allowing medical personnel and equipment to move freely is perhaps the most important exemption to the coronavirus quarantine rules. This has brought to the fore an old favorite tactic of Latin American drug dealers: the narco-ambulance. This tactic has been particularly popular in Argentina in the past and continues to be so now.
In April, authorities in the northeastern province of Chaco arrested three nurses following a tip-off their ambulance was being used to transport cocaine, Prensa Libre reported. Police found the drugs stashed inside boxes of children’s cough syrup in a biomedical fridge meant for blood storage. Similar methods have been used in Colombia, where an ambulance was caught carrying 156 kilograms of cocaine in Magdalena and a hearse pretending to transport a coronavirus victim was found to be transporting marijuana in Cali.
Though narco-ambulances are not new — InSight Crime has been reporting on microtraffickers relying on authorities not to detain emergency vehicles since 2018 — the requirement to wear face masks, and the opportunity to exploit that requirement, is. In the last week of May, a couple in Chile was detained for violating curfew, reported La Cuarta. In approaching them, however, police noticed that their face masks were too bulky and uncovered 103 paper wrappings with cocaine hidden inside.
4. Social Media
While social media and messaging apps were becoming microtrafficking standards, the coronavirus lockdown has confirmed them as the best option around. In fact, the other methods listed above relied on social media.
In Medellín, Colombia, a number of microtrafficking gangs have begun openly advertising their services and drug menus via WhatsApp during the pandemic, according to El Tiempo.
But the range of platforms being used is expanding. While WhatsApp is unbeatable due to its popularity in the region, encrypted messaging services like Telegram and even dating apps like Grindr have also been used.
A report from Chile in May said that 96 percent of crimes reportedly being organized via social media were related to drug trafficking. And gangs are blending old and new technologies. Once a deal is agreed, the drugs are often sent by post to neighborhoods under quarantine.