Drugs and Corona: How the Pandemic is Hurting Organized Crime

Cesare Antonio Cordi stood behind the fence of an abandoned house smoking a cigarette. Unknown to the 42-year-old ‘Ndrangheta leader, police officers had been tracking his movements for a week in the remote Calabrian village of Bruzzano Zeffirio located at the southern tip of mainland Italy.
Police were patrolling the town to enforce the government’s movement restrictions in wake of the Coronavirus pandemic. The glow from his cigarette was enough to lead them to him.

Cesare Antonio Cordi, boss of the Cordi Clan was arrested after going outside for a cigarette during quarantine.

Cesare Antonio Cordi, boss of the Cordi Clan was arrested after going outside for a cigarette during quarantine.

A statement by the police read “The conditions created by the ongoing sanitary emergency turned out to be fatal for Cesare Antonio Cordi”
Although Cordo told police he was delivering groceries to a friend, police were suspicious as the address he provided was known to be uninhabited.

This arrest has police wondering how Italy’s organized crime groups are managing and adapting with the COVID-19 outbreak which has torn through the country without mercy.

Besides dealing with an increased police presence and vigilance, experts agree that organized crime groups must be finding it harder to operate under the current conditions where almost the entire country is confined to their homes under quarantine.

The Calabrian based ‘Ndrangheta and the Sicilian mafia make most of their money by smuggling goods, mostly drugs, on cargo ships. Although merchant shipping has not been affected as much as other transportation methods, distributing the drugs once they reach Italy has become much harder.

Anna Sergi, a criminologist at England’s University of Essex says “Certain types of drugs are still on the move” which adds up to nearly 6 billion euros worth of drugs that the mafia is still trying to sell, according to Europol.

The issue is, who is going to pick the drugs up?

The restriction of movement will most likely see drugs stuck in ports, especially the ‘Ndrangheta controlled Port of Gioia Tauro, a harbor city in Calabria that the anti-mafia commission estimated was the entry point for 80% of Europe’s drugs.

Port of Gioia Tauro

Port of Gioia Tauro

It is obvious in the short term the mafia, like most businesses on earth will be hurt by the restriction of movement but they most likely will find ways to capitalize on the pandemic, Federico Varese, a professor at Oxford University said “When the economy collapses or is in a shutdown, organized crime also suffers,”

“I don’t think they have all that much cash lying around. The longer this pandemic lasts, the harder it becomes for them to operate,” said Varese, who is also the author of several books on organized crime.

He also believes that the mafia could try to profit if companies they control are able to win government contracts supplying healthcare equipment or anything else desperately needed that people and governments are currently willing to pay a high premium for. They may also try to purchase failing businesses (which there most likely will be much more of) or lend money to desperate business owners.

This, of course, raises the concern even higher than normal about the mafia preying on small business owners.

“My biggest concern is loan sharking,” said Sergi. “You’ll see entrepreneurs in complete distress and they can’t pay employees, so it’s much easier to talk to a loan shark.”

She also added that the inevitable rise in economic hardship as a recession, or maybe even a depression hit, could make it easier for criminal organizations to recruit new members and ‘convince’ more people, in shipping for example, to turn a blind eye to their smuggling.

Sergi said “People with normal jobs are pressured. The economy is collapsing, so corruption and illegal revenue will increase.”

She also suggested that criminal groups may help contain the spread of the virus by helping to enforce quarantine laws. She gives two reasons for this. First, most mafia bosses are elderly and in the ‘very high risk’ group. Second, the sooner this is over, the sooner they can start getting back to business as usual.

Ultimately, this pandemic will most likely end up being a good thing for the mafia and other organized crime groups around the world. After all, a recession can be really good for the drug business.