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Can a Virus (Re)Shape Organised Crime?

03 Jun 2020
By Felia Allum and Diego Bolchini

Criminal organisations have always sought to benefit from new opportunities, even those arising from catastrophe. New understandings of international relations and economics must take these powerful groups into account.

The Guardian reported that criminal organisations were possibly gaining local influence and social consensus in some areas of Southern Italy by distributing free food to low-income families, providing  needed services, and helping other market actors who have run out of cash because of the current lockdown. Over the long term, the potential risk is that if criminal organisations are able to provide their services within a fragile human and economic terrain, they could gain a new degree of control and informal power over existing and new territories and local economies. This process appears to be within the standard of conventional wisdom, as the power of clan prestige and local patronage is not a new phenomenon.

Many clans made their fortunes in the aftermath of the 1980 earthquake in Campania, Italy. Although the earthquake was “an act of God,” it proved to be an ideal money-making opportunity for companies close to Camorra clans. They were able to divert state reconstruct funds that poured into the region for public construction projects straight into their pockets, leaving many roads and houses unbuilt.  As the world faces a pandemic, will the same thing happen in the post-COVID-19 context?

A (possible) global perspective

Criminal organisations taking advantage of crises is not a uniquely Italian-based phenomenon. Not all mafia or organised crime groups are the same and contexts are different and will determine how they react in the post-COVID environment. Let’s just think of how non-state actors seek to use the fragilities and opportunities present in a post-emergency context. The Lebanese armed group Hezbollah used similar “welfare approaches” in the Southern part of the Levant to help poor Shia communities. The Yakuza publicly helped Japanese people after natural disasters and earthquakes in 1995 and 2011 in Japan.

From a global, strategic perspective, different questions appear now that will be relevant for future research considerations. Criminal organisations often need to cooperate with state governments in order to preserve legal economic activities that developed on the back of criminal activity. Past generations of organised crime worked well in this sense. But now, in a post-crisis scenario, will criminal organisations adopt attitudes that are more pro-state, searching for a symbiotic relationship? Or will they will act as counter-state entities? Will criminal organisations remain compartmentalised or will they develop more new joint-venture approaches across countries and business sectors? An example may be that there are new or reinforced spaces for cooperation between Camorra and Chinese mafias when it comes to counterfeit market share.

A gendered approach will also be critical.  Women leaders have managed this health crisis intelligently. But will the role of women in new organised crime dynamics and money laundering businesses now be acknowledged during the post-emergency period? Perhaps if a new gendered approach is adopted, we will have a better understanding of the whole organised crime situation and not just a partial male one.

Finally, it is necessary to consider the overall impact of COVID-19. Are we really witnessing relevant changes in organised crime dynamics or, to quote Shakespeare, will this be “much ado about nothing”? To date, this hypothesis should be not underestimated because, as involved observers, we could have a bias here in considering the  possible reshaping impact of the pandemic. In other words, in order to mitigate biases, organised crime analysts should properly consider alternative perspectives and contrary information.

A worst case scenario hypothesis: Towards qualitative changes in organised crime dynamics

In May 2020, we could be on the eve of a potential quantum leap in international criminal organisations’ outreach, functional mobility, and applied business strategy. In this context, between charitable work and a potentially new criminal welfare attitude, cash liquidity is a key factor correlated with measures of the shadow economy.

Over the last 50 years, criminal organisations have been studied by criminologists, security experts, political scientists, sociologists, anthropologists, economists, and cultural studies specialists. If the transformation assumption is true, international political economy and business courses should better consider these non-state actors in their syllabi and financial analyses, as we live in a time of shifting and uncertain economic trajectories.

In a worst case scenario, it will be important and worthwhile to re-assess and analyse organised crime’s new economic impact in an environment still made up of global value chains. Policymakers, prosecutors, and law enforcement agencies all around the world should carefully observe the new trilemma arising from the encounter of the realm of international politics, fragile (but despite all, still interconnected) economies, and weakened societies and individuals.

As a consequence, the money laundering volume and its potential “bazooka” firepower over societies could be too big to fail in some specific micro-contexts. In other words, those criminal organisations that are really going to benefit from the post-COVID-19 context could be those who have already infiltrated the legitimate economy.

The mechanism of this phenomenon is easy to understand and grasp. “Near-real time” organised crime responses could anticipate, in the short-term, states’ efforts in providing for the recovery of local economies and business plans. They could also exploit the channels they have already established before and during the crisis.


A new global econometric outlook should especially focus on non traditional territories and the new models of interaction exchanges that criminal organisations could exploit in the current pandemic, against the backdrop of IMF economic projections for the major world economies. This diverse group includes Russian and Balkan mafia clans, French-Corsican cartels, Chinese Triads, Turkish or Nigerian groups, and more.

Economist Milton Friedman would have probably have invented a “Mafia Helicopter Money” metaphor to describe the new risks of this possible alternative cash flow at a micro- and even meso-foundational level. We are perhaps entering a different era of new dark profit-making activities and entrepreneurial strategies. Well beyond the symbols and rituals depicted in Mario Puzo’s novel, The Godfather, states and liberal economies must win this battle through a persistent engagement strategy at all levels including with civil society. Only then will criminal organisations be truly challenged.

Felia Allum is senior lecturer in the Department of Politics, Languages and International Studies at the University of Bath (UK) and currently, a Major Leverhulme Research Fellow  (2018-2021). She is the author of Camorristi, Politicians and Businessmen:  The Transformation of Organized Crime in Post-War Naples and The Invisible Camorra:  Neapolitan Crime Families Across Europe which won the American Society of Criminology  Outstanding Book Award in 2017.

Diego Bolchini is a cultural analyst based in Rome, Italy. Diego reads security studies at Florence University and has been an instructor in security seminars jointly organised by the University of Buckingham (UK) and the GeoLab Laboratory for Geocultural Analyses, Ionian University (Greece).

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.